While the craft gin boom sees no sign of slowing down and botanicals get ever more inventive, the humble juniper bush barely gets a mention. But Hepple gin, based out on the Northumberland moors, is staking its future in gin by staking out juniper seedlings.
Lucy Riddell, Hepple’s on-site horticulturalist, is preparing 50 juniper seedlings to be planted out on the moors, complete with shrub guards to fend off hungry sheep. It’s part of a juniper action plan that aims to restore groves of the native bush to the surrounding hillsides, which were once known for its clean restorative water.
“We found an almanac from 1910 that talks about the area we’re in and mentions there were hillsides covered in juniper,” she explains. “The bushes love alkaline water which is what we’ve got and this is where the doctors back then would come to get better.”
Today however, much like elsewhere in the world, intensive land management and sheep grazing has seen the juniper population shrink, which is a problem when the gin-giving bush is so extremely bad at repopulating.
“Juniper is so unhelpful,” she says. “The aromatic flesh on the seeds is a germinator inhibitor, so it needs to be eaten by birds to wash the flesh away before they can be sown."
Juniper needs a helping hand to get going, consider it the panda of the plant world
Once sown, the seeds take two winters to germinate and start growing. Once the bushes mature, after about fifteen years, they will grow green berries for two years before they finally play ball and produce the purple berries so beloved by bearded hipsters.
Lucy and her husband Walter (the brand’s MD) planted 50 seedlings last year and will plant this 50 this winter with help from Newcastle University and Natural England. Lucy is researching different ways to help juniper survive to maturity - once it’s finally there, just one bush can provide enough berries for hundreds of bottles of gin (phew!) and will keep on providing berries for over 100 years.
“We’re not a juniper farm but we want to look after and support our landscape,” explains Lucy. “There is a fungus like Dutch Elm disease that’s killing off juniper so once we deem this area well covered we want to be a juniper nursery for other areas to come and get healthy seedlings.”
“Gin has got a reputation for being a fast spirit. You can make it on a Tuesday and sell it on a Thursday but our heartbeat is the heartbeat of the juniper”
“Juniper is one of the great barometers of the world” says Walter Riddell. “It’s survival here is a reflection of our remoteness and cleanliness and long term balance of man’s effect on the landscape. It doesn’t like being overshadowed by trees, it likes the heath and the extreme borderlands.”
The gin brand (that’s partly owned by TV chef Valentine Warner) decided to base its distillery where its key ingredients were growing, much like the original Scottish whiskey distilleries who sprang up where the best water could be found. Hepple has turned an old farmhouse into a traditional meets high tech copper still where the berries are distilled using hot and cold techniques (and some fancy CO2 extraction more often found in the perfume industry), which expands the range of the juniper flavour.
Generally gin brands use around 15-20 berries per bottle of gin, but these will be dried and most likely will have been imported from all over the world. Juniper is a hardy species, it grows anywhere in the northern hemisphere from Scotland to Morocco but much like anything else foodie, a local stash of spice is hard to beat.
“We use about 50% more than most other people and a third of that is the green juniper berry, to make it taste alive,” says Walter. “You get a full dimension of the taste because the green juniper bushes are picked in the morning and distilled in the afternoon."
When your key ingredients take years to germinate and grow, even if they are on your doorstep, Hepple knows its gin is never going to be a quick turnaround.
“Gin has got a reputation for being a fast spirit,” Walter says. “You can make it on a Tuesday and sell it on a Thursday but our heartbeat is the heartbeat of the juniper. We’re slowing the gin process down to the glacier age, working in tandem with the juniper bushes. You need a full year to collect all the ingredients we need such as lovage in June and douglas in July and green juniper in September so until the year passes we don’t have anything ready in our distillery.”
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