Last month BarLifeUK jumped on a train northward to visit the Hepple Distillery.
We recently announced the launch of the Hepple Ultimate Martini cocktail competition, with the frankly marvellous prize of not just a trip to the Athens Bar Show but the maraschino cherry garnish of a guest shift in one of the city’s top bars with industry legend Nick Strangeway. You can find out all about the competition here
There is more to the competition than the headline grabbing winners trip however, as the final itself will take place at the Hepple
Distillery. We’d been told it was a beautiful part of the world so, just for you lovely reader, we thought we’d go and check it out.
The distillery is located in the county of Northumberland, if your geography is anything like ours it is the county top right of England bordering Scotland. If you have ever been lucky enough to take the train from London to Edinburgh you’ll know that after Newcastle there is a stetch of line which takes you alongside the coast revealing stunning views of the English countryside. That is Northumberland.
We were picked up from the local train station by Walter Riddell, one of the owners of Hepple in his proper Land Rover, not one of those stupid city affairs. This one looked like it had seen proper action – chased runaway cows, been through rivers up to its windscreen wipers, pulled tree trunks across ravines and in recent times no doubt transported cases of Hepple Gin across the country.
Walter’s family own the estate on which the Hepple Distillery is based, and as we drove past ancient trees downed by the recent storm his family home began to come into view. A very large farmhouse began to emerge looking like something from Hound of the Baskervilles.
It is one of those buildings that feels as though it has stories to tell in every corner, although there was no time to dally, outside three things were waiting for us. A fantastic view, a firepit and a table full of Hepple Gin and tonic water, we began to get a really good feeling about this trip.
As we sipped on our drinks and prayed that the talk of a swim in the pond was a joke (the firepit will hint at the general temperature) a second of the brand owners emerged. Valentine Warner is a chef, food writer and broadcaster but it quickly became apparent he is also one half of the Valentine and Walter double act. They immediately had the group feeling at home and after a quick lunch (Valentine was saving his chefing muscles for dinner) they led us out onto the land.
Damn You Wild Pony
We mentioned the word estate earlier, it is difficult to convey the size of the land the Hepple distillery sits on. We walked around it for a couple of hours and at no point got anywhere near any of its borders. What we did get near was some of the most scenic vistas you can imagine. The far-reaching views as we moved from woodland to heather covered fields through dips and gullies were breath taking.
Valentine has a love of foraging which has helped influence the botanicals in Hepple Gin, listening to him talk about something as seemingly simple as douglas fir trees was fascinating. Equally listening to Walter talk about the land, and his mission to rewilding the area including the introduction of wild ponies from Exmoor (despite their seeming love of young juniper plants) and longhorn cattle, who took a particular shine to Clinton Cawood, was inspiring.
It was a lovely walk but rarely have I reacted as excitedly to the question ‘Does anyone fancy a martini?’. As we stood next to a firepit, surrounded by wild juniper bushes, with an ice cold martini in hand watching as Stu Ekins searched in vain for a juniper bush he planted on his last trip (damn you wild pony!!) I realised that the competition finalists were going to have a hell of a time here.
One of Hepple’s missions is to support the revitalisation of juniper on its land and as such each visitor to the distillery is encouraged to plant a juniper sapling which is geo tagged so you can keep an eye on its progress with yearly updates from the Hepple team and of course every time you revisit. Juniper planted and protective barrier erected (take that wild pony) it was time to check out the distillery and meet the man behind the liquid.
Fir The Love Of Distilling
Chris Garden is the Hepple Gin Master Distiller with a hell of a pedigree behind him as Head Distiller at Sipsmith for 5 years. We met him in the distillery (a lovely stone outbuilding) surrounded by many bottles and containers of various liquids and three machines which you could sense he was very proud of.
Hepple Gin is made using a complex triple distillation technique which means Hepple gin takes 5 times longer to make than a conventional gin but also means that the foraged ingredients are allowed to shine through. We aren’t going to go into great detail about the distillation technique here as a) we aren’t doing all your presentation prep for the competition for you and b) Chris explains it so much better than we ever could so get yourself a finals spot and learn from the master.
We will say that if you get to go to the distillery, you will have your eyes opened to what the different techniques and machines bring as you try juniper extracted and distilled in different ways as well as the botanical liquids. It was a fascinating hour led by yet another passionate and knowledgeable member of the team.
As the evening descended we wrapped up warm and jumped into the back of a many-wheel drive moving machine which transported us up one of the many hills into the darkness and unknown. Just as the jokes about being led to our certain deaths began to feel a little more real we saw a light as we rounded a bend, the light came from a hut on the top of the hill which had been converted into a eating and drinking den of heaters and warmness.
As we got closer it became apparent that the fire pit outside the hut was actually the BBQ and the man warming his hands was actually Valentine expertly cooking us large chunks of meat and roasting celeriac. We dived into the hut, grabbed ourselves drinks and watched Valentine suffering for his art over the BBQ like kids at an aquarium.
The night continued with a never-ending supply of drinks, some of the best meat I’ve ever eaten (barbequed or otherwise) and a lot of laughter, at midnight we celebrated Stu’s birthday with some more drink. As myself and Clinton stumbled back to the house for a few hours kip my mind raced forward to the finalists trip later in the year.
It dawned on me that there would be at least one more of the brand owners at the final in the form of the legendary Nick Strangeway. He has been instrumental in the creation of Hepple and having known him for many years he will certainly bring another element to the adventure. It will also be a darn sight warmer than our experience, although there was something enjoyable about the fires and layers that were at the heart of the adventure.
One thing is for sure, the scenery, the hospitality, the adventures and the liquid will ensure that the bartenders who make the final of the Hepple Ultimate Martini Competition will have an experience they won’t forget anytime soon.
Entries for the 2022 Hepple Ultimate Martini Competition are open until April 30th and all the details including the entry form can be found here.
For Cocktail Competition tips and advice check out the BarLifeUK Cocktail Competition Podcast by clicking here or searching for BarLifeUK wherever you get your podcasts.