“It was Christmas, I was working for a property fund and I wanted to get out”, says Johnny Neill, founder of Whitley Neill and the man behind the handcrafted gin of the same name, as he recalls the “snapping moment” ten years ago in which he realised that “you only live once and you gotta do what you love.”
What he loved turned out to be gin. Being part of a family with ties to distilling and brewing tracing back to 1762, the spirit was always close to him, although the inspiration to start on his own business came from a region very far away from his hometown in Warrington, England.
Africa was the land that captivated Johnny’s thoughts when he was developing Whitley Neill Gin, his heart had previously been captured by a South African woman he met in France during a ski trip. With brains and soul aligned, the process to develop a gin that was meaningful on a personal level but made commercial sense begun. “We tried like 24 different African botanicals and work on the gin for about 18 months. At the end, we decided to include Cape gooseberries -also known as physalis- and the fruit of the baobab tree.”
The Tree of Life
The baobab is known by many names: “the tree of life”, “the upside down tree”, “the monkey bread tree” and more. “Some baobabs live over 1,000 years, and their fruit and bark is used for many things, from medicine to cooking”, explains Johnnie, adding that for Whitley Neill Gin, he uses the powdered fruit.
Per every bottle sold, a donation is made to Tree Aid, an NGO that educates people on how to gain an income from the sustainable use of the baobab tree
Johnnie adds that the tree trunk that appears on the brand’s logo is a baobab’s and that the bright orange colour was chosen to evoke the stunning African sunset. A traditional African pattern and a black bottle complete the design with which Johnnie celebrates the continent that inspired him.
What’s a Premium Juniper
“Besides the baobab and the Cape gooseberries, we use seven other botanicals -juniper, coriander, sweet orange peel, sweet lemon peel, Angelica root, Cassia bark and Orris root- often found in gin, the most important being juniper”, Johnnie explains that they source “top quality juniper” and that not all junipers are the same as the best ones will have the largest concentration of oils, which is key to properly infuse the flavours in the spirit.
“At the moment we’re sourcing the juniper from Macedonia, these have a good deal of essential oils. We tried to develop long term relationships with our producers, which also helps with the consistency.”
“You Need your Gin to be Versatile”
When asked whether Whitley Neill gin is better served as a sipping spirit or used for cocktails, Johnnie explains that “you need your gin to be versatile” and that in order to offer a product that people will be able to enjoy on its own or with ice, “you need to create a smooth drink with depth of character.”
In order to achieve that, Whitley Neill is distilled as a London Dry gin, and Johnnie explains that it’s “triple distilled to get the base spirit and then one more time with the botanicals, this way the resulting spirit has body, flavour and texture. We have a beautiful old copper still which gives it a crisp, clean feel as well.”
“I Hope Irish Gin Drinkers are Experimental”
Although Johnnie has been exporting since the begging, his incursion into the Irish market is recent. Aware of the booming gin scene in the country, he’s confident Whitley Neill “will sit well” and he hopes that “Irish gin drinkers are experimental enough to keep trying new things.”
Gin “is an exciting spirit” for consumers because no two are the same and “you get to play around with the botanicals to create something unique.” In fact, he adds that he’s currently working on some new expressions like a quince infused gin and a new range of bottles in a “more traditionally English style.” These are bottled under the JJ Whitley brand, named after his grandfather.
“My father was Director of the Greenall’s family distillery in Warrington, my great grandfather was Managing Director and my great uncle became Chairman”, he adds, and with all that heritage behind his back, I asked him, why to start from scratch with a new name instead of capitalising on the prestige built by generations? Johnnie explains that his father left the distillery before he got involved but that once he realised he wanted to work with gin that didn’t stopped him. “I wanted to do something softer, and I had the dream of coming up with my own recipe.”
It’s a good time to make that dream a reality as gin’s popularity keeps rising. “I hope this is sustainable, it’s an exciting time for gin as it doesn’t seem to be slowing down”, Johnnie says, although as other wise people in the scene have said, “you need a strong spirit and a solid foundation” to stay in for the long game. A quarter of a millennium in gin history beating through Johnnie’s heart surely helps.
Whitley Neill Gin
Clear and with an intense nose that offers a mix between fresh fruit and tangy spice.
Citrusy and crisp, a moderate juniper character is complemented by fresh citrus and a delicate tropical fruit background.
On the spice side, a slightly resinous, pungent note cuts through the fruitiness and awakens the palate in every sip.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.