Full name: Johnny Neill
Role: Founder of Marylebone Gin and Whitley Neill
DOB: July 1972
Website: http://www.whitleyneill.com / www.marylebonegin.com
Fun Fact: Has a soft spot for Elephant ornaments and collects them – all shapes, sizes and colours.
Hi Johnny – great to be speaking with you again! Thanks for taking the time. We’ll focus a bit more on the new gin, seeing as we’ve covered more of your past in the previous interview.
So, how did you decide on the botanical profile and relatively high ABV for this one? Are these botanicals associated specifically with the area of Marylebone, or did you pick them purely for the flavour profile? (or something else?)
I’ve based Marylebone around the Pleasure Gardens that used to sit around 100 yards from where our new pot still is now sitting. A couple of the floral botanicals – lemon balm and lime flower would very probably have been sitting in the Gardens themselves, our other botanicals are traditional gin botanicals and sourced from all over the globe but I was trying to evoke something more floral that drew from the gardens.
I decided on the higher abv because I didn’t want to be diluting the flavours and aromas too much with water, I think this helps deliver a nice robust of flavour but you’ll also find that this is a delicate gin when you try it!
How did you end up working with the Marylebone Hotel? You said that your family has an association with the area, going back quite some time right? Am I right in saying that you used to live there, too?
I met with Din Jusufi, the Bar manager of 108 Bar & Brasserie, Din is very passionate about gin and interested in distilling. It is fantastic to have the support of the hotel owners on placing our still into the bar and we are going to develop some very exciting new expressions using Isabella, our new pot still.
In terms of a family association with Marylebone, yes my family has been associated with the area since the early 1980’s when my parents bought a flat in Paddington street, I’ve always loved the area and I lived in a Marylebone mews for around 10 years from the mid-1990’s – there isn’t a better spot in London!
If you were trapped on a desert island for a year (Castaway style) and could only bring one bottle of something to drink – what would you take with you?
That’s a tricky one! I think I’d take a bottle of Mature Irish Whiskey, I’m a big fan of the older Bushmills expressions, they’re very smooth and full of character, lovely for sipping on their own…
Considering the amount of gin available these days, do you think we have, or will ever, hit ‘peak gin’? Are there any trends or directions that the industry is taking you think we should look out for?
I think there is still room for growth in the number of gins, the speed of growth will probably slow somewhat over the next few years but there is still much to play with and certainly in the UK the consumer is having fun trying all the new recipes. Flavoured gin is an interesting area at the moment, also people working with interesting base spirits.
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the gin business?
It’s full of variety, today I’ve been looking at gift packaging for Marylebone, tomorrow I’ve got a brand immersion session on Whitley Neill and the following day I will be walking the streets with samples and visiting accounts, next week working on a new gin – the wonderful things is that you never get bored there is so much to do!
What’s your greatest/most memorable professional moment been, so far?
When Whitley Neill won the Gin Trophy at the International Wine & Spirits Competition.
What’s your philosophy, summed up in a sentence?
Passion, quality, fun & hard work!
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?
There have been some tough times building Whitley Neill, probably the hardest period was the credit crisis of 2008/9. You have to keep grafting but often you need the timing to be right and a fair amount of luck to keep your business alive!
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work – food industry or otherwise? Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from? Do you have any specific culinary influences?
There’s no specific culinary inspiration, certainly from an inspiration point of view my parents have been paramount. I’m one of five children and Mum always instilled a sense of right and wrong in us and a healthy level of competitiveness! Dad is a triple-Olympian, he captained Great Britain at Hockey and so there has been much to inspire and aspire to all round.
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
I love meeting people, getting out into the trade and talking about products and drinks. What I enjoy least is the admin.
What advice would you give to aspiring drinks entrepreneurs who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Keep working hard, believe in your brand and believe in yourself. Try to find like-minded people early on to partner with, you can’t do it all on your own.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
Prior to working in drinks I was an analyst in the city, looking at large property portfolios but I think that if I hadn’t been drawn to spirits I would be working in the beer industry in some capacity.
If you could get anyone to try the gin (fictional or real, living or dead) who would you pick? Assume that they go on to be your brand ambassador…
Since we are in Marylebone I reckon Sherlock Holmes would make a fine ambassador!
What’s your ultimate aim and goal for what you’re doing at HJ Neill and your various drinks? If you could achieve anything with it, what would you pick? Money and reality are no obstacle, so shoot for the moon…
Ultimately I’d love it if HJ Neill Ltd continued to evolve into a prosperous family business covering most of the spirits categories, perhaps also beer – and that my children, if they so desired, could take up the mantle and continue to grow it and enjoy working in this great industry.
Where next for you and the business?
I’m working on a new Marylebone gin at the moment, based around a locally foraged botanical, something from the gardens in Marylebone that sits nicely alongside the current gin. In fact I’ve just been in China to launch our Gelston’s Old Irish Whiskey, it’s a Belfast brand that my Great Great-Grandfather Harry Neill purchased from Samuel Gelston in 1869.
We currently have a 25yr Single Malt with more expressions to follow soon and a launch in the USA later this year. Finally we’ve just brought two new expressions of Rum Sixty-Six into the UK, a 6 year old and a 12 year old Cask strength, they are beautiful, award-winning, rums with lots of heritage and provenance. All are distilled, aged and bottled at Foursquare distillery in Barbados.
Anything I missed that you’d like to include here?
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions…
If your business was forced to change from a purveyor of delicious spirits into a martial arts dojo, what style would you guys teach and what music would you play in your gym to get people fired up?
Wow, tough one – it would have to be Karate, great for fitness and movement.
I’d be playing “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor – my daughter doesn’t stop singing it and I can’t get it out of my head!
If you had to have any character from Egyptian mythology come and work with you, who would you employ?
Ramesses the Great would do a great job I reckon. It would be good to have a celebrity Pharaoh out on the streets. Streetwise, battle-hardened but clearly passionate about drinks he would be perfect for seeding any brand, he just didn’t stop fighting!
If you had to be transformed into any kind of household appliance, but retained your memories, ability to speak and personality, what would you pick?
Hmm, I reckon the Toaster!
I think I’d enjoy chatting to people first thing in the morning whilst they are preparing for their day. Clearly some people are better in the morning than others but there ought to be some interesting conversations…
Oh and I love the smell of freshly baked bread but on the downside I would probably struggle with the heat…