One has to wonder if Harrogate Distillery founders Toby and Jane Whittaker’s grown children, Jessica and Isabella, ever cast slightly anxious looks at their parents’ two 100-litre Hill Billy stills, Jezebel and Jezebel 2. The names are a deliberate blend of the runaway (read: grownup) Whittaker children, and the stainless steel surrogates are certainly getting almost all of the Whittakers attention nowadays.
“Our daughters were growing up fast and looking to move away from home to pursue their own paths,” Jane explained. “We were looking for something to bridge the gap and fill our new-found freedom.” With a passion for beer and an interest in making it, Toby signed up to a brewing and distilling course at Heriot Watt and quickly learned that while the former was of interest, the latter was a passion that had been lying dormant since he studied Chemistry at university, many years ago.
We say dormant, because both Toby and Jane had ended up in the property business, a far cry from their boozy interests. While that put them on the good foot when it came to obtaining planning permission for their distillery, it meant that they had little preparation for the dizzying tango it takes to get HMRC licensing in place, which is why it took three years in total to go from ‘we want to open a distillery’ to ‘we’ve opened a distillery.’
A lot of that time, though, was spent creating their gin recipe. Jane explains: “Our first decision with our Original gin was where between one and ten (with one being classic and ten being wacky) did we want to be. We decided that we wanted our flagship gin to be quite classic, and also wanted the signature botanicals to reflect our countryside in North Yorkshire.”
They began experimenting with cheap supermarket vodka, forming a base of classic botanicals before building up to the local ingredients. “The kitchen in the house was taken over frequently by Toby in his quest for gin perfection, using our garden hose for cooling out of the kitchen window, while I ran around sealing all of the joins on our leaking still so we didn’t contaminate the contents as it was boiling.”
The base recipe for Whittaker’s Gin is a juniper, coriander and angelica mix. Bilberries, lemon and thyme also make the cut, as well as locally frown hawthorne berries and bog myrtle. Most of the botanicals are macerated for 24 hours ahead of distillation, but the lemon and thyme are added to the pot just before the still does its magic.
The Whittakers have taken on two more stills, these a lot bigger at 300-litres a piece. Each still run takes around 10 hours, with both of the little Jezebels churning out enough liquid for 330 bottles each. There is no filtration, so after each run the spirits are left to rest (and clear) for 6 – 7 weeks before they are bottled.
Whittaker’s Original Gin to taste…
Whittaker’s Original Gin has huge, syrupy sweet green notes that strike at the nose, joined by a brutishly dry coriander that grabs hold of the lemon and raises it above the din. Sweet, citrusy and spiced all at once, the gin is unique enough to be recognisable from a distance, yet styled enough to fit very comfortably into the Gin category.
Loud and spiced, Whittaker’s Original Gin hits the tongue with a green sensation so loud it’s as though an expanding foam is in the mouth, growing and growing until the thyme and bog myrtle hold your senses briefly hostage. There’s a juniper presence throughout, too, though it’s not in there in a crisp, piny capacity, but in an earthy, forest-floor way.
The lemon is quite loud when sipped neat, but with tonic it reigns supreme, reaching citrus grove heights and making for a fresh, fizzing G&T – one perfectly matched to summer sipping. Whilst trialling recipes for their Original Gin, the Whittakers, in a moment of madness, emptied the sachets of a pre-packed garnish from Spain into the still. Though it was too far-fetched for the flagship, they realised they were onto something. Thus, with pink peppercorn, hibiscus, cardamom and lemon added to the base botanical line-up, Whittaker’s Gin Pink Particular was born.
Whittaker’s Pink Particular Gin to taste…
Testament to the strength of Whittaker’s base ingredients is the fact that Pink Particular, though undoubtedly different, is recognisably from the same stable. That wonderful, syrupy, gorse-like smell dominates, though here it’s joined by a bright, popping, pink peppercorn fire. The peppercorn leaps onto the tongue, bringing out the dry spiciness of the coriander and heating the chest up from the first sip. There’s a rich, oily sweetness from the hibiscus and that bright, Limoncello-esque citrus, but – as with the original – all roads lead to juniper, which leaps up at the end to fill the mouth (thankfully as up to that point we were a little lost and looking for its trail).
With tonic, the spice burn flickers out as the bright floral hibiscus and loud lemon take hold. Th e coriander and pink peppercorn provide dust and depth, bringing such a depth of flavour to the gin that you almost feel as if you could dive into it without fear of hitting your head. Nuanced and fruity, Whittaker’s Pink Particular is a gin of many parts with a profile that’ll appeal to gin purists and new wave drinkers alike.
In total there are four expressions; there’s Whittaker’s Navy Strength (the same recipe as Whittaker’s Original Gin, but kept at a high ABV of 57%) and Whittaker’s Clearly Sloe, a genuinely novel take on the fruit gin category, in which sloe gins are soaked in the flagship gin for six months, before being macerated with liquorice for a further 24 hours and then distilled (in essence, creating a clear Sloe Gin).
Whittaker’s Navy Strength Gin to taste…
The Navy Strength is a beef’ed up version of the original, with the high ABV conspiring with the coriander to all but drown out those fresh, green notes. This smells like a gin that means business, delivering a swift spice punch to the face and a lemon so brassy its bordering on villainous.
It’s madly flavoursome, making the tongue quiver beneath its loud, burning heat. Your cheeks will flush red and your breath will catch fire as you sip it neat, but it’s worth doing so to get a real glimpse at the flavour intensity, which stays in the mouth long, long after the sip. Overall, such is the ferocious nature of the sheer amount of flavour, it’s almost soapy when tasted neat.
So rich with botanical oils is the Navy Strength that the liquid puff s up like a fit-to-burst cloud once tonic is added. The bog myrtle and thyme flirt with each other spectacularly, causing a Taylor/Burton-esquq scene as they tousle for attention. Theirs is a lost cause, though, as once the quinine kicks in the lemon is given a leg-up, flushing the mouth with a zest so real (again, if a little soapy) it’s as though you’ve taken a great big chomp out of nature’s least biteable fruit.
Whittaker’s Clearly Sloe to taste…
The Clearly Sloe edition is by far the most exciting, from an experimental perspective. This is such an unusual take on a style of gin that has dominated winter for years that one can’t help but yelp with excitement upon first sniff. Sweet berry richness couples with a nutty, marzipan depth means that no sooner had we bought the glass up to our nose were we pouring it into our mouth with mad greed. Sweet and soft, with an herbaceous green note that’s taken from the perpetually aggressive thyme and bog myrtle. The latter conspires to bring a deep, woody spice to the tongue.
The booze prevents the sweetness of the nose from joining the tongue, but once tonic is in place, the fruity hawthorne and sloe berries eek through, bringing a tart, sweet-sour taste with them. It’s a folly of a gin and one that’s worth undertaking as it’s an equal mix of brilliance and bonkers.
When the Whittakers began their gin adventure they anticipated that they’d end up making a couple of batches a month, but within weeks of launch things were moving much, much faster than anticipated. The foundation for their success is the quality of the spirits, of course, but there are other factors at play. (At the time of writing) they’re the only distillery actually making their own spirits in the Harrogate area so they’ve got a primed and ready local audience and their branding is on point.
The branding was designed in coordination with Debbie Seal and Simon Tame of dare!, an award- winning wine label designing firm based just two miles from the distillery. At the time, Toby and Jane had no idea where to even start, but when asked what they liked, they both answered “hares.” “And that was it,” Jane said. “it tied in beautifully to where we live, Harewell, especially as we have so many beautiful hares in our fields and surrounding countryside.” The bottles are all colour co-ordinated, with an intricate sketch of a hare emblazoned across each one. They’re genuinely beautiful, with a beauty that manages to convey both a home-made, artisanal look alongside a real premium vibe.
Overall, we’re in love!
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