You have to admit, Marylebone Gin has a nice little story behind it. Created by Johnny Neill (he of Whitley Neill and the JJ Whitley range), the gin is his way of glancing at the past, both distant and far, and celebrating London for all its worth.
You see, Neill has gin in his blood. His Great Grandfather was the MD of Greenall Whitley (known as Greenall’s, these days) and his dad worked for the brand well into the 1970s. And while Neill never considered gin to be an inevitability in his life, an interest in the spirit was sparked at a very early age.
The gin-lineage reaches much farther back than the ‘70s too. The Neill family began distilling back in 1762, right around the time that London’s pleasure gardens were at the height of their usage. Neill, who had a bit of a fixation with the Marylebone garden after spending a great deal of his childhood in the area, couldn’t help but ruminate on the sheer strangeness of that Georgian era; the disparity between rich and poor. Between the down and outs of the Hogarth painting and the bonnet-wearing fancy faces of the pleasure gardens. An idea was born.
“What I wanted to create,” Neill explains, “was something a little bit fun. Something that involved some botanicals that probably would have been sitting in the gardens at the time and something with a slight inkling of Georgian London about it. Marylebone Gin is slightly overproof at 50.2%, it contains 13 botanicals and we are distilling it in the heart of London just like the old days.”
The distilling part is where it all gets a little bit complicated. Marylebone Gin is a product of the Marylebone hotel, and is distilled on a teeny tiny, gloriously shiny 50-litre copper pot still based within its walls. At least, some of it is.
The ‘exact’ same recipe is also used at Thames Distillers to create big-run batches of Marylebone Gin. The pot used for this task is 500-litres and the gin is made as a concentrate, so it can be stretched with grain spirit and cut with water to achieve that same 50.2% ABV.
Given that the methods used are entirely different (the Marylebone-made Marylebone Gin is a one-shot product), and that the stills are completely different beasts (scaling up a recipe is one thing, but Thames use stainless steel pots, where as the hotel still is copper), we have to wonder quite how different these gins are. The sensitive alchemy of distilling means that ingredients react differently to the smallest changes, so a different metal, different size batches and a one shot vs. multi-shot process would imply a near impossible amount of wizardry if the two gins were to match up identically. To us, this is precisely what makes the gin (or gins), hugely intriguing.
The botanicals included in the gin(s) are probably the most consistent part of the process. Taking the flower gardens as inspiration, it was always going to be a floral affair, so lime flower, chamomile and lemon balm make their way into the line-up. They’re joined by core gin ingredients juniper, liquorice, coriander, angelica, cassia and orris, with an extra spice kick coming from cloves and a great wedge of citrus coming in from a grapefruit, sweet orange and lemon trifecta.
Marylebone Gin will continue to be produced in both locations, with the hotel-made gin being served in the attached bar and within very local areas of trade. The Thames-made is the one that will be served further afield. It’s the one we’re tasting today, and it’s more than likely the one that you’ll get to try.
Marylebone Gin to taste…
Just-picked lemon balm smacks at the nose, while honeyed notes of linden blossom float around in the background. The high citrus presence in Marylebone Gin certainly makes itself known, dominating the fore so that the more ‘ginny’ ingredients don’t get too much of a chance to shine. It’s a real bouquet, so much so that we’re almost tempted to daube it on our wrists.
The taste is incredible, and nothing short of an attack. Every element strikes at once, as though it’s fallen out of the sky at a thousand miles an hour and landed smack bang in the centre of your existence. The cassia and cloves are brutally spiced, whilst the lemon balm paints the tongue a bright, waxy green. Juniper is there throughout, though it feels as though its along for the ride, rather than steering the ship. A hand to hold throughout the storm, perhaps.
Keen to honour the garden inspiration behind Marylebone Gin, we opted for a floral tonic when mixing this into a G&T. Doing so allowed the chamomile and linden more of a chance to rise up out of the glass, and also gave the orris root a moment in the spotlight. The lemon balm actually restrains the grapefruit, lemon and orange a little bit; they’re bold, bright and sherbet-y, but the dominant lemon accent comes from the shrubbery, which is too busy working the juniper out of its hole to pay the fruits much mind. Piny right at the last minute, this is a G&T that plays with the senses entirely, taking the drinker on a wild journey before landing in the exact same place as every gin before it: comfortably in the land of juniper, coriander and angelica. Delicious.
Marylebone Gin is presented in a tall, beautiful, medicine-glass-blue bottle that positively trills with its Georgian inspiration. The font is bold and almost circus like, while an ornate golden gate signifies the entryway to the pleasure garden. It screams luxury, and at somewhere between £45 – £55 (depending on where you shop) a pop, well…. it really needs to be, doesn’t it?
We always ask Gin makers to justify high prices and, if we’re being completely honest, the answers always feel like a reach. The Marylebone Gin team cite distilling heritage (but, it’s the exact same heritage that is shared by Whitley Neill, which is around the £22 mark), the small, family-owned nature of the brand (again… Whitley Neill) and their central London home (which for the main part of what you will find in shops, comes from Thames Distillery). It’s expensive gin, and while it looks great and tastes great, we’re not too sure it can really be justified to be honest.
We’d be pushing the local angle above all others if we were them. Some – British weather and crop availability dependant – of the botanicals are foraged from within the pleasure garden, which adds a real layer of depth to the story. The soil that fed the flowers all those years ago is feeding this very gin, and that is a very nice link indeed.Plus, as Neill puts it, the gin is a hark back to “decadent times,” and decadent drinks, as we all well know, call for decadent prices.
The thing we like about Marylebone is the dual nature of the production and that it’s not just open and out there, it’s a brilliant challenge to one’s understanding of production. Conceptually, it really asks the question of what matters to you. Moreover, if intellectually you do care about the difference, can you actually taste it? It has our inner super geek curious as to what the differences are and there’s something a bit post-modern about this whole situation too…
‘What defines craft?’ is a question that has been circling the Gin world like a vortex for the past five years or so, but there’s no real definition (though some are pushing for a rule or two, something to use as a measuring tool). We opt to hear the story behind a product before judging it; we want to know the people making it are doing so with passion and heart. We want to know that they’re in it for all the right reasons, making a gin because they absolutely adore the stuff, rather than just creating a product that they know will coin it in because it’s the story of the day.
The where matters, the who matters the how matters. Batch size is part of that argument too, yet Marylebone Gin turns all of on its head and somehow brings the two polar opposite sides of the industry into one release. It’s hugely important to note here, that they do so with transparency. We’ve never heard anything other that this story from the team – the dual production has been on the cards from the off and this alone, turns it from being disingenuous to being very interesting.
Sure, we know the two liquids aren’t going to taste exactly the same (and we’d love to see much better demarkation of which one was made where), but you can bet they’ll be very similar. The bottle is the same, the story is the same, the brand presence and history, the gin’s (or gins’) ingredients… Marylebone Gin is Marylebone Gin, whether it’s made 50-bottles-at-a-time in the hotel, or tens of thousands of bottles of a time at Thames. Are they both craft gins? Are neither of them craft gins? It’s an important discussion and one that’s incredibly hard to take a finite position on. We know full well – given his understanding of the industry – that it’s one Neill would love to provoke more debate about too.
The Marylebone Gin story is undoubtedly a little complicated for those and the gin is bloody expensive, especially when you consider that the majority of it is third party made. Still, it’s a very very cool experiment and a gin with an authentic, easy-to-visit brand home. Master Distiller is a job title, but Neill is a true master of the sport; he’s excited about the side-by-side comparisons that the two separate distillation methods will attain, and any gin geek worth their weight will be desperate to get the two next to each other to see for themselves.
For more information about Marylebone Gin, visit the website: www.marylebonegin.com
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