THAT’S THE SPIRIT
Raising a glass to the rise and rise of Whitley Neill, the UK’s number one premium gin
Gin is in Johnny Neill’s blood — figuratively speaking, of course (but hey, it’s five o’clock somewhere). His family’s involvement with the process of making the spirit stretches back eight generations; a highly successful, award-winning history that also encompasses more personal moments from Neill’s teenage years, when he learned to knock up his dad’s nightly martinis, impressively before he was even old enough to legally drink them himself.
For a while, life got in the way of Neill’s seemingly inevitable destiny, but when an archetypal office job began to take its toll, he decided to swap spreadsheets for copper stills — and Whitley Neill was born. More than 15 years on, it’s firmly established as the UK’s first and foremost premium gin. Now, a distillery move to the City of London has put the brand right in the heart of gin’s spiritual home.
In the beginning
Whitley Neill gin first hit highball glasses back in 2004, but the seeds were planted two centuries earlier. Founder Johnny Neill is a descendent of businessman Thomas Greenall, who founded Greenall’s Brewery in St Helen’s in 1762. Beer and gin have been the family’s bread and butter ever since. “My father was a director of Greenall Whitley, which was the largest independent brewery in the UK in the Sixties,” says Neill. “They also owned G&J Greenall Distillers, so he was involved in both.”
Neill first developed a curiosity about the family legacy when he discovered his grandmother’s collection of old bottles under the stairs at her house. This fascination inspired him to turn his hand to mixing drinks for his father. “Dad used to have two gin martinis a night and I would make them for him. I always loved the aroma of the gin and, later, the flavour. I often dreamed of creating my own,” he says.
That dream lay dormant for a number of years while he worked in the City, but as his apathy for the nine to five grew, he eventually decided to make it a reality. “I was working for a fund management company in London, sitting at a desk, feeling bored and losing my eyesight from staring at documents all day long. I wanted to get out there and do something different, to start meeting people and add some variety to my life.”
So Neill did what so many people do when faced with a difficult life decision and turned to the bottle. Only in this case he wasn’t drinking from it; he was distilling.
Back in the early 2000s, when gin languished as a rarely used staple of your grandmother’s vintage drinks trolley (which, coincidentally, are also now incredibly popular), there wasn’t much experimentation going on in the world of distilling. That all changed when Neill decided to base his Original Gin around baobab and Cape gooseberries, two South African nontraditional botanicals that allowed his product to stand out from the crowd. “For the last five or six years we’ve been at the forefront of the flavoured gin movement, and hopefully we’re staying ahead of the game with some of the new blends we’re creating,” he says. “Still, I think it’s important to remember that our base spirit is at the core of it all.”
Flavour is a crucial element of gin, but as with any alcohol, where it’s made is also important to the character. Think about it: would you prefer your Irish stout crafted in Dublin or Macclesfield? Exactly.
London has always played a major role in the history of gin. So popular did the spirit become in the 18th century, with around a quarter of the capital’s households distilling their own, that parliament passed the Gin Act of 1751 to try to limit consumption. That’s what makes the City the perfect new location for Whitley Neill’s operations. “The move to London gives Whitley Neill a home,” says Neill. “There’s no better place to be distilling a proper London Dry Gin than in the birthplace of that very expression.”
When it opened in 2012, the City of London Distillery was the first in the City for almost 200 years, and it remains its only working distillery. Moving there from the Northwest is allowing Whitley Neill to work in smaller batches and really focus on excellence. Previously, the gin was being distilled in a 12,000-litre still called Jenny, but batch size has now been reduced.
“We’re now using Elizabeth, a 500-litre still, so we’re able to have a much more stringent view on quality,” says Neill. “We’re also producing our own base spirit rather than buying it in, so the entire process is under our control.”
The next generation
“Now that we have a home, we plan to get people to visit the distillery as soon as restrictions allow,” says Neill. “We’ll be having lots of gin schools — getting people down to learn about exactly how we make the gin; touching, feeling, nosing, and then getting them to make their own bottle to take home.
“In terms of the future, it looks very bright for the gin category. There are so many new distilleries across the country — over 100 just in the last year. The UK is at the forefront of it all, but we’re only just dipping our toe into export markets.” No one can predict the future, but with its new London home and continued creative disruption, we foresee history repeating itself for Whitley Neill Gin.
To discover more about Whitley Neill Original Dry gin, visit whitleyneill.com
‘The move to the City of London Distillery
gives Whitley Neill a home’