In 2012, Walter Riddell was running an investment management portfolio worth $35 billion for Morgan Stanley. Then, one day, he had enough.
“I was a very, very stroppy 30-year-old. I probably quit five times before, but my colleagues were indulgent enough to make life easy for me to stay. So they were quite used to me saying that I wanted to go and live in a bog.”
But this time he was serious. He had long juggled working remotely with his office job – but was immensely frustrated. His true destination was an ancestral home in Hepple, which he inherited when his father, Sir John Riddell, died in 2010.
“I’d always tried to balance my job with my heart, which was about being in a rural part of the world, with trying to make ends meet financially,” he explains. “I had very generous employers that told me that I could have a year and a half taking the foot off the accelerator.” But he had no plans to return. His entire family decamped to the countryside permanently and settled in, enveloped by the Northumberland National Park.
At the time, he had savings, the support of his family, and no clue what to do next. Enter childhood friend and chef Valentine Warner, who was feeling as restless as Riddell. “I’ve known Valentine since I was ten,” Riddell chuckles. “He taught me to smoke behind the juniper bushes before I knew what the point of juniper was. He was worlds apart [from their upbringing] in the world of banking. He’s very different to me, but we’re great friends. We built the business through a number of dog walks and late night conversations.”
They decided to launch Hepple Gin in 2014, as a love letter to the place where they both grew up, surrounded by the largest number of naturally growing juniper trees in England – the perfect ingredient for gin.
“One of the joys of wild places is that they are not exploited by people,” Riddell says “So how can we make it better?” Hepple Gin has a contract with the national park to help preserve juniper and use it in their products.
Although the gin market is crowded, Riddell’s team of four believe that their triple-brewing technique sets them apart from the competition. It involves a traditional copper pot (where they mix the Douglas fir, bog myrtle and juniper); a glass vacuum still, where they add flavours like green juniper or lemon; and an extraction machine, where they infuse the root, the needle, the bark and the berry itself into the mixture.
“I now spend my days one minute up juniper trees cutting down branches, and the next doing payroll for HR,” he laughs. His house has become a halfway house for expert bartenders and distillers, who roam the corridors mixing spirits and making cocktails in the early hours of the morning. “It’s an adjustment.”
Almost nothing of what he learned from Morgan Stanley applies in this business – except for the attitude, which Riddell describes as “like a fire in the belly”. “It’s about doing something because no one else will do it.”
And, if things didn’t work out with gin, Riddell maintains that he would never go back to working in finance. “It’s very important to burn all those plans. I don’t think they would have wanted it and I don’t think I would have wanted it,” he admits. He believes that every year of being an entrepreneur makes you “about ten times more valuable” and more employable – so there is no reason to be ashamed of failing.
“If you are being paid well, there is a chance that you will never be paid well again, but there is a low chance of being unemployable. I could always work as a pot-washer.”
A change in Riddell’s life was what pushed him over the edge to go it alone. He believes coronavirus might prove to be that same trigger for many people who have been waiting for an excuse for a change.
“Most of us have a trigger of deciding that we have to do something else. And it’s often something as small as having an accident, or a health scare, or you know – falling in love or out of love. I think coronavirus will perhaps trigger a whole new wave of people deciding to do dramatic things that they would otherwise leave to the last years of their life.”
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