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Johnny Neill – Whitley Neill

Johnny Neill Interview whitley neill gin distiller
Johnny Neill Interview whitley neill gin distiller
Written by Gin Foundry

Johnny Neill, arguably, was one of Craft Gin’s pioneers, releasing his namesake gin way back in 2005. It’s only in the last couple of years that he’s begun to expand into other flavours, so we sat down with him to hear the inspiration behind each of the new gins.

You were one of the early names in the modern era of Gin and are well known for your flagship. In the last 18 months, though, you’ve brought out a range of sister expressions. What triggered the move towards this wider offering?

Yes I was pretty early, it wasn’t easy back in those days to gain distribution for a premium gin either in the on or off -trade; consumers just weren’t given the choice in those days – how things have changed! It did take a long time to build a solid foundation for the original Whitley Neill.

For quite a while I lacked the right support to be able to deliver proper distinctive and new innovation. I have to be grateful to the Halewood family for their help and support and also for bringing Stewart Hainsworth into their family business. Since Stewart has arrived we’ve had the opportunity to really experiment properly and to develop our new expressions in the right way, it really has been a breath of fresh air.

What are the biggest changes you’ve observed since Gin became a thing?

There are certainly a lot of new entrants! More “local” gins, more flavoured gins and more gin liqueurs trying to take advantage of the category growth. The on-trade have continued to grow their gin selections and consumers are willing to try new things. There is still a lot going for a great gin with good provenance and a good story.

You’re a descendant of the Greenall family! Was gin an inevitability for you?

I don’t think it was inevitable. My Father left Greenall Whitley in the 1970’s so I had no real involvement in the company but it did spark a real interest in both brewing and Gin for me which I have never let go! I’d always dreamed of creating my own gin and so this is where all of the current projects stem from.

Talking of projects… what have you been working on this year, new gins aside?

I wouldn’t say I put in place any specific goals for 2017. This year has been about raising awareness and making sure that we develop the gins in the right way. I want to make sure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to taste the range. We have been really active with tastings and people are definitely recognising the brands much more.

Tell us about your use of nettles. It’s an unusual botanical, albeit one that works particularly well in gin. What made you pick it, and was it easy develop a flavour around it?

The JJ Whitley brand is all based around my Great Grandfather. As well as being the MD of Greenall Whitley he was also the son of Thomas, the Rector of Daresbury in Cheshire. In fact, he actually grew up in the same Vicarage as Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson). With this in mind we were looking for botanicals that you would inherently find in such a garden and nettle stood out as something very interesting. I grew up drinking nettle cordials, so it wasn’t very unusual to move towards distilling them. We distil cut/dried nettles, alongside the likes of citrus peel, liquorice and cassia and I think it works very well. Hedgerow fruits tend to pair really well with them as well.

Quince has been enjoying a renaissance of late, too. What made you choose it?

Actually the Quince is all to do with my Grandfather, Freddie, who was an Army man. He was very well travelled – he even enjoyed a year travelling along the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok in the early 1920’s, but he also spent quite a bit of time in Pakistan and also Palestine in between the wars, where Quince grows in abundance. Whenever we did Christmas at his house there was always a large cheese board and alongside were the quince jelly and quince jam – it was a big favourite of his. I enjoy the ripeness of quince and the fruitiness that comes with it.

And why did you pick rhubarb and ginger as a combination for a gin?

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! Most people seem to think that Rhubarb and Ginger pair well together, so it seemed like a lovely way to go – a wonderful English botanical paired with exotic spice.

Have you got a favourite of the new fruit ones? Or is that like asking you to pick your favourite child?

I love what bartenders are doing with the new fruit gins; many of the cocktails they create are stunning. I’d say that the Rhubarb & Ginger is probably my favourite of the bunch, but as you say it’s difficult to choose!

Can you tell us about the Marylebone Gin? How did it come about?

I’d been thinking about developing Marylebone Gin for a few years. I have a soft spot for the area, as I always visited when I was young and I was lucky enough to live there for around 10 years.

Marylebone is vibrant, eclectic and full of history. It is just wonderful walking the streets – Regent’s Park, Sherlock Holmes, Marylebone High Street, Selfridges, Marble Arch, Lord Nelson. There are so many things on off er right in the heart of London.

And how do the London pleasure gardens of old inspire it?

I knew about the Pleasure Gardens from when I lived in the area. They were a real destination in Georgian times and it got me thinking about Gin and the important role it played in that period in London in particular. Hogarth illustrated “Gin Lane” in 1751, at the same time the Marylebone Pleasure Gardens were at their height.

What I wanted to create 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 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. That said, it is definitely a lot more palatable than the gins of that era…!

Johnny Neill Interview whitley neill gin distiller