Behind the gin: Steve Tapril, Tappers Gin

by | 5 Jun 2021

Steve Tapril founded Tappers Gin in 2016, a far cry from his PhD in Information Science. Based in the Wirral Peninsula, the gin is a true artisan craft offering – with around 40 to 100 bottles produced in each batch. Registered vegan, Tappers Gin now boasts an extensive range of nine expressions. I caught up with Steve to find out about the journey.

© All photos courtesy of Tappers Gin

It’s been quite a year for everyone, but what’s the last 12 months been like for Tappers Gin?

When the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, and hospitality closed its doors, we honestly thought that would be the end for Tappers. I remember driving to the Distillery, turning off all of our equipment, and thinking it would be for the last time. Around 70% of all of our business then was focused in the on-trade.

We rapidly turned that on its head, focusing on our loyal customers and followers, and through the height of the pandemic concentrated on our direct-to-consumer sales via the website.

Frustratingly we’d also just completed an expansion on site with development of a new, larger, Tasting Room adjacent to the Distillery – we’d held just two events in there before having to close, talk about imperfect timing!

I bet you didn’t expect to be looking up recipes for alcohol gel when you started! I loved how you answered the SOS from the local community and the humble way you went about it was lovely to see. What was the reaction like from the community?

It was such a bizarre situation. I remember seeing on social media that some distilleries had turned their hand to making sanitiser and I had said flat out that wasn’t something we would do – we were a gin distillery and needed to focus on that.

We started to receive phone call after phone call, and it was one in particular that really changed my opinion. A lady called, in the terminal stages of cancer, to ask if we were producing sanitiser. She explained that the local hospital, Arrowe Park Hospital – just a stone’s throw from the Distillery – was having problems with sanitiser on the wards going missing. She told us how prices online were skyrocketing as well. I had a look – sellers on were profiteering from the shortage and I was absolutely appalled. Right when people needed to pull together and look after one another, some were exploiting the situation instead.

That one phone call made up my mind. We secured the approvals from HMRC and switched production using our high-strength neutral grain spirit (NGS at 96%) over to sanitiser, following the World Health Organisation formula.

“We donated over 1,000 bottles in the end, primarily to front-line NHS services across Wirral, along with some local charities like Autism Together. We spent some days on the road in the Tappers van delivering for 10 hours.”

The original idea was to retail 200ml bottles online and use the proceeds from sales to those less in need to fund donations of sanitiser to Arrowe Park Hospital. It absolutely snowballed – we had no idea just how much the NHS was struggling.

I was taking calls from hospitals all over the North West and North Wales, from Lytham to Warrington, Manchester, Bangor, you name it. We had to prioritise in the end, focusing on our local area, which was a really distressing decision to take. I think it highlighted just how few independent distilleries there were at a time of crisis when the constituent component, ethanol, is of course only available to those of us who produce in-house.

We donated over 1,000 bottles in the end, primarily to front-line NHS services across Wirral, along with some local charities like Autism Together. We spent some days on the road in the Tappers van delivering for 10 hours.

It was heart-breaking and very humbling. People said to me “surely people can just wash their hands, they don’t need sanitiser”. But if they could only have seen some of the people we delivered to – the elderly and unwell: it isn’t just a case of getting up and going to the sink. Many of them struggled with mobility, were housebound, with no help from family or friends.

It’s been a year but it feels like yesterday, and we’ll never forget the people we met during those very difficult and challenging months. We were just glad to be able to do something useful with ourselves, and play our part to support our local community.

Steve Tapril with mum, Sue.
Tappers Brightside Gin bottle and a lilac Old Fashioned cocktail.

Your Mum, Sue, gets a lot of love from the gin community (and rightly so!). What’s it like to work so closely with her?

She does! And yes I think rightly so as well! She has been there since day one of course; we’re a true independent family business. Sue started out helping with bookkeeping because finances were absolutely not my forte! I just thought I’d make gin, and how hard could that be?! Soon enough I needed help with far more than just the books. We started to attend fairs and festivals and I needed support at those.

Sue serves a mean G&T and I have that wonderful guarantee that she’ll describe our gins just as well and as passionately as I can so it was a no brainer there. I also roped in my brother, Dylan, and his partner Nadine, and they’ve both been a huge help including at our first Junipalooza London back in 2019.

As the business has grown, Sue has helped in countless ways. She’s has been the first point of contact for our suppliers and our customers so everyone has got to know her and she makes a point of making sure she knows who they are, too. She’ll often remind me of important things like special occasions people are celebrating, so we can be sure to wish them well. Which is a good job as I have a memory like a sieve! She’s my best mate and we get on really well although like all family members we have our moments of disagreement!

“We’ve been called the ‘gourmet gin of the spirits world’ by those in the chef community…”

You started off creating a cold compounded gin in Darkside and subsequently created a distilled version, Brightside. The two techniques are completely different processes, each with their own skill. Which do you find most challenging?

That’s a tough one! Also because I certainly don’t want to cause offence with my answer! They are such different methods that they each have their upsides and downsides, I’d say.

With compound gin, I think it’s closer to, say, cuisine than purely scientific method. We’ve been called the “gourmet gin of the spirits world” by those in the chef community. Cold-compounding is all about the quality of our ingredients, how they’re infused and for how long, and the absolute precise measure of them (if the recipe says “x grams”, it can be no more or less than this, it has to be exact, down to a single juniper berry in weight. With compound gin there is no hiding anything: what you put in, you get out.

We’re trying to change peoples’ perceptions about cold-compounded gins and historic (highly misinformed) prejudice that distilled gin is somehow better. It isn’t. It’s really as simple as this: there are some good gins, and there are some not-so-good gins, however they are made – and I’ve tasted a fair few of both that were distilled! Besides, to trash a method of production that is also used in making some of the world’s finest vermouth or amaro seems completely short-sighted to me.

Distilling is a different beast entirely. Things are more easily measured – from pressure, to temperature, to ABV and volume of cuts. The consistency is just as crucial, though, and that comes down to individual skill. I’d say because the flavour and aroma are compressed and concentrated in distillate form, it is a little more challenging when it comes to organoleptic analysis! It’s also a far riskier (and more expensive) operation compared with cold-compounding: we’re vaporising alcohol, after all!

Ultimately, neither method is superior to the other – they’re both just as challenging and require the necessary skills to do well. I think having worked with both methods, I have a unique perspective on this and much respect for fellow gin producers, whichever method they’re using!

Do you have a favourite of the two, and indeed from your extensive range?

I tell everyone I’m not allowed to have a favourite child! But between you and me, when I make Darkside it always feels like coming home after a holiday – sometimes you just can’t beat the feel of your own bed. And of the seasonal line-up, Falling Leaves Spiced Autumn Gin is certainly one I’m proud to have accomplished with such a challenging pool of broody, muted, botanicals from which to choose.

“When I created Tappers, it wasn’t about just creating a brand. I poured my heart into every aspect of it…”

You’re based in The Wirral. Was the sense of provenance important to you when creating Tappers Gin?

You’ve hit the nail on the head with that question. When I created Tappers, it wasn’t about just creating a brand. I poured my heart into every aspect of it – from the Victorian apothecary look and feel that fit the method of production and my love affair with history, to the name and its connection to where I live, right through to the coastal botanicals that made the ingredients line-up that celebrate my hometown and the area I grew up in, and still live in today.

I think that’s really important – our ‘story’ is a truthful, transparent and genuine one, so it isn’t hard for me to be passionate about it!

You’ve just launched a new collab with Kenny Dalglish to celebrate his 70th birthday. How did it feel to work with a local legend, someone renowned throughout the world?

Surreal! The chance to work with a hero like Sir Kenny was an absolute honour; we were thrilled to have been selected by the Dalglish family to work on crafting a gin to celebrate such a special milestone. He is a real gent, too, and we had such a laugh at the distillery when he visited. First when he came to select the botanicals for the recipe (each one has personal meaning to him), and second when he visited to sign the 70 bottles that formed the Collector’s Edition set within the 700 bottle release.

Our 40L copper alembic, Lena, has never worked so hard! We had two 60L copper alembic stills brought in to help with the task but they arrived damaged and couldn’t be used so we produced all 700 bottles using just Lena. We’re hoping to bring the new stills online very soon for production of our Brightside London Dry Gin so watch this space on social media for their names and introductions!

“The chance to work with a hero like Sir Kenny (Dalglish) was an absolute honour; we were thrilled to have been selected by the Dalglish family to work on crafting a gin…”

Speaking of collaborations, you’ve been working with chef, Simon Rimmer. How did that come about and what’s his involvement?

Back in September 2020 we decided to rebrand and launch a new website. One of my early mistakes, not having a background in marketing (or business!), was putting the product name front and centre (Darkside Gin, Brightside Gin, and so on) on our bottles, to the detriment of our actual name – Tappers.

We were finding people hadn’t heard of ‘Tappers’ and weren’t connecting the spirits in our range together with us as the producer. We updated our bottle artwork, putting ‘TAPPERS’ front and centre instead with our Dappers Tappers Gent, and we’re really pleased with the result.

To launch the new branding and website and to introduce people once more to Darkside and Brightside, we thought a virtual tasting experience would be the best way given pandemic restrictions. We approached Simon to ask if he would host the event for us. We’ve known Simon since 2016 when we began supplying our gin in The Viking, our former spiritual home in West Kirby. Simon was so taken by the gin and with everything we do here at Tappers that he came back with a counter offer: he’d do the event but he actually wanted to become a part of the Tappers family! We were flattered (of course!) and very pleasantly surprised, and so in October 2020 he joined the team and we are absolutely thrilled to have him on board.

Simon Rimmer with Tappers Tickled Pink Gin.
Tappers Three Fine Days Citrus Summer Gin.

What’s a typical day like for you at the moment?

Hectic! We’re full steam ahead with production now that we’re supplying all 27 Booths stores across the North with our Darkside Coastal Gin (in a new 70cl size bottle – so more gin to enjoy!) and Tickled Pink Gin which we produce in collaboration with Simon Rimmer (all-natural of course, with Provence red rose petals and hibiscus flowers).

It’s great to have the chance to bring Tappers far and wide and share what we do with as many people as possible. We’re also really excited that hospitality is re-opening its doors and some normality is on the way. That means the chance for us to attend festivals and fairs and, at long last, meet new faces and familiar ones!

Finally, what’s next for Tappers Gin?

In the past 12 months we’ve rebranded, released a new 70cl capacity bottle in our core range, developed Tickled Pink Gin with Simon Rimmer and Dalglish 7 Gin with Sir Kenny, and seen Tappers go in to a major retailer, so we’re very excited with what is in store for the next 12 months. There are a few big projects in the pipeline and some very exciting news we’ll be sharing soon – watch this space!