In the first of a new series about the many fascinating people who for whatever reason, decide to set up their own spirits company, we speak to Johnny Neill, creator of Whitley Neill Gin. Pictured above with the Whitley Neill Gin & Tonic Perfect Serve (see recipe below).
Give us the lowdown on (the gin part) of your family history.
My father was a Director of the distillers G&J Greenall in the late 1960s/early 1970s as well as Greenall Whitley, the family brewers based in Warrington. Dad’s uncle, John D. Whitley was Chairman and my Great Grandfather J.J.Whitley, after whom I am named, was Managing Director of the company. The Whitleys and the Greenalls inter-married, going back eight generations I am descended from Thomas Greenall who founded Greenall’s in 1762.
That’s pretty impressive stuff. With this rich heritage was it always assumed you would work in gin?
Not at all, no. My father left in the 1970s so I was never really exposed to the family firm and we moved to Devon when I was quite young. However, there was always Greenalls gin and Bombay Gin (which Greenall’s previously distilled) sitting around at home and at my grandmother’s house so I was used to seeing it there and also in the supermarkets.
When did you decide you wanted to create your own gin and why?
I moved to London after university and worked in several finance related jobs, ending up with a Property Fund Management company as an analyst delivering their performance benchmarking. It was rather dry!! Although I was working with a great team of people I spent much of my time working on accounting material and spread sheets. I suppose I’ve always dreamed of creating my own gin based around the facets of the family’s distilling heritage and quality – partly because I was never part of the family business.
How has your family history helped/hindered your career?
I think it has helped enormously. To have a family history within the alcohol industry dating back to 1762 is not something that everyone can talk about and provenance is very important in building a brand, alongside the quality of the product of course. I don’t think it inhibits the experimental side of things, it just means that I make sure that we continue to deliver the quality that has been a critical facet of the past.
So when did the inspiration for the recipe for Whitley Neill gin strike?
I’d been working on the distillation of some new English botanicals to create new flavours and aromas and they weren’t working as part of a larger recipe which had juniper and coriander at its heart. So I thought, why not look at South Africa, my wife’s home, to see whether there were some exciting flavours and aromas that could be derived from the flower, seed, root or other parts of indigenous plants there?
How did you set about capturing the spirit of Africa in a bottle?
It started with research into indigenous South African plants and moved onto the shoots, fruits and roots of these plants to understand the variety of flavours contained within them. I tried distilling over 25 African botanicals with varying success, including plants such as the protea flower, the national flower of South Africa, hoodia (a cactus) and various fynbos plants. None of them were delivering a flavour profile or aroma that partnered the juniper/coriander/citrus that make up the heart of Whitley Neill. Then I started looking at citrus as a route and stumbled across the Boabab trees and Cape Gooseberries (physalis). Both these when distilled individually delivered the very unique and very different citrus notes that are now an intrinsic part of Whitley Neill.
How long did it take to perfect the recipe?
Just over 18 months.
Tell us about the African connection…
My wife is from South Africa, I visit SA every year and look to travel to a different area of the country each time. She is my very real, living connection with Africa!
What’s so special about the Baobab?
What isn’t special about the Baobab?! It is an amazing tree with so many stories and myths behind it. Legend says that if you drink something that has had Baobab seeds soaked in it, it will protect you from being eaten by crocodiles – what more do you need?! Seriously though, the Baobab plays a very important role in rural life: the bark can be used in medicine and for making rope; the leaves are used in cooking; the seeds are high in protein and can be used to make flour and used as a coffee substitute. I could go on and on but what’s essential for Whitley Neill is the fruit pulp.
Who is your ideal customer?
I’m not sure that I have an ideal customer as such. I suppose it would be someone discerning who also likes a bit of adventure; someone who is open to trying new flavours and aromas.
The packaging is very distinctive, what was the inspiration behind it?
At the very heart of Whitely Neill is Africa and we wanted to make sure that this was represented in the bottle as well as the gin. It was important to have the Baobab tree as the distinctive, iconic logo on the bottle. Hopefully, the bottle feeds peoples inquisitive nature as well…
What’s your favourite way to enjoy Whitley Neill Gin?
There’s nothing more enjoyable than visiting the places where Whitley Neill is stocked and seeing and tasting the drinks that the wonderful bartenders around the world have created using Whitley Neill as the base spirit. I’m equally as open to a traditional Martini served up by the wonderful staff at Duke’s Hotel as I am to a quirky creation somewhere like the Shrub & Shutter in Brixton.
How do you stand out in an increasingly busy marketplace?
Tell us three things we might not know about WNG…
Dash of Peychaud’s Bitters (optional)
Topped with premium tonic water.
Shake all ingredients with ice and fine strain into a chilled Coupette. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.