Marrying traditional harvesting techniques with a cutting-edge distilling process, Valentine Warner’s Hepple Gin has been impressing gin connoisseurs globally, winning two Gold Medals at the prestigious World Spirit Awards in San Francisco. In the first of our Pioneers series of interviews with brands who share the Emel and Aris ethos, here, the TV chef, author and keen forager reveals his story on innovation, alchemy and their unique triple distillation method.
EMEL+ARIS: Your background is a chef, what led you to distilling gin?
Valentine Warner: Chefs like to put things in their mouths, drink as well as food. It’s hard to separate the two. I met up with my most beloved friend, Walter to discuss the shifting sands of both of our lives. Whisky and walking soon led us to realise that Walter’s home and surrounding hills at Hepple had everything we needed for a distillery. A bright spring of gushing water, a rain-whipped community of twisted junipers, an empty coach house, and a moorland full of botanical promise. Then, serendipity bought a legendary barman, a chemist, a talented distiller to Walter’s front door.
E+A: Tell us about the botanicals that make Hepple Gin so unique?
VW: I had a hunch that it may be a good idea to investigate unripe or ‘green’ juniper, as other gins are made from mature juniper alone. I liked the idea that by mixing the young and the old we could really offer a product that could celebrate a more complete life of juniper. It worked out well, as where the mature berries have a learned depth there is a bright young vigour and freshness in the green berries.
Douglas fir is a wonderful tree in that the taste of its leaves changes hugely under different conditions and treatments. The flavours can range from grapefruit to strawberry candy. Amalfi lemons allowed us consistency as lemons can vary so much depending on origin, while also conveniently being incredibly fragrant.
I deeply believe Hepple’s uniqueness is born of a sense of environment, in that what exists side by side on the moor is carried into the bottle. Other than this, the clarity of our combined botanicals is that they have a logical reason to be together
E+A: The estate the gin is made on is in Northumberland, are there any particular qualities to the landscape or soil that lend certain characteristics to the botanicals you grow?
VW: Hepple gin is born of the North East. It is reliably cold, wet and windy and for that very reason we believed it should reflect this – a cold climate gin of freshness and clarity. It is in this environment that we work, eat and live and so directs Hepple’s taste.
Plants such as juniper are so particular to this location. Even the blackcurrants and lovage in the kitchen garden will taste particular to Hepple, I’m sure, because of its soil and weather. I think Hepple is a hard environment to grow up as a plant. You need to be determined and struggle with the elements. I like the idea of robust and joyous flavours born of this tough land.
E+A: How long did it take to perfect the recipe?
VW: A year, a tear, and a half. To work on a new product with a copper pot still certainly requires frustrating failures and tweaking, but when combining the results of three different machines, it seemed we had bitten off far more than we could chew. Tasting sessions were frustrating and bewildering, two steps forward three steps back. Nick and I were either wired on coffee or half cut for 16 months. It was exhausting.
E+A: Can you explain your triple technique process?
VW: In short, we do not bottle what comes off the copper still. It is a perfectly respectable London dry gin but not a finished product. This is what we in fact refer to as our ‘base gin’. The copper delivers a remarkable smoothness to the spirit. We picked our particular still for its large and intricate copper surface that we could achieve this.
The second stage; a rotary evaporator hugely reduces the boiling point of alcohol. This means that delicate plants such as green juniper and Douglas fir, which would suffer at a much higher heat in the CPS, get to deliver their subtle delights. The rotavap is to achieve Hepple’s bright and vibrant freshness.
Finally, a CO2 extraction chamber squashes juniper and CO2 at such incredible pressure that the CO2 becomes a liquid and a gas at the same time. This supercritical state captures flavours in the juniper that give Hepple its long mouthfeel and incredible depth of flavour. We use all three methods as each brings with it its own unique flavour profile, which is then harmonised in blending together with Hepple water.
E+A: What is Hepple Gin doing differently to other gin distillers?
VW: Making life as hard for ourselves as possible by never seemingly being able to take a simpler route! Hepple is very hard to make, from the harvesting to the complicated distilling, extracting and blending. I think many would have said, “don’t be mad, you can make gin far faster.”
Dare I say, we understand juniper quite unlike any other brand. We are lucky to live and tread lightly among the very ingredients we use. Few have this wonderful resource. We have to truly understand it to optimize it, maintain it and look after it.
E+A: How do you harmonise traditional techniques with modern technology in the gin making process?
VW: We harvest with saws and secateurs, so nothing new here. We stroll the moors occasionally stopping to nibble botanicals that we understand when to harvest. No different to a vineyard, I guess.
To put it simply, the tradition is all around the harvest. Technology is simply the technology. The harmony is found in ending up with a great product after tradition and technology have been successfully combined. A lot of testing.
E+A: Independent gin distillers are abundant now, how do you set yourselves apart?
VW: We wanted to make something truly different, bright, clean and about juniper. Process was as important as the recipe and we had to look beyond simple copper pot distillation to do this. We wanted to rethink how gin was made and follow that direction, by whatever means necessary. In short, I’d say a classic gin made in a modern way.
E+A: What is your favourite Hepple Gin serve? And how should we drink it with tonic?
VW: A Gibson, which is a gin and vermouth martini garnished with tiny pickled silver skin onions. I like little drop of the jar juice in there too or simply poured neat over ice.
With tonic, I really like Schweppes’ new 1783 tonic and no garnish, or Fever Tree Naturally Light with lightly rubbed fresh sage leaf and a half slice of ruby grapefruit.
Lead image © Flynn Maxwell Warren. All others © Hepple Gin