Meet the maker – Johnny Neill, Whitley Neill Gin

Lucy Britner catches up with the entrepreneur to talk flavours, family and future plans. 

The City of London Distillery lies beneath a narrow London lane, just off Fleet Street. Earlier this year, the bar, gin lab and distillery became home to Halewood Artisanal Spirits’ Whitley Neill gin brand.

At the bottom of the staircase, visitors to the distillery are greeted by a Whitley and Neill family tree – which also includes links to the Greenall gin dynasty and Samuel Gelston’s Irish whiskey. Below the sepia-toned moustachioed gents of yesteryear are two familiar faces: one is Jurassic Park star Sam Neill and the other is Sam’s second cousin’s son. He happens to be Johnny Neill, founder of Whitley Neill gin. 

Neill (of gin fame) tells us that the production of Whitley Neill, which had previously taken place at Langley near Birmingham in 12,000-litre stills, now all happens here, in the heart of the City. He points to the more modest distillery behind us, which is encased in a glass room, opposite a long bar.

“It is more labour intensive,” he says of the smaller still set-up, which features two 200-litre copper pot stills called Clarissa and Jennifer (after TV’s Two Fat Ladies) and a larger, 500-litre still called Elizabeth (after the Queen). “We have to run the stills more often. We have ordered an additional 500-litre still and we are hoping it will arrive by the end of the year,” he adds. 

These days, Neill plays more of a global brand ambassador role, though he still dabbles, especially when it comes to experimentation. He shows us his new rotary evaporator (rotovap), which he says he will use to “play with flavours”, though he’s careful not to divulge any future NPD plans. 

Like many gin producers, Neill hasn’t been shy when it comes to flavour innovation. One of the most recent additions is a Watermelon & Kiwi extension, which has enjoyed success in Tesco.

“Tropical flavours have been popular this year,” he adds, “because people haven’t been able to get away on holiday.”

Looking forward, he predicts more floral and blossom flavours will be popular, as well as exotic fruits.

“On a smaller scale, there will be more local, earthy or floral flavours,” he says, highlighting the number of local distillery openings. He mentions his other distillery project, Berkshire Botanical, which is currently awaiting approval for a second, 200-litre still. 

He also predicts that some of these smaller distillers will move into vodka and rum – a trend that can already be seem with the likes of Masons in Yorkshire, which moved into the vodka category in early October.

“There is still growth in gin, but I think the rate of growth is slowing,” he adds. “Buyers will be more selective and rationalise their ranges, but gin will still be bigger than it was before the craze.”

As we finish our chat, a group of bartenders and sommeliers emerge from the gin lab, having made their own botanical blends.

Tomorrow, a group from a major supermarket will be in there, making their concoctions under the watchful eye of Neill.

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