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Interview with Valentine Warner - Hepple Gin

Valentine Warner talks gin

by Ella Timney Friday, November 20, 2015

Ella Timney talks to Valentine Warner about his brand new gin and the joys of juniper.

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Ella is a Food Editor at Great British Chefs. She frequently puts her analytical skills to good use observing (and partaking in) drinking cultures in her favourite London ale pubs.

Gin– it’s quite the thing at the moment, isn’t it? A law preventing production of under 1800l of gin per distillery – a nasty hangover left over from the crackdown on London’s first gin craze in the 1700s – was lifted in 2008, and ever since there have been a flurry of small-scale, craft distilleries creating diverse and intriguing gins using a number of weird and wonderful botanicals.

But as with any boom follows the risk of fatigue, and those of us who love a touch of mother’s ruin know that gin fatigue can be chilling. With this in mind, I found myself travelling to West London one blustery October morning to be persuaded, most effectively, that there is room for further excitement about gin.

I was on my way to meet Valentine Warner – yes – that affable, lovely man from the telly who likes seasonal produce, and makes many a mother (my own included) swoon. Since first appearing on our screens in What to Eat Now, Warner has been very busy indeed, transforming himself into a champion of his very own gin – Hepple gin, named after the Northumberland moorland he spent childhood holidays on with old friend and Hepple Gin managing director, Walter Riddell, and where the team set up shop to create their own take on one of the country’s most beloved boozes.

He came armed with a satchel of appealing looking bottles sloshing with crystal clear spirits, each labelled with a different botanical. Producing a seemingly endless number of dainty tasting glasses, Warner poured our first sample. I would be in for a tasting of the base gin, a number of different botanical spirits produced in a rotary evaporator, some juniper booze created using a process called critical CO2 extraction (who knew?), and finally Hepple Gin itself, which is a beautiful amalgamation of this giddying number of processes. It’s a good job I had a big breakfast.

The formation of the Hepple Gin dream team itself was a tale of serendipitous circumstance that Warner reeled off with excitement – ‘I think there’s some quote by Goethe that says once you’re committed to something then all manner of stuff appears in front of you that would otherwise never have happened before – that’s very much been the case.’

‘Hepple has an enormous amount to offer – there was a very large stand of juniper, about 200 pickable trees, incredible water, all sorts of wild herbs that I’m very familiar with. We were just surrounded by this extraordinary offering, and there was a building which was empty and full of old lawnmowers. At the time I’d been designing a drink with (co-creator) Nick Strangeway and something suddenly went ‘click'. We all got together in Hepple and decided we were going to make gin’

Hepple Gin
I was starting to freak out and think, 'My God – when are we going to have some real breakthroughs?’

Valentine Warner

The team then recruited Cairbry Hill, a former biochemist who introduced the concept of critical CO2 extraction to the team – ‘This is a machine that uses such intense pressure that you turn carbon dioxide into a liquid and a gas at the same time, and you can identify exactly what you want out of the juniper. Then it disappears as carbon dioxide and you’re left with the soul – we call it the squeezebox because we don’t think CO2 extractor is the nicest name.’

The team were then in the extraordinarily fortunate position to welcome Chris Garden of Sipsmith to the team – ‘Chris had told Sipsmith that when he had his second child he’d move back to Newcastle’. They in effect had one of the finest distillers in the country magically appearing in the North East. Fortuitous indeed!

As Warner assured me, Hepple Gin really is ‘very much about juniper’, to the point where they have devised three separate processes for extracting the flavour of three different types - Hepple green juniper is treated gently in the rotary evaporator, Italian juniper makes it into the copper pot still to create the base, and Macedonian juniper is put through critical CO2 extraction to create a beguilingly spicy and ferocious incarnation. But first, the base gin:

‘This is all out of the copper pot still, a London dry gin in effect, which we refer to as our base. Everything else is hung around it, I like to think of it like hanging a chandelier. It’s got Douglas fir, fennel seeds, lemon, bog myrtle, and this is the gin before anything else happens and I think it’s quite respectable.’ – and indeed it is. I could happily drink the base gin in a hearty gin and tonic. But no, there is more to Hepple. Much, much more.

Before I launch into writing about various botanicals and practices, it’s important to lay out a few things about the distilling process. For those not in the know of gin distillation, the basic process is thus: botanicals are mixed with a neutral grain spirit (ideally totally flavourless) and put through a big gin still. The mixture is boiled, releasing flavour through high heat, before becoming vapour and hitting a cold pipe. This converts the vapour created from these high temperatures back into a liquid, leaving you with an incredibly strong distillate of gin. This is then, often quite literally, watered down, or we’d all be rolling around on the floor after one gin and tonic.

 

At Hepple gin, the ‘base gin’ is made in the big copper still at the distillery, but this is only a fraction of the process. Keen to incorporate flavours of the moorland around the site, and of course celebrate the many different properties of juniper, the team also use rotary evaporators to distil spirit from the more delicate flavours that the high temperature of the kettle would kill off. ‘Some of the plants I wanted to use were too delicate to go in a copper pot still, so we also decided to buy a rotary evaporator, which creates a vacuum and brings the boiling point right down, so much more delicate plants aren’t going to get murdered in the heat.’

After recovering from the base gin, we moved on to bog myrtle – a plant that grows wildly around Hepple. ‘This goes in the rotary evaporator and the copper pot still. It’s that kind of dry scaffolding you need to put different things into. Again the tests – too much of that and it flies off. We rejected an enormous amount’

 
 
Now, this is going to blow your glasses off. This is the juniper that’s been through the CO2 machine, it’s sort of had it’s soul snatched and is kind of weaponised juniper.

Valentine Warner

This of course prompts me to ask: how long has this whole process taken?

‘The whole process has taken us two and a half years, and every time we tipped away another load thinking ‘that’s not right’ I was starting to freak out and think, 'My God – when are we going to have some real breakthroughs?’'

Time for the next glass, though. This time, lovage – a beautifully savoury and almost celery-flavoured spirit, but more mellow. The next sample, though, prompts Warner’s face to really light up:

‘This is an amazing thing - we’ve done a lot of playing around with Douglas fir and when you pick it fresh it’s got an amazing grapefruity, pine element. When you dry it becomes like melted skittles, then when you incorporate it with everything else it takes on this amazing taste of sun-kissed melons – it’s extraordinary. They’re all key, but this is a flavour that really features.’

It really does taste like the cantaloupe melons, juicy and sweet, a flavour I would never had believed could be plucked from Douglas fir, a flavour that sits on the other end of the flavour spectrum usually. I am still reeling from this alchemy when the next glass is poured, the green juniper plucked from the Hepple moorland, which gets gently teased out in the rotary evaporator. It’s beautifully smooth and fresh, not what you’d expect from such a young, green plant – my mind expected something incredibly astringent, but these young green fruits deliver a gentle charm.

‘Now, this is going to blow your glasses off. This is the juniper that’s been through the CO2 machine, it’s sort of had it’s soul snatched and is kind of weaponised juniper. Don’t take too big a gulp…’

 
Chris Garden collecting juniper on the moors of Hepple.
Chris Garden collecting juniper on the moors of Hepple.
The distillery
The distillery

In anticipation of 'weaponised juniper', I did not expect to be treated with the deeply spicy flavours that emanated from this potent liquid. Yes, a huge whack of alcohol took me aback, but it was utterly infused with all of these beautiful, aromatic, woody flavours.

‘The critical CO2 extractor is another machine where you can have a million different combinations of pressure and heat. We thought, ‘Where are we going to stop? We’ve got to stop somewhere because otherwise we could all be laughing to ourselves with rolling eyes and long white hair''. Thankfully, Cairbry stumbled across a combination one day that worked beautifully, and this incredible distillate was the result.

Finally, it was time to taste the finished gin, a wonderful amalgamation of this journey of botanicals, CO2 extraction and rotary evaporators. ‘The other things to have gone in there are Amalfi lemons, and I don’t know if you got that slightly chewy and juicy feeling at the end of everything, but we put in blackcurrant leaves and blackcurrant fruit as well, there’s blackcurrants bobbling around in there.’

When I initially heard about Hepple Gin, I assumed it would be more of a conceptual-driven thing. Taking the plants and botanicals from a specific area to create something that tastes of a place. Is this accurate, I wondered?

'I think that’s something that when I’ve been a cook has very much been my attitude, that things that exist together in nature inevitably exist together well, but that’s not to say outside help isn’t needed, like blackcurrants and lovage and lemons from Amalfi.’ … ‘I like not using stuff as much as I like using stuff. Even though we’ve got heather and wild thyme in the area, they didn’t work, so let’s not force it. It doesn’t make it better by having more botanicals, so let’s just leave them out.’

And so, like many things, knowing when to stop is perhaps the most important thing – particularly apt as Warner had a previous life as an artist. Knowing when to stop is indeed the mantra of many an art teacher up and down the country. A host of unused botanicals also opens somewhat tantalising questions about a host of future drinks from the company.

Any future plans are strictly under wraps for now, but this bodes well. Two and a half years in the making, it is time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of the Hepple Gin team’s efforts – ‘it makes a screaming martini: one part Noilly Prat to ten parts gin.’

Cheers to that!

Hepple Gin is available from hepple-gin.com, Fortnum and Mason, Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange.

Photographs courtesy of Hepple Gin.

 
 
 

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