The love of the juniper berry inspires new brand of gin

Walter Riddell and Chris Garden in the distillery in front of the flavour bank.
Walter Riddell and Chris Garden in the distillery in front of the flavour bank.

Take a disparate group of skilled individuals, mix with a distillery nestled in the Simonside Hills, add a dash of high-end technology and you have a rather interesting cocktail.

That’s exactly what The Moorland Spirit Company hopes is a recipe for success, having created Hepple Gin and set up a distillery on the estate near the hamlet which gives the spirit its name, and where the key ingredient for gin grows – juniper.

A bottle of Hepple Gin.

A bottle of Hepple Gin.

The gin was launched in October with work having started on that batch in August, but the whole process started around two years ago.

The Moorland Spirit Company involves five people, of whom two are based at the distillery in the Northumberland National Park – managing director Walter Riddell, who lives there, and master distiller and head of operations, Chris Garden.

Walter describes it as ‘a great confluence of people’; the co-creators are Valentine Warner, the cook and food writer, who regularly appears on TV and happens to be an old friend of Walter’s, and Nick Strangeway, an internationally-renowned mixologist, or barman.

The fifth member of the team is process designer and sales director, Cairbry Hill, who has worked across the drinks industry for nearly 20 years, in new product development and marketing for major companies such as Diageo and Pernod Ricard, having come from a scientific background.

The Hepple Gin distillery.

The Hepple Gin distillery.

Walter says he was inspired by two things; being ‘desperately in love with the juniper’ and wanting to show that you could make a business work here in what is sometimes thought of as an uneconomic area of Northumberland.

“It’s business and home and heart all in the same place,” he said.

“Gin is a very crowded market so we had to consider every part of the process and see if it could be done better.”

This led to the development of a three-stage process, using not just a traditional copper pot still, but two further advanced systems (more right), to ensure that every ounce of flavour is extracted from the juniper and other botanicals.

“Then by being embedded in the environment where the juniper grows, we are in touch with the ingredients,” Walter continued.

“It’s not just the environment or technology, it’s about the confluence of the two.

“You need a sympathetic view of both to make it work – high-end technology and undisturbed environment.”

“We are never going to be big producers, but you can tell when you drink this that it’s been made in a thoroughly different way.”

He is particularly pleased with the team that has been established, going so far as to describe Chris, who formerly worked at London-based Sipsmith, as the best distiller in England.

But throughout the company, there’s ‘a great generosity of spirit’, he says, pointing out that every bottle of Hepple Gin bears a family motto – I hope to share.

“To get something like this to work, you have to collaborate,” he goes on, explaining that this applies not just within the Moorland Spirit Company, but on the estate where they work with the Robsons, who farm it, the Northumberland National Park Authority and Natural England.

It’s early days, but so far the reception for Hepple Gin seems to be pretty good.

Chris said: “I have been here a year, but the guys were working on it before that.

“It’s been a good couple of years to get it not perfect – I don’t know what perfect is in terms of gin – but definitely to a level where we love it and it’s been well-received.

“There’s so many new gins, but we do it in a unique way.

“At some point, there will be a saturation point and we are starting late, but because it’s unique we should be able to get through any culling of gins and even if 100 new gins come out in the next year, we will still stand apart.”

Hepple Gin retails for £38 and is available from the Taste of Northumbria shop in Alnwick, Thropton Village Shop, Bin 21 Morpeth and Majestic Wines in Berwick.

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The key ingredient

As Walter says, ‘Gins are going off in different directions, but we wanted to go back to the core, classic idea of gin, which is juniper’.

That’s why Hepple Gin uses different types of juniper in all three elements of its cutting-edge process.

And what better place to do that than in the Simonside Hills, which has the alkaline water needed to help the plant grow and where some of the bushes are centuries old. But while the hillsides used to be covered with junipers, there are not so many these days and the Northumberland National Park Authority has been trying to increase the population over the past decades.

Now it has an ally, as the production of gin has inspired efforts to restore and propagate the juniper, using the estate’s native seed as well as promoting the healthy growth of the current population.

Getting juniper to grow and propagate is a laborious process, as I discovered on a trip out onto the hills to see how the project is going with Walter and his wife Lucy, who is heavily involved. Lucy pointed out a tiny shoot of juniper, about an inch tall, protected from sheep and the elements, the result not of a couple of months’ effort, but a couple of years.

Another issue is that, like holly, juniper has male and female plants and the latter are the ones which produce the berries. So all of the effort to find seeds which are viable (you put them in water and see if they float or sink), then getting them to propagate may result in a plant which produces no fruit.

The fleshy outside of the juniper has an ingredient which prevents germination to prevent the berries which fall near the parent plant from growing there, thus killing the older plants. It relies on birds to eat the berries whereby the exterior is dissolved in the stomach and the seed is dropped away from the parent plant. In terms of why there ‘s less junipers now than 100 years ago, Lucy explained that one of the theories is that modern farming methods mean that the ground is more compact with less exposed soil where seeds could fall and germinate. On top of this, there’s the issue of disease. Phytophthora austrocedri (P. austrocedri) is a fungus-like pathogen which poses a threat to juniper trees in Britain.

To date, it has only been recorded in Argentina and Britain and its geographical origin and global distribution are currently unknown, although it was first described in Argentina in 2007.

Nonetheless, there’s still confidence from the couple and they plan to plant out many hundreds of seedlings every year, although there is acceptance too that this is a long-term project.

How do they make Hepple Gin?

Stage One

The distillery at Hepple uses a copper pot still and a one-shot process in which the juniper and other botanicals are mascerated in water and the neutral alcohol base overnight before the actual distillation begins.

The mix is heated up slowly using a steam boiler to 78 degrees Celsius at which point the ethanol turns into vapour and rises into the still-head.

It condenses and drips back down again, gradually getting further and further up, which allows contact time with the copper. This takes away the ‘burn’ of the alcohol.

In the column, there are no plates, which some think affects the purity of the gin, but there is a pre-condenser at the top which can be controlled. This means the flow can be kept to a nice, steady pace.

The first part of the distillate, the head, is discarded and it is the middle section, the heart, which is kept for the gin.

The flavour develops through the distillate, from the head to the tail, going from lighter notes through to heavier, spicier flavours, although juniper is present all the way through.

Stage Two

Many distillers would stop there, but what sets Hepple Gin apart are the two further processes. Some make a concentrate which requires the addition of more neutral alcohol, which enables the production of around 10 times as much gin from the same amount of distillate.

The first extra stage involves a glass still, which uses vacuum distillation, allowing the process to take place at a far cooler temperature – 45 degrees – which protects some of the lighter, more delicate flavours. Into this goes five different botanicals, most sourced from the estate – the younger, green juniper berries, as opposed to the ripe purple berries; bog myrtle; Douglas fir; blackcurrant leaf and lovage.

Stage Three

The final technique uses a machine called a super-critical fluid extractor and Hepple is the only gin distillery to use this scientific method involving liquid carbon dioxide (CO₂).

Ground-up juniper is added, the CO₂ is pumped in and the pressure raised to 2,000 PSI. At 40 degrees Celsius, it becomes super-critical, meaning it has some of the properties of a gas and some of a liquid.

At this point, the valve is opened, releasing the pressure and the CO₂, creating what could be described as an intense juniper oil.