Ever had a Whitley Neill G&T? You should, they’re delicious…
We sit down with the scion to the famous Whitley Neill name (8th generation, don’t you know?) and ask him a few questions about distilling, self promotion and fist fights.
So, why the African connection? I notice some African botanicals in the ingredients – Baobab fruit and Cape Gooseberries…
My wife is South African and I wanted to distil some more interesting botanicals in order to deliver a more intense, more exotic gin. Baobab fruit pulp is used in a “lemonade” drink in rural areas of Africa and is actually a super-fruit, the pulp has 6 times more vitamin C than an orange and twice the calcium of milk. The pulp we use if both Organic and Fair Trade. The Cape Gooseberries are aromatic and bitter sweet, both of these are very different to the traditional citrus used in standard gins.
Could you give us an outline of how the gin is created, right from the beginning and right up to enjoyment at home or in a bar? I read that you use antique copper machinery in the process. How does that affect things?
The gin is distilled in very small batches in one of England’s oldest Copper pot stills. We use a very premium, triple-distilled wheat grain spirit as the base of Whitley Neill.This is added to “Constance” our copper still. We then add purified water to the still to bring the ABV down in order to be able to add all our botanicals. All this is done the evening before distillation and we warm the still for about 45 mins to start the masceration process and then leave the spirit overnight.
The next day we fire up the still once more and start the full distillation which can take circa 6 ½ hrs. All the way through the heating process we are nosing the gin and testing the strength of the alcohol, what we are looking for is the middle part for the distillation – the heart. After taking some initial impurities into the feints tank we turn the spirits tap and syphon off the middle part of the run which on average comes through at circa 80% abv. The final parts of the distillation are not what we want in terms of flavour either and we again remove these to the feints tank.
The result of the distillation is a very concentrated gin recipe and to bring out the full flavours we blend this with more of the base spirit to deliver a high strength gin, we then blend again with purified, demineralised water and bottle Whitley Neill at 42%, this is purely because I feel that the balance of flavours is best at this strength.
How did you originally refine/develop your recipe/formula?
The final recipe took about 18 months to perfect. I trialled around 20 different African botanicals by distilling them individually in a mini-still at the distillery. Once we’d cracked which ones delivered the most suitable flavour and aromas it was then a matter of developing these flavours as part of a larger, juniper-led recipe. I wanted to make sure that this recipe, whilst unique was based on the use of traditional gin botanicals as well.
As far as I can tell, your roots run deep… you’re fourth generation from a gin distilling family? How does that work – did you grow up discussing juniper berries and ABV?
Yes, my Grandmother’s family are from a long line of brewers and distillers from Warrington, in fact my ancestor Thomas Greenall, 8 generations back, started what was to become Greenall Whitley in the year 1762. My Father was a Director, My Great Grandfather was Managing Director and my Great Uncle Chairman of G&J Greenall so you could say that Gin is in the blood. It’s always been a dream of mine to create my own gin, something traditionally distilled but with some unique and interesting botanicals.
Did you ever have a point where you knew that the business was taking off, or that you’d ‘made it’? Do you remember that point?
I don’t think that’s ever been a thought, I always have been and always will strive to get more and more people to taste Whitley Neill – I always love to see the faces and feedback from people after their first sample, once they’ve tried it they’re hooked!
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
I love meeting the people, I love talking about Whitley Neill, explaining what it is different about it, how it is made and the various ways it can be served.
What I enjoy the least – Driving!
In your opinion, what makes a great gin?
A clean, quality spirit that is predominant in juniper but balanced enough to show ALL the other botanicals in their best light.
If you could invent a completely new use for gin, what would it be?
As an Anti-Perspirant / Deodorant!
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the business?
There’s no such thing as a standard day, I can find myself doing bartender training, looking at the development of POS for the brand, worrying about stock and production issues, dealing with or presenting to retailers and searching for new overseas distributors, that’s what I enjoy so much – the variety.
What’s your distilling philosophy, summed up in a sentence?
Quality ingredients, traditional methods and a passion for your product.
What advice would you give to aspiring food/drinks entrepreneurs and distillers who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Follow your dream, persevere and importantly make sure you get other people on board at a very early stage. Use your connections, use your family and friends, they have much to offer you.
Remember to sell yourself, in the beginning you really are the brand so don’t be shy to talk to everyone, including your family about it – a lot!
And, if you had to get into a no holds barred, 20 round fist fight with any cartoon character, who would you square off against?
I’d have to say I’d like to have a go at Mickey Mouse, if I have to sit through Fantasia again I think he’s in for a bruising!