Hepple Gin … from the Northumbrian Moors, with wild botanicals and native juniper, a two-fold gin made in a three-fold way

July 30, 2018

The Moorland Spirit Company’s story started in one of England’s last wild sanctuaries, and the place where I grew up, in the Coquet Valley, a remote part of Northern England. Up on the wild moors of Northumberland, the whipping winds have an unusual effect on the juniper bushes that grow up above the small village of Hepple, whilst down below a small company is obsessed with a pursuit of a gin to make the perfect dry martini. The only way to capture the wild heart of this juniper, they concluded was to completely rethink how the gin was made. Thus their Triple Technique was born.

And from it, the Hepple “High Fidelity” Gin.

Their journey started where other gins usually end: with a meticulously smooth, one-shot heart cut, like a classic London Dry. Handpicked green juniper from Hepple is then vacuum distilled to draw out the vibrant freshness of the young berries. Then using intense pressures of supercritical extraction, in a system usually reserved for fine perfumes, they distil the pure essence of juniper berries – giving an exquisite depth of flavour. Combining these three distillates creates our “Triple Technique” – and the award-winning Hepple Gin. Wild Juniper, captured fully and faithfully: as alive in the glass as it is in the moorland breeze.

On the nose. There is an immediate fresh scent of green apple, bright grapefruit and spicy juniper. This then opens up to reveal underlying notes of Douglas Fir, and fragrant blackcurrant. On sipping. The initial fresh citrus flavours evolve into unexpected ripe cantaloupe melon, the spicy fragrant juniper continues to coat the palate. There is a luscious sweet mouthfeel, which is both juicy and quenching. The finish. Extremely long and this is where the juniper reveals itself further with flavours alternating between sandalwood and cedar with a notable savoury presence that complements the sweet blackcurrant and liquorice. The sweet juiciness is maintained throughout the finish.

This is how the Gin Foundry captured the tale.

With their names as they it is impossible to introduce the team behind Hepple Gin without sounding at least a little bit like you’re establishing the scenario for a Victorian themed murder mystery. There’s co-founder Valentine Warner and Managing Director (and owner of the Hepple Estate) Walter Riddel, along with the distilling/flavour team, formed of Cairbry Hill, Nick Strangeway and Chris Garden. Who will be found in the library with a candlestick lodged into their windpipe? Let’s play the game and found out.

Hepple is a two-fold gin made in a three-fold way, so there’s quite a bit of unpicking to do. We’ll start with the two fold, and we’ll let Warner kick it off. “Walter and I are very old friends, and we have always felt that there was something in the raw, life-giving wilds of Hepple that we wanted to bottle and share,” he explained. Gin, as a botanically diverse spirit, was always the best option when it came to preserving the bounty of the surrounding land, but using the spirit in such a way meant that its very definition was shifting.

“The gin market was growing strongly,” Warner explained, “but the innovation that we saw there was taking gin away from its traditional focus on juniper. We wanted to bring juniper back to the heart of gin, and we wanted to use novel techniques to show it in its brightest, richest and most complete form.”

So there’s the two-fold: a botanically diverse gin that is unique to the land it grows on, but that also respects the flavour and history of gin and – most importantly – juniper’s place in it. So far, so good.

Now for the three-fold. Which in itself is two-fold (sorry about that…). Such is the importance of juniper to the Hepple Gin operation that there are three varieties trapped within its watery walls. There’s Italian and Balkan juniper, and then – most excitingly of all – a green, young juniper that grows on the Hepple land itself.

There are also three ways of extracting flavour being used to create the end outcome… There’s a copper pot still upon which the ‘core’ gin is created – that which sticks to tradition and creates the foundation upon which Hepple Gin’s more defining characteristics can be built – then there’s a rotary evaporator that reduces the atmospheric pressure and so, is used to cold distil the ingredients (thus preserving them in their raw state), and then, last but not least, is a CO2 Extraction System – also known as the Supercritical machine.

The production, with its three methods and multiple variables on the same ingredients, is ludicrously complicated.

The Co2 machine, brought into play by Hill, is capable of capturing the full scope of juniper’s flavour, by allowing “for the inclusion of some of the oils that do not make it through distillation, but which gave that long, deep resonance of taste that we really wanted,” said Warner.

By some serendipity, as the Hepple Gin team was assembling, Sipsmith’s ex-Head Distiller, Garden, was making a move up North. He’d been with the pioneering brand from the beginning, so his knowledge of small-batch distilling was, at the time, second to very, very few, and he happily passed it on to the rest of the Moorland Spirits team. Dragging in the Supercritical machine may have been Hill’s idea, but it was Garden that gave everyone the confidence to use the tools at their disposal.

Even though it all began one frosty morning in the early months of 2013, a recipe is not just a list of ingredients, but of methodology as well, and with so many variable parts, so many different processes – it is little surprise that Hepple’s took two over two years to create.

Strangeway was responsible for blending, and that process in itself took months. “We had literally thousands of variants,” Warner told us, “but the eureka moment finally came one beautiful evening in July 2015, when we found exactly what we were looking for. By September of 2015, we produced our first proper batch of Hepple Gin.”

Not only did the triple distillation technique add literal layers of complexity to the process, it also means that each batch takes much, much longer to produce each an every time moving forward – than if it was all just going straight in the still.

If your mind boggles at the interlaced complexity of it all, here’s another thing to toss into the mix – The fact that a lot of the ingredients are grown on the Hepple land also meant that they had to wait for the exact right time to harvest each botanical.

So – what botanicals go into the gin, which process do they go thorough and how best to sum up a somewhat convoluted process?

The botanical bill:

Juniper (Italian and Balkan), Amalfi lemon, liquorice, coriander, fennel seeds, orris root and angelica are the ‘core gin’ ingredients, whilst green juniper, blackcurrant (berry and leaf), douglas fir, bog myrtle and lovage make up the local angle. The idea was always to keep juniper “singing clearly and strongly from the core,” so the additional flavours were introduced to compliment, rather than overwhelm the pine. “Juniper has been described as tasting like a cold wind from a mountain,” said Warner. “That was the overall flavour we were chasing.”

The methods:

Italian and Balkan juniper, blackcurrant and blackcurrant leaf, coriander, fennel, liquorice, orris and angelica are all added to the pot still.

Blackcurrant leaf, douglas fir, Amalfi lemon, bog myrtle, lovage and the green juniper are individually distilled on the rotary evaporator.

Last but not least, there’s also a load of  Italian / Bulkan juniper mix that goes through the CO2 extraction method.

After distillation, all ingredients (now distilled into various liquids) are blended, before being mixed with water taken from Hepple’s spring and left to rest for three weeks before bottling.

Good luck doing that process on a Monday morning!

There’s a surprising saline quality to the nose, with green hints of vegetation creeping slowly up the side of the glass. The nose is on the quiet side, though there’s a deliberate hum beneath the surface, as though all of the ingredients were vibrating in tandem, getting ready to belt out a chorus. Nothing is immediately discernible, just that thick, wet, green leafiness.

Tasted neat, it’s a different story. Spring water rushes the tongue, plunging us quickly into ancient memories of bare feet on wet pebbles; of frog hunting through shallow steams. There’s a twang reminiscent of the minerality of coves that you get with oysters but before any sense of the sea comes in – it’s gone. It’s fresh and green, though with a hint of musk about it – something dank, and dark, like moss. The juniper is here first and foremost in its verdant berry format, bringing an earthy green taste to the tongue, which is then (somewhat aggressively) attacked by a coriander spice.

The coriander seed serves to reach through the vegetation and pull the Amalfi lemons into the mix. They shine bright and brief before juniper rallies back ‘round, this time with douglas fir in tow. A crisp, wintry pine settles in on the tongue, making this a near perfect winter drink.

With tonic, the gin retains its vegetal nature, although the lemon has more of a chance to emerge from the shrubbery. It’s so loud that it feels angry – like it’s still shouting, even after everyone else has left the room. While we like it enough in a G&T, we’re moving it on quickly. The savoury nature of this sets a clear path; sure, it’ll obviously shine in something like a Martini, but in a Negroni… in a Negroni it will sing.

Overall, the taste of Hepple has us a touch perplexed. It is so evidently a product that reflects the land that it comes from. It is so clearly an homage to their geography. In this light, the flavour achieves its ambitions with aplomb and delivers a great gin with incredible soul (one in which we have a deep routed affection for incidentally). There’s a sense of wilderness to it and the spirit can be appreciated as something different, yet something discernibly ginny too.

Looking in, it’s obviously so much harder to make gin the way they have. It is so much harder to keep it consistent. It takes so much longer per batch too. It’s conceptually and intellectually fascinating to hear the process and that enriches the brand proposition greatly. We admire the endeavour behind Hepple Gin and have been advocating for others to discover it because of their process. But – and this is a big but – with such a complex process, such detail being employed to extract each and every flavour, in our opinion the finesse just isn’t quite there. It’s good gin but given its process is easily up there in the top 5 most complicated gins to make in the world –  we’re genuinely unsure that on flavour alone this massive additional workload is equal to an equivalently clear benefit to the drinker… Thus why we are a little perplexed.

Not that it matters, anyway. They are happy to do their wizardery and we drinkers get a tasty gin and aren’t paying through the nose for the privilege. Despite there being significantly more craft in the making than with many gins (be it justified or unnecessary), at £35 Hepple’s price is in the middle of the pack.

It is impossible, in a world of beautiful branding, to not judge a gin by its bottle. Happily (heppily), Hepple Gin, comes up trumps. The label work is intricate and textured, with silver foiling and detailed sketches of the Hepple-grown botanicals working their way around the label. Each bottle comes in a similarly decorated box, resulting in an overall package that feels gift-worthy.

This is one you’d display with pride, and – actually – it’s one that’d stay on your gin shelf awhile. Hepple Gin, despite its steer towards classicism, is not an everyday sipper, it’s what you reach for when you’re after something with that certain je ne sais quoi.

Flavour and branding aside, we’d have always been pretty duty bound, as out and out Gin geeks, to worship at the altar of the Moorland Spirit Co for their work in juniper conservationism. The Hepple Estate (and Hepple Gin with it) is in the midst of a propagation programme, in which it plants hundreds and hundreds of juniper seedlings both on the estate and on the heather moors surrounding the distillery. Nature is nurture to this team, and it seeps into every single decision they’ve made since they started on this gin making journey.

Warner explains it all quite perfectly: “Our ethos is to tune in to the slow heartbeat of the natural world, and work lightly alongside it. When we harvest, we try to ensure that we leave our wild business partners stronger. To the outside world, our work in the distillery is invisible, odourless and quiet (unless our distiller is ‘dealing’ with our somewhat temperamental Supercritical column!).

“And when our spirit leaves the distillery, we hope it contains something of the true life of the place that it was born from. It is not just that we feel responsible for the land we work in, we feel that the healthier it is, the better products we can make. What goes around, comes around.”

And there you have it. When you taste Hepple Gin, it’s as though you are ringing the land for all its worth and drinking the goods. It is a truly unique take on both Gin and juniper, but every step the brand makes is taken with great care.

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