With a trip to Athens Bar Show and a guest shift with Nick Strangeway up for grabs it was going to be a fiercely contested contest.
We visited the Hepple Distillery and surrounding lands last year and enthused afterwards to anyone who would listen about the stunning landscapes that exist up there. This time we saw them drenched with sunshine instead of rain and you know what, even better.
The other thing I remembered fondly from my last visit to the farm on which the Hepple Distillery hunkers was the hospitality. Now hospitality might not be better in the sunshine but I’m going to say G&T’s are, especially when bartender extraordinaire and Hepple founder Nick Strangeway, is in charge of the gin pours.
So there we were, stood in front of a land of rolling green topped by bright blue sky, with a HEPPLE and tonic in hand, absentmindedly staring at the peak of a hill in front and realised the stresses of everyday life were slowly leaching away. Well, they were for me anyway, the finalists seemed less Zen being busy worrying about chilling their martini’s down and storing their garnishes somewhere appropriate.
Walter Riddell, owner of the Hepple Estate and one of the Hepple Spirits founders, was, as always, on hand to help out and once he had introduced the day and shown the competitors to the fancy looking tents that were to be their homes for the night it was time to get the day going in earnest.
Earth, Wind & Liar
20 mins and a bumpy Land Rover ride later we found ourselves on top of that hill bathed in sunshine with barley a breath of wind to ruffle the hair, looking out across the beautiful Hepple Estate ready to chow down on the lovely lunch spread. Before that however Hepple Marketing Boss Ashley Hunka announced it was time for another treat.
Last year’s winner Mikey ‘Warhol’ Robinson from Wild Tavern in London was on hand as part of the esteemed judging panel. He was also there to unveil the first bottling of his 2021 winning recipe The Hepple Wild Martini. The pre-diluted pre-bottled martini aimed to ‘Transport drinkers to Hepple’s Fir Forests after the rain’, and was based around two of Hepple’s distinctive botanicals of Douglas Fir and Green Juniper. It was a delicious martini and you could see the finalists mentally comparing it to their own serves, would they compare well?
They didn’t have long to wait as after lunch it was time to head to Martini Rock for the competition element of the day and time for me to make a confession to you dear reader. I have lied to you three times already in this article.
Firstly, we were not on top of the hill for lunch as I discovered as we hiked ever upwards over a bed of heather to reach the peak where Martini Rock resided. Secondly ‘barely a breath of wind’ was, when we reached the top of the hill, a monumental fib. A couple of tables and chairs had been set up by the Hepple Team that morning, by the time we arrived they were in danger of being blown straight back down to the distillery. It was the sort of wind you have to lean into to remain upright however whilst you are doing that the view was really something.
One of the beautiful things of the Ultimate Martini competition is that the drink is already pre-bottled and chilled. It simply has to be poured from bottle to glass, garnished and served to the judges with an explanation of the ingredients. A drink that can be served anywhere…… well that was about to be tested.
The third lie was right at the start, ‘fiercely contested contest’ makes it sound like a battle. In actual fact the finalists were all encouraging, helping and supporting each other from the moment we arrived, traits which were certainly going to be needed over the next hour.
You have met most of our judging panel in the form of Nick and Mikey who were joined by the delightful Fiona Beckett, an award-winning food and drink writer of many books as well as for the likes of The Guardian and Decanter Magazine.
It may have been a bit breezy but the sun was out and it was one of the most beautiful locations we’ve seen for a cocktail competition final, with these equally (well in some cases) beautiful bartenders competing:
Markus Basset from Fallow in London with his twist on a dirty martini featuring an oyster shell tincture and fantastic lovage and anis seed vermouth. Luke Riley from Mother Mercy in Newcastle built his martini around the melon notes he gets from Hepple with honeydew melon and Tokaji being used. Dionysios Tzorouchof of Manchester’s Science & Industry used a variety of ingredients including Axia and sake but it was his homemade bitters (a mint and pine & orange) which shone. Connor Knowles from Schofield’s in Manchester named his serve after the River Croquet which we overlooked and the combination of Hepple, vermouth and a celery seed distillate was beautifully balanced. Paul Minea of Waldorf in London celebrated the dirty martini with his drink revolving around an olive & rosemary tonic reduction. Lottie Barnard from Leed’s Domino Club was a martini which was then infused with carrot tops giving the whole drink a fantastic flavour and aroma.
All the competitors did superbly to get their drink in the glasses and some of the garnishes seemed to defy the laws of physics as they were presented to the judges, who for their part were somehow managing to hold down the drink, their judging sheets and on more than one occasion themselves. It was a brilliantly fun competition final that everyone embraced wholeheartedly.
As Nick put it: ‘It was a huge thrill to try the incredible range of martinis that the finalists presented to the judges of the 2022 Hepple Martini Competition. It is amazing that such a seemingly simple drink can take on so many fabulous nuances when put into the hands of such a talented group of bartenders. In adversely windy, but remarkably warm conditions, each of the competitors created their own very personal martini that was worthy of winning the competition. I cannot wait to visit each of them and try their drinks again in perfect conditions, but undoubtedly without such an amazing view. Thank you to everyone who took part.’
The Most Exclusive Gin Bar In The World?
As the judges deliberated the rest of us quickly packed up, grabbed a couple of bottles of Mikey’s martini and some glasses and started the walk down from the top of the hill and back to calmer waters. As we strolled through the Hepple Estate with martinis in hand the animals that are really in charge of the land came to say hello.
Firstly we were welcomed by the Exmoor Ponies that Walter has introduced to the land which created much excitement and photo opportunities, next up and receiving a less enthusiastic response was one of the local snakes who decided we were not worth bothering with and then finally the long horn cattle who are my personal favourite.
The finalists were beginning to get the full Hepple experience which continued with each planting their own juniper bush before being handed a martini by Nick at the invite only Martini Bar in the heart of a group of juniper bushes, some of which are hundreds of years old. It was that the bartenders were put out of their misery as the winner was announced.
Connor was victorious and will be heading to the best Bar Show in the world right now in Athens (that award is unofficial and decided by BarLifeUK, we’re right). He will also be jumping behind the bar in one of the city’s best bars with Nick for a guest shift. Whether that element counts as a prize or punishment remains to be seen but either way it’ll be a hell of an experience.
Connor will have a ball in Athens but there was still a whole lot more fun to have at Hepple before minds even began to wonder there. First up was a trip to the distillery to see the exceptionally talented Hepple Distiller Chris Garden who had been doing all the hard work whilst we’d been having a jolly on top of a hill. The lucky group got to try liquids from the famous three distilling processes and get an insight into the minds of those behind Hepple.
At this time of year that close to the Scottish border it stays light until very late and everyone made this most of this with drinks from the bar and another delicious meal before the night was consumed with stories and chat. By the time our taxi arrived (not enough tents for all, which my old back was very happy about) Nick had served upwards of 40 drinks which bodes better for Conner in Athens than anticipated.
A massive thanks as always to the Hepple team for such a wonderful trip to a place which always impresses. Also thank you to the finalists who were superb fun throughout the day and all put on a hell of a show when serving up the drinks. All photo’s courtesy of Alex Griffin.
We look forward to hearing all about the Athens trip later in the year. For now we will leave the last word to Walter:
‘I’ve always known how special Hepple is as a space. It was just incredible to see the finalists so engaged with the place; every martini they created for the competition evoked the raw nature of Hepple vividly, and it was a pleasure to see how they imagined the land through their creations.’