It has taken two years to develop but now The Moorland Spirit Company has released the first batch of its flavoured vodka made with douglas fir needles grown on its Northumberland estate.
Founders Nick Strangeway and Valentine Warner have produced just 1,350 bottles of the spirit which was first previewed to bartenders at the P(our) Symposium at the Cocktails Spirits show in Paris in June 2017.
Since then, the pair have been learning about the best time to harvest the douglas fir needles, how long to dry them and how to create the perfect blend of distillates. Douglas Fir Flavoured Vodka is available from this week through Speciality Drinks in 50cl bottles and, in an off-trade exclusive, at Fortnum & Mason in London until the end of October – the first in the producer’s new Explorer Edition series of experimental spirits.
Douglas fir is one of the 12 botanicals used to make Hepple Gin, which The Moorland Spirit Company launched three years ago. After Warner found that the needle distillate made a rather pleasing drink in itself, mixed with tonic, they set out to come up with a new flavoured vodka.
After removing all traces of wood, the needles are briefly dried ahead of the ‘Triple Technique’ process that is also used to make Hepple Gin. This involves creating two douglas fir distillates – one from one-shot distillation in the pot still and a second from several gentler low-temperature distillations through the vacuum still, or rotovap. ‘When you taste the distillate off the rotovap, you can find flavours you didn’t know existed if you just used the pot still,’ Strangeway explained.
The next stage uses CO2 ‘supercritical extraction’ – a process used by makers of perfume and flavourings – to create an extract that is blended with the distillates and spring water and left to rest and marry for at least a month before being bottled at 41% abv.
One of the most intriguing discoveries was that, after being picked, the needles develop an aroma very similar to melon. ‘If harvested at the right time and treated in the right way, it can exhibit these tropical flavours,’ Strangeway said. ‘It was a surprise that something so mundane could produce something so exotic.’
This has inspired them to recommend that the spirit be served with tonic over ice with a slice of melon, although Strangeway has found that it also makes a fantastic Sour-style drink and works well in a Vesper Martini with Hepple Gin and a dash of Suze.
With aromas of conifers underlined by lemon citrus sour notes, the spirit offers up a fresh taste of sweet ripe melon with grapefruit and pine.
‘It has been in the making for a long time,’ Strangeway added. ‘After we did a small run of it for the P(our) talk in Paris, the next liquids weren’t as good as we wanted them to be because the harvest wasn’t at the right time, so we waited a year.’
If Douglas Fir Flavoured Vodka is the success it is expected to be, they hope to produce more of it next year. The best time to harvest the needles is late spring or early summer, but they already need a lot of it to satisfy growing demand for Hepple Gin. ‘There’s plenty of it but it’s very labour intensive,’ Strangeway added. ‘We are hoping to find a more efficient way to harvest it.’
In the meantime, they will be experimenting with other ideas for their Explorer Edition series. ‘We want to experiment with other botanicals that we can find, either with single botanicals or groups of botanicals. Some may be just 100 bottles or others could be 1,000 cases if we like it.’
Valentine, who describes himself as the company’s ‘ingredient hunter and harnesser’, added: ‘We never set out to be a gin company. We are The Moorland Spirit Company and gin just happened to be the first idea that came to us.
‘You could call it a “spirit drink” but that’s not very pretty. Vodka means something to people, they know how to place it. As this is a kind of new category, it had to exist in an understandable place. Calling it a vodka gives you an anchor.
‘Craft is coming back in a big way at the moment. We have lived through this mad luxury sector but what people want now is a real understanding of what things are being made of and the process. Nature is our default setting.’
41% abv, RRP £35/50cl, Speciality Drinks