What do you get it you take one of the most celebrated figures in the global bar industry, a televangelical food guru, two of Britain’s brightest brains in distillation and flavour extraction, a super-critical CO2 extractor, and Walter Riddell, an English baronet who’s estate includes of 6000 acres of wild Northumberland moorland? You get the Moorland Spirits Company, and Hepple Gin.
“We didn’t want to just buy a copper still, call it Matilda, and make a London Dry gin” Nick Strangeway tells me. Nick was one of the leading lights in the development of the UK's cocktail scene from the 1990's and into the 21st century. He's teamed up with TV cook Valentine Warner, and turned his hand to making gin. But to describe what is happening in the Northumberland National Park — the most sparsely populated area in all of England — as simply ‘making gin’ would be doing Hepple a great disservice.
In the past the Northumbria hills were covered in juniper bushes, but the land was adapted for farming and the juniper either removed by human hands or hungry sheep. Almost all that remains today is gnarly old ladies, huddled together in gravity stricken clusters, some of them almost as ancient as Walter’s family tree. Walter and his wife, Lucy (a trained horticulturist) feel a burden of responsibility to the land. Wellington boots and trowels will be their tools, rejuvenation and conservation of juniper across the landscape of the moor, their legacy.
Walter has identified the first few naturally propagated trees on the moor and fenced it off to protect it from hungry sheep flocks. Meanwhile, Lucy is busy germinating new seedlings which after five years of nurturing are ready to be planted in to the wild. Each cone has three seeds, which Lucy picks apart by hand on the kitchen table. Each tree is individually named, usually after distant family relatives, like Dorothy, an old aunt who was rumoured to have had an affair with the gamekeeper.
There’s a fighting spirit at Hepple. Amongst the haggard, half-collapsed trees that have been surviving since before the gin craze even began, but also in the newest generation of fragile saplings, breeding a fresh life in to Northumberland juniper.
All purple (ripe) berries are carefully processed in this manner, none are used for making gin because the quality can’t yet compete with imported juniper. But the team are also foraging green (unripe) berries, and they are being used to flavour their spirit. Collected in August, at the perfect time of the season, their flavour is preserved by low-pressure, low-temperature, distillation in neutral spirit through one of the largest rotary evaporators we have laid eyes on. The flavour is undeniably juniper-y, but greener, more crisp, fresh. It was news to us that green juniper berries are a popular condiment in Nordic cuisine. Nick first got the idea for using them from the chefs at Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant, who would pickle or brine the berries and serve them like olives or capers.
It’s not just the juniper that the Hepple team are interested in. The moorland is a treasure trove of other forgeable matter, from catkins through to blayberries. Douglas fir (also known as Oregon pine) was the first botanical guinea pig, but this was later joined by bog myrtle, then blackcurrant leaf and lovage from Lucy’s venerable vegetable garden. These ingredients are treated with the care and attention of a palaeontologist obsessing over a dinosaur fossil, their processing methods refined, their captured flavour nuanced.
The Douglas fir distillate is sensational in its complexity; sweet, ginger-like and curried. Bog myrtle tastes warm, like bay leaf, with green eucalyptus notes. The lovage is an epiphany; rich with cardamom and florals. Blackcurrant leaf is vibrant, fruity, creamy, yet green. There’s absolutely no question that these individual distillates could all be bottled as products in their own right, but in this instance they are A-list actors playing supporting roles. That can only be good for the finished gin.
The gin is a complex composite of ingredients, starting with a traditional (steep and boil) pot still distillate. The botanicals include the usual suspects of juniper (Macedonian and Bosnian) angelica, orris, English coriander seed, fennel seed, and liquorice, joined by fresh lemon, dried Douglas fir needles, Hepple blackcurrants (fruit and leaves) and Hepple bog myrtle. This flavours a base spirit that as a standalone gin ticks all the boxes. The four rotary evaporator liquids mentioned previously are then blended with this along with a cold distillation of Amalfi lemon to make the final product.
But there’s one more thing…
In the corner of the barn there’s a big, unassuming, beige box. It looks like a supercomputer from 1970. Open the case up and there’s not much to see inside, a couple of pipes and a cylinder. It’s a supercritical CO2 extractor, capable of 10,000 PSI of pressure, this machine turns gasses in to supercritical fluids and is just about the most efficient way of extracting flavour from a product that there is. Head distiller Chris Garden uses the machine to convert 1kg of juniper berries in to a meagre 10ml of absurdly concentrated juniper extract, leaving behind only spent husks of juniper ash. The concentrate is diluted in to ethanol, and a tiny amount added to complete Hepple Gin. It’s potent enough that a single 10ml extract is enough to impact 720 bottles of Hepple gin.