In the next of our "Meet our Team" series, we'd like to introduce you to our Head Plate Spinner - Walter Riddell. We asked Walter a few questions about how he, and his childhood friend, Valentine Warner, came up with the idea for distilling gin and how they made it a reality.
What is your role at Hepple?
Juniper harvester, eco-head and owner of the land at Hepple. Head Plate Spinner at Moorland Spirit, the company we founded to make the gin.
What did you do before Hepple?
I researched and invested in eco-tech companies from 30,000 feet up in the air.
How did you get into this business?
My old friend Valentine Warner and I went out for a long, boozy and emotional supper in 2013. The idea of bringing his friends Nick Strangeway and Cairbry Hill, who are brilliant drinks developers, to Hepple emerged from within these fumes. It took three years of talks, walks and research to design the distillery and perfect the product.
What are your ambitions for Hepple?
We have all got very different professional backgrounds, but we are all deeply idealistic about what we want to achieve - a product and a company that has crazily high standards when it comes to quality. We don’t want to be big, we are aiming for the sort of quality that size usually prevents. It isn’t a particularly economic way to go about things, but it is very rewarding - particularly when it comes to drinking our own product!
What was your luckiest break?
We have had many moments of serendipity, but the greatest piece of luck for us was to find Chris Garden twiddling his thumbs in Newcastle after having moved up North from working at the brilliant Sipsmith in London (where he had been head distiller). I have to thank Val for finding him and Rachael, his wife, for booting him out of the house into what was then a set of cold, damp barns in the to-be distillery. For six months before we got our licence from HMRC Chris shivered in the dark, connecting up the copper still, tweaking the incredibly tricksy supercritical machine and boosting the power supply to get the vacuum still operational. It was a joy to turn it all on - first to discover it all worked, but also to get some heat into the long suffering Distiller.
What’s special to you about the Hepple Estate?
The wild land around the distillery makes you feel alive. Walk out onto the hills and the buzzing, beeping craziness of man-made life fades away, and complex, natural combinations of sounds and smells and shapes emerge. It is very, very precious to us, and we try, with everything we do at Hepple to enhance the force of the natural world. It is also the reason for using our advanced distillery techniques, because we found that traditional distillation just fell a bit short in getting hold of these vivid flavours completely. Finally, it holds us to hight standards of ecological husbandry. We love it so are very careful about not chewing it up.
What does the Hepple ‘terroir’ give the gin?
The Hepple estate lies on the North side of the Simonside Hills. Apart from the dew-drop cleanliness we find in the Northumberland National Park, there is the rather more particular focus on juniper that came with being based in one of England’s last great juniper sanctuaries. Springs emerge from below our ancient stands of juniper carrying minerals that allow the juniper to flourish. This water is then blended back into the gin to lower the still-strength ABV of 85% to our 45% bottling strength.
You live at Hepple with your wife and children - how are they involved? What do your children think?
Anyone who runs their business from their home knows all sorts of complications come with this. But I wanted to build the sorts of values into the company that we all want in our personal life - that’s what a family business means to us. What do my children think? They know a lot more than the average pre-teenager does about distillation. And, poor things, they do often help on the harvesting side as well. One day they may look back with pleasure…..
What’s your favourite way to drink Hepple?
A Chilly Hepple - Hepple Gin and ice. The perfect thing after supper.
If you weren’t drinking gin what would you drink?
Where’s your favourite place to drink?
A Moorland Martini on Sandy Crags far above the distillery, overlooking the Coquet Valley at sundown. It can’t be beaten.
Dorothy Parker said “I like to have a martini, two at the very most, three I’m under the table, four I’m under my host”. What is the right number for you and where would you be after four?
Oo-err missus! Rather a personal question don’t you think!