Whitley Neill ~ The Gin of Life, Gincredible English Heritage with the Heart of South Africa


As regular readers will know by now, Ambassadors of Food only features places, products, foods or people, that we 'absoposilutley' really enjoy. This has a few handy advantages; it means we don't have to pretend to like things we don't and also we can take pleasure sharing experiences we feel confident you'll enjoy too. Aside from that the world has plenty of negativity in it already and we'd rather elongate the positive, as the song lyric suggests.

With this in mind it's our pleasure to bring you Whitley Neill Gin and their Brand Founder Johnny Neill.

First, let's begin with a quick crash course on the history of Gin.

Purified water and Juniper are the foundation of any Gin and the use of Juniper is steeped in history. It was used by Medieval surgeons in their teeth because they thought it warded-off the 'black death'. Dating back to the Middle Ages and based on the older Jenever, whilst Juniper berries remain Gin's main ingredient, the drink has evolved over the centuries from a herbal medicine to become one of the most popular grown up drinks. Gin was the source of the original "Dutch Courage" when William of Orange leader of the Dutch republic, along with his wife Mary, occupied both the Scottish and English thrones, it was used by British fighters in Antwerp during the Thirty Years War to calm the nerves before battle and Juniper is the ancient origin of the name Jennifer, stemming from the French genièvre - meaning Juniper. These days - as James Bond or any self respecting Martini drinker knows - the best Martinis use Gin not Vodka as the main ingredient.

Gin distilling must be in Johnny Neill's blood. He is the latest in a long line of master distillers going back to 1761 and a direct descendant of the original founders of Greenall's and Bombay Sapphire. That's about as close to a gin making dynasty as one can imagine.

So, when an 8th generation Gin maker produces a small batch variety that specifically aims to be different, whilst reflecting his passions tastes and interests, that's something to pay close attention to.  And that attention will be well rewarded because Whitley Neill is a truly great gin. 

Technically you'd class Whitley Neill as a London Dry Gin - although it's distilled in Birmingham. It's certainly, distinctive - unusually smooth, so much so that you'd be happy to sip it neat. It's light and has various citrus tones and a certain something you'd certainly enjoy but be hard pushed to identify - thanks to some unusual botanicals.


We met Johnny at the rather fun Bunny Chow on Wardour Street, and were keen to discover the 'ginsperation' behind Whitley Neill.

First and foremost, Johnny's wife is from Durban in South Africa. He wanted to create a gin that captured the heart, essence and unique character of Africa, and to do that he searched out unusual botanical elements. Some more traditional botanicals are added and then the Gin is distilled in a traditional way, incorporating the skills and expertise of 8 generations of master Gin makers.

In Johnny's words, Whitley Neill is "very much an English Gin but very much South African".

Any great taste is a combination of ingredients and method. We'll come to some of the fascinating and very different ingredients soon, but initially let's consider the process.

England's oldest copper pot still is used to distil Whitley Neill Gin the traditional way, in Birmingham, in small batches. The Langley still is over 105 years old and named 'Constance' after the master distiller's late mother. Copper produces an even heat across the surface and doesn't tarnish the gin's flavour unlike some other metals.

We asked Johnny to share a few Gin making pearls of wisdom - something to illustrate the sort of techniques and knowledge perfected after so many generations of Gin making. Very generously Johnny shared a few of his accrued insights. You have to actually touch the material coming out of the 'Gin safe' - that is the container where the botanicals and other ingredients are added to the still - to feel for texture and oiliness as the small batches come through. That's how to detect the quality of the material at particular stages in the process. The full distillation takes many hours and the heat levels and timings are an important factor to the end result. A traditional method used to this very day is that the distiller sits on the outside of the still reading a newspaper. When it gets too hot to sit, that's the point at which to turn off the heat and go home leaving the heated mixture to cool and concentrate for 12 hours.  

Whitley Neill specifically uses Juniper from the highest regions of Macedonia, which gives the Gin its sweet yet bitter flavour. Russian Coriander seeds balance citrus aromas with spicy tones of ginger and pepper and slightly more Coriander is used than most gins.

The first thing I noticed on trying Whitley Neill Gin was a whole load of new tastes, with some familiar elements but many pleasing new ones. Speaking with Johnny, he took us through some of these. 

First and foremost is Baobab fruit. In its native South Africa, Baobab is known as the Tree of Life because of its ability to store water in its wide trunk - impressively they can hold over 100,000 litres of water! A fun fact for some future quiz is that the Sunland Baobab tree has been carbon dated and it's age is estimated to be 1,060 years, it's large enough to have a bar or café inside the tree. Baobab has a citrus pulp with a distinctive taste - something like grapefruit but not quite so harsh, and it contains more vitamin C than an orange. The Baobab used in Whitley Neill comes from a Cooperative on the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Clearly Baobab is the signature botanical in Whitley Neill and that's why the distinctive silhouette of an upturned one with the roots pointing up, is the brand's symbol; with the logo adorning the Gin's individual and stylish matt black bottles.  


The African theme continues with what we know better as Physalis fruit here, but are better known as Cape Gooseberries in South Africa.
Then there are the floral botanicals. Angelica Root is used for it's dry, earthy and woody notes. Florentine Iris, where the bulbs of the blue flower add a floral note and as Johnny explained - is excellent at bonding the other flavours to the alcohol. 
Cassia Bark, a cousin of Chinese Cinnamon, adds a woody bark note. 

Unlike some stills where botanical elements are held in the neck so the gin is merely vapour infused, Whitley Neill uses the traditional method of placing a basket - the Gin safe - inside the still containing the ingredients, so the flavours really bind together and the end result...well that speaks for itself.

Some of the less unusual ingredients are sweet orange and sweet lemon - perhaps they're the reason why Whitley Neill works so well with anything on the 'orange spectrum', from slices of orange to a piece of orange peel. 

When we met Johnny at Bunny Chow, we were also introduced to the rather excellent Josh Linfitt and his cocktail creations.

Johnny Neill and Josh Linfitt

To prepare us for our taste of South Africa meal, Josh invented an aperitif of Negroni with Campari, sweet vermouth, sous vide mango cooked at 53 degrees for 45 minutes served with sorrel leaf, to tickle our saliva glands.

Whitley Neill, Cape Gooseberries and Sous Vide Mango
Josh also introduced us to the Tick Tock Tini he invented for last year's Eden Project which includes Red Bush and Manuka Tea, vermouth smoked with Applewood chips, Whitley Neill Gin and Coriander bitters. Almost as much fun to watch being made as drinking it.

Aside from Josh's creations, Whitley Neill is used by those who truly know a thing or two about the best Gins and Martinis, including Alessandro at Dukes Hotel's famous bar, where Ian Flemming was a regular and got the idea for the Martini and Vesper drinks in the James Bond books.

Sipped neat or enjoyed in cocktails, whether built, shaken, strained or even stirred, Whitley Neill is our Gin recommendation for both Gin connoisseurs and those making their first forays towards the delights of this marvellous drink. 

Make mine a double please.

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