By Jo Cooksey
A couple of months ago I attended a wonderful taster menu evening at Albatross and Arnold in Spinningfields. The 7 courses were accompanied by a gin flight of 7 different Tappers gins
I hadn’t come across this brand of small batch, artisan gin before, but after tasting it I knew I had to write about it. I contacted Tappers founder and master compounder, Steve Tapril, to find out more about how the brand came into being.
A small, independent family business, Tappers is based on the Wirral Peninsula, near to the historic cities of Chester and Liverpool. Steve, or Dr Steve as I now call him isn’t a distiller by trade, he is actually a Doctor of Information Science. I was keen to discover how someone from such a scholarly background decided to explore the creative world of gin distillation.
1. I'm presuming you have always enjoyed drinking gin but what made you want to become a distiller?
I started off as a huge gin geek: it had always been my drink of choice, but I began seeing so many new releases from small, craft distillers that it sparked a real interest and passion for finding something new and unusual. I had a blog, went to gin festivals, compiled tasting notes and wrote reviews on social media. I had a respectable following with an interest in what I was saying about the category. As a consumer, I presumed that what I was buying into, and drinking, was being described truthfully. Over time I realised that many brands are in fact third-party distilled and that many brand owners outsource production to one of the big distilleries. I was so disappointed: I thought that the bottle of craft gin I'd bought that said it was from X location with Y botanicals was genuine, and really believed the provenance behind the story. I threw my toys out of the pram! I closed my blog, stopped drinking gin, started drinking craft beer, complained a lot to friends and family, and started looking for a new hobby! Then it finally struck me: why not make my own and prove the point that it could be done? When I set out to make a gin, I really had no idea about what would be involved.
2. What was your first gin like? Was it a straight forward traditional juniper-based spirit with a few botanicals? Or did you start with more complex flavours?
I settled on using cold-compounding as the method of production, rather than distillation, for a few reasons: first, there were very few on the market using that approach, and second, I knew it would make for a pretty bold spirit. I needed it to be noticed: nobody had heard of me in the industry, and certainly nobody knew of my tiny little hometown of West Kirby on the Wirral Peninsula! Securing the licensing and approvals from HMRC took a further six months but once all the paperwork was in place, I began my experiments. There are regulations defining 'gin': it must be a minimum of 37.5% ABV and it must taste predominantly of juniper. Aside from that, I was free to choose the remaining botanicals. I wanted to reflect my local area in my choice, so I settled on coastal botanicals that can all be found growing around West Kirby: sea beet, chickweed and red clover among them. It took a year to finalise the recipe but most of that time was spent developing a formula to group botanicals by flavour and intensity in order to calculate the right proportions. That formula is the basis for all of the gin in our range and it's top secret!
I chose the name for our first release based on the local good-natured rivalry between Wirral and Liverpool: I've grown up hearing Liverpudleians saying they're crossing over to the 'dark side' whenever they come to visit West Kirby in the summer months. It seemed a perfect fit with the coastal heritage I was trying to convey in the choice of botanicals. Thus, Darkside Gin was born!
It's heavily juniper-led and sits firmly in the herbaceous category of gin. In terms of profile, it's a savoury, dry gin with complex layers that exist because of the cold-compounded method of production.
3. Where did you and where do you now distil your gins?
I started off making just 9 bottles a week in big kilner jars, believe it or not. I had an order for 18 a week from one local venue and remember walking home panicking about how exactly I was going to make that many and still supply everyone else. I ended up with a whole catering set up, complete with stainless steel benches, shelving, and equipment at home after converting my kitchen/diner into a production space. Things quickly took over most of my house: boxes and packing materials filling one room, empty bottles another, leaflets and marketing materials in another, it just went on and on. We began searching for industrial premises to expand production and have some breathing space and finally moved in to our current location in May this year. Within three months we'd already run out of space! We've been in production at the Distillery since May, but we're now looking at opening to the public with a tasting room and retail space so that we can finally welcome people in to take a look at what we do and try out the range - I'm all about transparency, as that is what got me started in the first place.
4. Where do you get your flavour inspirations from?
I love history, and the Edwardian/Victorian periods, and I also have a big interest in plants and flowers, so those things all come together really when I'm developing a recipe. I also try to add a touch of humour to what we do. That hopefully shows through in the names and stories behind each gin. Our summer gin is called "Three Fine Days" (since the saying goes that the British summer consists of "Three Fine Days and a Thunderstorm") and I tell people that it's only available when the rain is warmer than normal. Darkside is a cheeky nod to the Wirral-Liverpool rivalry. Eggcentric is our chocolate limited-edition gin and a play on words for Easter eggs and British eccentricity given it's quite quirky! My head is filled with recipes and I could probably produce another 15 or so gins but I have to be sensible and also consider the fact that at the end of the day they need to go into commercial production, so they have to be viable. I'm planning to make some of my experimental batches available at the Distillery for people to try when they visit, though, even if they're not widely available.
5. Tell me a little about your Hydropathic Pudding gin. Where did you hear of this pudding and how did you get the idea to turn the flavours into a gin?
I knew how popular fruit gin had become - especially among those who don't particularly like gin. There is a story and a recipe behind everything I do, so I didn't want to release a plain or simple 'strawberry gin' or anything like that. I decided to go back to the history books, and discovered a recipe dating back to 1902 from the Liverpool School of Cookery for what they referred to then as 'hydropathic pudding'. It's basically the predecessor to summer fruit pudding - so plenty of red berries and currants. At the turn of the century they served this pudding in spa resorts, or at 'hydro hotels' - including our very own Hydro Hotel in West Kirby - believing it to have restorative properties. It was a perfect fit for a product with our brand. Most fruit gins are made with flavourings and colourings and a lot of added sugar, but I wanted to stick with our ethos of using only real ingredients: we use 7Kg of fruit in each batch of 40 bottles. It's a heck of a lot of fruit and a very messy process - I need to wear a full disposable apron and gauntlet gloves!
6. Does anyone help you in the Tappers Gin business?
When the business took off, and as quickly as it did, I hadn't really appreciated how much paperwork would be involved. Making gin is my thing but book-keeping definitely isn't! So my family started to get involved by supporting me with the business side of it all. I've a very patient mother! She started looking after the financial side of things but now manages our customer accounts, deliveries, you name it! My brother and his partner help with the events we attend, and my cousin helps out at the Distillery with putting the finishing touches to our bottles. They've been incredibly supportive: we're very much an independent family business. We also have a couple of brand ambassadors working for us; they're great at spreading the word, visiting customers, popping in with samples so that people can try our gin, and they also help at events.
7. What is next for Tappers? Do you intend to stay small and boutique or would you like to increase production?
We're very much a boutique brand so I fully intend to keep production in-house given that's why I got started in the first place. Our production is increasing but it won't surpass the point where it will lose that personal touch and our batch sizes will definitely remain authentically small! We're working on some interesting collaborations at the moment and we're also looking at going into production in 2019 with some non-gin related tipples - so plenty to keep us busy for now!
8. Can you see the current upsurge in gin drinking declining anytime soon?
I think the category has a lot to offer and gin is an incredibly versatile spirit. There are producers pushing the boundaries though and in doing so they're risking a dilution of the category and the very definition of what makes a gin, gin. There are a lot of products on the market now catering to non-gin drinkers but marketed on the back of the popularity of the drink - with barely a juniper berry in sight. They're effectively flavoured vodka. I don't think that fad will last very long, though. We've recently signed up to a campaign organised by the very respected Hayman's Distillers in London, to 'call time on fake gin'. There are calls for greater regulation in the category, or at least greater enforcement of the existing regulations, to stop consumers being misinformed - we fully support those calls.
9. You have a Doctorate in Information Science. Is that your full-time profession or do you work solely in the gin industry now?
I have a PhD in Information Science, which was focused on information literacy - how people (students) go about their learning. Sadly, not a PhD in gin! It's come in useful because I've applied quite a lot of the research skills I gained from it, to learning about botanicals, recipes, food history, and so on. So not all theory! I work around 100 hours a week on average, so effectively two full-time jobs. I must be mad, but I enjoy it so I'm not complaining (well, maybe there's the odd grumble when I have to go and check on a batch of gin at 5am...).
To find out more about and to purchase Tappers gin go to their website