Whitley Neill Gins
It is unlikely indeed that anyone with a tendency towards gin and a working set of eyes will have failed to notice the technicolored range of fruit gin bottles marching their way out of the Whitley Neill stable over the past few months. Rhubarb & Ginger and Quince emerged in 2017 and just one year later Raspberry and Blood Orange were born. With their vibrant look and excellent price point, the gins have turned heads, but with their syrupy natures and, well, lack of juniper predominance, they’ve also sparked some heated debate.
How far away from traditional can a gin move without shaking off its label? We decided to sip our way through the range to find out…
Whitley Neill Quince Gin – 43% ABV
Johnny’s inspiration from the quince gin came from his Grandfather, Freddie, a well-travelled Army man who spent a great deal of time in Pakistan and Palestine. He gained something of a penchant for quince during this time, so during Johnny’s childhood Christmasses, a quince-laden cheese board was standard. The flavour, particularly its ripe, fruitiness, stuck with him, so when it came time to make a fruit gin, it was the first port of call.
The bright yellow glass holds a soft yellow liquid inside it, one that smells so sweet you can feel your teeth dissolving right there on the spot. There’s a hint, deep down inside, of the green, savoury profile of Whitley Neill‘s original gin, but it has little room to move beneath that superbly sweet, almost grape-like quince.
This is delicious. Before we say anything else, we’ll say that. But… there’s a but coming. There is little else on the taste bar a flush of quince and a hint – a very, very small hint – of the underlying gin. A green flush and a waxy pine pops up, but it disappears just as quickly as it arrives, drowned in an oozing tidal wave of sugary spirit. That sweetness, incidentally, is so prominent it masks the 43% ABV and could easily fool you into thinking you were in liqueur territory.
It’s a refreshing G&T, no doubt, with the quinine from the tonic and the candied quince doing a sharp, citrus waltz, but those with more of a penchant for the classic really ought to stick to Whitley Neill’s flagship spirit. That said, neat over ice and with a cheeseboard… well, you’ve found a new heaven.
Whitley Neill Rhubarb & Ginger Gin – 43% ABV
“We’d been looking around the world at different botanicals and then we thought – why not try to balance things with something from closer to home,” Johnny said when explaining the strange mix of English country garden ingredients with Asian exoticism. “Most people seem to think that rhubarb and ginger pair well together, so it seemed like a lovely way to go.”
Lovely is one word for it. The nose is all fizzy cola bottles, whilst the mouth is those click clack against your teeth rhubarb and custard sweets of yesteryear. Note that in both circumstances, despite the gulf between flavour differences, the general impression is one of sugar. It’s just so candied that it attacks the gin within, and while little green notes of fresh rhubarb rise to bring some element of sensibility to proceedings, the overall effect is as far removed from gin as… well, flavoured vodka.
Tonic doesn’t bring enough of a difference to merit the title, either. While undoubtedly flavoursome and easy to drink, in our opinion this turns into an ideal G&T for people who just don’t like gin.
Whitley Neill Raspberry Gin – 43% ABV
The scent of raspberries is so strong you feel as though the little blighters are right in your business, demanding your wallet and telling you not to scream. Honestly, the raspberry hit is so intense you can almost feel the imminent arrival of berries set to burst in your mouth, although they’re joined by a stewed, sweet hibiscus and fiery coriander. Compared to the Rhubarb (above) or the Blood Orange (below) – this is a lot more realistic as a raspberry smell than the others, whose more artificial interpretations of their respective fruit’s nature often overwhelms the aroma upon each revisit.
You’d have to search far – very far – to find any juniper to taste here, so as a Gin it’s a no from us. As a cocktail spirit, though, it works. It’s so forceful in its delivery of flavour that it’ll cut its way through a million potential mixers, and the aftertaste, which really doesn’t take too long to arrive, is a surprisingly herbal affair.
With tonic it’s… odd. The quinine and greens of the underlying gin run away together, leaving the raspberries in the dust and resulting in an aftertaste that is nowhere near where it needs to be. Tonic isn’t always necessary here though, and just thinking about how this would work all dressed up in a Clover Club has us all flustered. Try it in a cocktail. It works.
Whitley Neill Blood Orange Gin – 43% ABV
Crammed full of Sicilian oranges, the Whitley Neill Blood Orange Gin is an intense take on the spirit. So oily it feels luxurious, the oranges have given their all and then some to the gin, bringing huge, sweet perfumed and scented soap that smells so rich you’ll want to bathe in it.
The sweetness so prevalent across this range is the first to hit the mouth, smashing into the teeth with the full force of a waterfall. The orange is huge and present, and while a ginny heart remains, it spends its entire existence clouded in citrus, as though it were trapped in a bubble. Tonic ups the citrus sharpness infinitely, but also paves the way for the more pithy, earthy elements of the skin to come through. It tastes as though whole oranges were used here, but now just the peel. We’d have it in a Martini, but again tonic doesn’t do it justice.
There’s no doubt an audience for these gins, but it’s just not us. We’ve seen this audience time and again incidentally, on each occasion we use one of the range in a tasting, they are incredibly well received and prove ridiculously popular. They are clearly well made, if a little on the synthesised side of flavour in our opinion. That said (and actually, perhaps because of this), what the Whitley Neill range does do, with its absolute booming flavours, is add gasoline to a debate that has slowly been burning beneath the surface since the very early days of the Gin resurgence. When is a gin not a gin? The rules are many, but the crux of it all is that in all types of gin, the predominant flavour must be juniper.
We’ve all observed the Gin category whirling around like a spinning top in a rage, with obscure flowers, strange fruits and loud base spirits placing our taste buds in a strangle hold. So weak is the whisper of juniper at times it’s as though a berry was thrown over the tank during the distillation run to appease those who make the rules (yet never enforce them). But that – from a category prospective point of view – just isn’t good enough. Judged on flavour alone, the Whitley Neill flavoured gin range, arguably, boils down to a stack of nice botanical vodkas in fancy dress. Why the disguise? Well… Gin is in, whereas Vodka has, for the time being at least, about as much cool-factor as a supply teacher.
In their defence, each bottle does state quite clearly that it’s a “Flavoured” type Gin and when you look at their sales, they are up across the board including the classic Dry Gin, so clearly as people discover one they try the others and it is helping to introduce some people to the category. Moreover, you’d never buy a Blood Orange or a Raspberry Gin and not expect there to be a massive note of that fruit within. One could also say that when you buy a fluorescent coloured bottle, that you also draw some expectation as to the contents but that’s for another day… Either way – we’ve got no problem with any of these of these truths.
It must also be said that in their flagship London Dry, there is a balanced and tasty gin that’s rightfully globally respected. Therefore, some room is naturally afforded for them as team to explore alternatives that are a little shier on the juniper, and that are understood to have a notable signature botanical lead. We fully appreciate that the range is there as an alternative to their flagship gin and is designed as something of a departure from it, aimed at those looking for something different. This is also fine.
Nevertheless, in our opinion, juniper isn’t really a feature in these “gins” and we’re uncomfortable with them being named that way. The odd slip here and there in an otherwise solid range could be forgiven, but four non-gins means that the range exists at the expense of both the category and the team’s original proposition, as the majority of it is now flavoured vodka with a gin label. If these sounds harsh, it is, but it is said purely because Johnny Neill and the contracted distillery who make these are brilliant makers. They are of a calibre few ever reach in their capacity to create world class offerings and this is why we truly despair at the liquid in front of us. Few are in their league, yet this is far from a glorious achievement…
Is it gin aside questioning, a big part of the problem Vodka had before its demise (in terms of public opinion that is) was flavours; everything became artificial.
You could get cupcake vodka, cappuccino vodka, marshmallow vodka… all synthetically flavoured and not only were they a little bit weird, they were all a little bit, well, wrong too. The Raspberry, the Rhubarb, and to a large extent the Blood Orange in this range all feel like the artificial versions of themselves. We’ll give credit to the Quince that’s been given half a chance to be more like the jelly on those cheese boards and thankfully a little more natural. If juniper is only there as a ghost of its former self across the other three – the fruits have been turned plastic figurines.
There’s a huge audience out there looking for naturally flavoured, well crafted spirits and there’s no need to judge them as anything other than that when appropriately named. The issue is therefore twofold. To name it as it should be, and distill them in a way that doesn’t “Disney-fy” the flavours to an artificial pastiche of what’s on the label. Give people the real deal with the right name and they will love it, and rightly so.
As of yet however, there is no one really catering to that thirsty old market and because of it, we have to judge this range by how it wants to be perceived – Gin – and thus our doom and gloom here.
Unfortunately (for everyone, as giving a brand an unfavourable review kills relationships and we suspect that this will do exactly that, much to our eternal regret), the Whitley Neill range intensifies the debate on what constitutes a gin, as well as the need to start accepting there must be a place for flavoured vodka today that can can be discussed without its former stigma.
From a purely selfish point of view, the more distilleries and drinkers that embrace the idea of renewing that category, the easier it will be for us all to pick up a bottle of gin and know that it isn’t going to taste like boiled sweets. It’ll taste like juniper, which is what we’re into.
For more information about Whitley Neill, visit the website: whitleyneill.com
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