At the heart of Hepple Gin is a rather beautiful small green berry (OK, they are actually cones but we’ll call them berries like most others), clinging to a sharp-needled juniper bush gently warmed by the faint Northumbrian summer sun.
It has held fast through the winter and from May starts to fill with oils that rise with the spring sap.
From now we watch their progress carefully. Green juniper is our most prized ingredient, adding a life to the gin that we cannot quite describe. We know that the green berry has a fresher taste than the mature purple berry, particularly when the latter has hung around in boats and warehouses before it gets to the distillery. The simplest way to put it is that it reminds us of what it is to be on the hill, among the junipers on a warm summer’s day.
We prospect for the juniper, optimistically, with umbrellas. Not for fear of a downpour, which came last night filling the burns with peaty brown water, but because if we find green berries ready to pick we use upturned umbrellas to harvest into.
We’re heading to the Aunts – Jean, Mary, Anne, Hester, Tammy, Chloe, Peggy and Rose. All the female junipers in this stand above the spring (that is piped direct to the distillery) are named after aunts and have been prolific providers of green juniper berries. Thank you the Aunts.
We are looking for the berries to gain a deeper green sheen. The taste also builds from woody to sandalwood, vetiver.
Nope. They are not ready. Not yet.
With a restless optimism and energy, Mr Chris decides to survey new possibilities, this time on his trusty scarlet steed.
As much as we love harvesting from the Hepple bushes we put more effort looking after the old (and now, many young) ladies. It has been a legendary year from one of our sworn enemies, the bracken. In sheltered areas it stands over ten foot tall. Reaching some of the junipers in the wild birch and alder woods provides a lot of fun – on a quad it is a bit like taking a rollercoaster without any guide rails.
Without help, the junipers in these woods would be smothered by the bracken. We follow the strict disembarkation protocol of the Titanic: women and children first as preserving our female junipers and their young is important in trying to support the natural regeneration of these stands. It has nothing to do with the fact that we need the females for their berries.
This mature juniper was completely hidden. After half an hour’s fly and midge-ridden work, it was clear. Three or four years of cutting or bruising the bracken bed around the juniper should prevent its regrowth – for a year or two. Best to keep drinking the gin to keep us at it.