Jamie Berger, co-founder of London restaurant, Pitt Cue, visited us at Hepple and helped plant out dozens of juniper seedlings. He kindly agreed to share some notes on his time in Northumberland:
Northumberland: I went boldly but somewhat sheepishly north into the unknown on a train from King’s Cross while Valentine, friend and co-host, lay stricken in bed. But what better way to make new friends than to spend two days rusticating at a distillery?
Soon after arrival, I was swept up by the generous hospitality of my immediate hosts, Walter and Lucy, and the gin began to flow. Being half-Dutch, I have always been rather snooty about gin and want to declaim to all within earshot that I don’t drink gin and tonic because I like the taste of tonic. I eulogise about the more robust, barrel-aged genevers drunk straight from the freezer in the land of my birth. In a fit of cheek, I once even took to Twitter to parody a FeverTree strapline: "If three quarters of a gin and tonic is tonic, why not drink bourbon straight?" If truth be told, I did turn up with a bottle just in case. . .
However, during my two days, I hardly drank any tonic at all. Liberated from the tyranny of tonic, Hepple is a subtle yet complex juniper-led extravaganza. And although I dislike the term ‘sipping’ when applied to spirits, this is precisely what one should do with it.
On my first morning, with an eye to sustainability, I assisted in the planting of Juniper seedlings on the moor; presumably in an effort to militate against any possible future scarcity brought about by my consumption. . . singing for one’s supper became digging for one’s drink. But it is this connection to the land and its unique bounty that makes this gin what it is. From Douglas Fir forests to the spring water pouring from the earth to the contorted trunks of ancient Juniper bushes that bore testament to the harshness of the environment, so much of what goes into the bottle comes out of the ground.
Each step in the production of the intermediary distillates that are blended to produce the final gin was patiently described to me by the Chris, the master distiller, who even indulged the simplistic analogies with which I summarised the various processes.
The laboratory, for want of a better word, in which all this alchemy takes place comprises a combination of state of the art and state of the Ark: a super-critical CO2 extraction machine in one corner vies for attention with a rotary evaporator in the other, yet on the table in between needles of Douglas Fir are painstakingly removed by hand from a pile of accumulated branches.
On my last evening, I tasted each of the constituent gins and several experimental gins: Green Juniper, Ripe super-critical Juniper, Blackcurrant Leaf, Douglas Fir, Amalfi Lemon and the somewhat Wodehousian Bog Myrtle. And then tasted them all again just to be sure.
As soon as I got home, I put a bottle in the freezer.
With many thanks to Jamie Berger.