The mountains are lower, the mercury higher and the tartan non-existent, but English whisky is growing fast. Richard Woodard finds out what all the fuss is about
English whisky is nothing new. In the 1800s, it was being distilled in London, Bristol and at two plants in Liverpool. But in 1905, London’s Lea Valley Distillery fell silent, and that was that for almost a century.
Scotch was – and is – the whisky superpower, with English whisky an all but forgotten anachronism.
The revival began in Cornwall, before being kickstarted in Norfolk and has now spread to all points of the compass, from Truro to Durham, Southwold to Cumbria. Roughly 20 distilleries are now making whisky in England – and that number will probably have gone up by the time you reach the end of this sentence.
How it started
In terms of public awareness, the resurrection began in 2006 with the Nelstrop family, who established The English Whisky Company’s (EWC) St George’s Distillery in Norfolk.
With its twin copper pot stills made by Forsyths in Rothes, Scotland, the EWC operation echoes Scotch. ‘We make whisky using the production rules that apply in Scotland,’ says chief distiller David Fitt. ‘You could be standing in a distillery north of the border – it’s made the same way.’
Well, up to a point. The trademark EWC spirit is all charm and light fruitiness, but Fitt does triple distillation ‘maybe eight casks a year’, and ‘one big lot’ of peated whisky annually, a legacy of the early involvement of ex-Laphroaig manager Iain Henderson.
There’s an eye-catching range of grain whiskies branded as The Norfolk: Malt ‘n’ Rye (malted barley and rye), Parched (Fitt’s take on Irish single pot still) and Farmers (a Heath Robinson mix of malted barley, chocolate and crystal malt, oats, wheat and rye). They don’t do that at Edradour.
Drive east for an hour and you reach the Suffolk resort town of Southwold, with its lighthouse, better class of pier and hordes of Joules-clad second homers. Gin is the mainstay of Adnams' Copper House Distillery, with whisky ‘not even on the radar’ when it started, according to head distiller John McCarthy. That’s changed since 2011, but there’s nothing Scottish about this operation, with its gleaming Christian Carl stills and its ‘beer-stripping column’, producing a high-abv wash to be reduced and distilled again in a pot.
Adnams uses a bespoke brewing yeast, rather than the almost-ubiquitous distillers’ yeast used in Scotland. ‘We get flavours in our spirit of chocolate and cereal, and it isn’t harsh in any way,’ says McCarthy. ‘That must come from the yeast action on the sugars.’
Initially there was a single malt, plus a triple malt (wheat, barley and oats); now there’s a rye malt (75/25 rye/barley) as well, using rye grown a mile and a half away. McCarthy would like to use peat at some stage too.
Both St George’s and Adnams are, in Scotch terms, small operations. For a different approach, travel to the scenic environs of Bassenthwaite Lake in Cumbria. Here, in a converted Victorian dairy farm, is The Lakes Distillery, a project involving an illustrious roster of whisky names. These include founder Paul Currie, whose father Harold established the Isle of Arran distillery; chairman Dr Alan Rutherford, ex-Diageo; and production director and chief whisky maker Dhavall Gandhi, who spent time at Macallan.
In July 2018, the first bottle of The Lakes’ inaugural single malt, Genesis, sold at auction for a world record £7,900, and the other 100 bottles released fetched an average of £900 each on Whisky Auctioneer.
This was followed by the launch of a four-malt collection called Quatrefoil. The mainstream malt will be released at various stages of maturity under the Whiskymaker’s Reserve name – alongside long-term plans for an aged range, most likely comprising a 10yo,
15yo, 18yo and 25yo.
The fruity, creamy spirit has the body to cope with sherry maturation, and about 80% of new make goes into oloroso, PX, cream and fino casks. Expansion plans are already on the cards. Fermentation capacity could double this year, and there’s talk of an initial public offering.
At the other end of the scale sits TOAD – The Oxford Artisan Distillery.
‘Craft, artisan, heritage distillery – take your pick of the words that mean nothing!’ quips co-founder and master distiller Cory Mason.
‘The hard part is quantifying it and making it mean something. We’re operating the stills by hand, using local cask makers. We work with local farmers and ancient, heritage grains.’
TOAD’s core product (currently a year or so old) is a rye-heavy whisky filled into new American oak. Beyond that, Mason isn’t averse to having a play.
‘If we make something that tastes good, we’re not going to get hung up too much on it being called “whisky”,’ he says.
Early releases of its Oxford Pure Rye Spirit (triple-distilled, briefly matured in American oak) epitomise this – delicious ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s by no means complex, but it’s great fun.
Clearly there’s no single approach being embraced by all English whisky makers. But is this a problem? Does a lack of direction or coherent production rules risk a descent into anarchy?
With this in mind, Copper Rivet Distillery in Chatham, Kent, has drawn up the Invicta Whisky Charter, laying down standards for its production of Masthouse Whisky, due for initial release in 2020.
Set up by the Russell family in 2016, Copper Rivet has laid down a grain whisky and a single malt, using grains grown in partnership with local farmers. It has experimented with different abvs, blending grain and malt before maturation, and two styles of distillate, one produced in a batch column still similar to those used at Loch Lomond in Scotland.
‘We try to have minimal effect from the barrel, because we want the distillery character to come through across all our spirits,’ says Rivet’s distiller Abhi Banik.
Copper Rivet’s charter covers issues such as age statements, maturation, permitted grains and their provenance, distilling abvs and bottling.
‘We want to allow innovation,’ explains Banik. ‘We want to allow what we call creativity in bringing in new flavours, but what we also want is clarity for consumers.’
The idea behind tighter regulation is to cement the character, quality and identity of English whisky, but not everyone believes it’s a major issue.
‘I’m a firm believer that to turn heads you need a movement,’ acknowledges Dan Szor, founder and CEO of Cotswolds Distillery. ‘I have no desire to be thought of as “an English whisky”, though. When you talk about Kavalan, you never say “it’s one of those Taiwanese whiskies”, do you?’
After 30 years in finance – ‘I was just selling air’ – self-confessed whisky geek Szor set up Cotswolds Distillery, seeking inspiration from the rolling landscape surrounding him in the Cotswolds.
‘We wanted to make a whisky that felt like the Cotswolds,’ he explains. ‘We don’t have cliffs, mountains or raging peat bogs. It’s an incredibly gentle and beautiful landscape, and we wanted to capture that.’
Barley is locally sourced and floor-malted in the small town of Warminster in Wiltshire, and pricing is realistic: £45 a bottle for the inaugural release.
There are 20-odd distilleries currently making English whisky, and just as many philosophies at play. But there are a few common threads to pick out, including the use of locally-grown cereal grains, and the influence of England’s brewing culture. McCarthy previously worked at Adnams’ brewery and Fitt is also an ex-brewer.
‘I think there is an exciting future for English whisky,’ says Joe Boxall, former group bars manager for Boisdale.
‘Similar to the Champagne chalk fault line, which many English wine producers teach you gives the grapes the best chance to become amazing bubbles, English barley is second-to-none and, as a nation of farmers, brewers and distillers, we have all the ingredients here to become big players on the world whisky scene.’
The analogy with English fizz is tempting, but does it work? English sparkling mostly uses the same grapes and soil types as the Champenois, whereas many of the English whiskies hitting the market over the next decade will actually have far less in common with their Scotch counterparts.
‘Can it emulate the success of English wine?’ asks Thom Solberg, bar manager at Black Rock, rhetorically. ‘Of course it can, but I don’t want to talk about whisky being the new gin, or English whisky being the new English sparkling wine.
‘This is something entirely different, and its inevitable success story is going to be something different altogether.’
What is English whisky anyway?
Is there such a thing as an English ‘style’ of whisky emerging? Does it matter? And can you sell it? We asked around…
'Clynelish is distinctly different to Macallan, but they’re both still Scotch whisky. I hate that Highland, Lowland, Speyside thing, because every distillery has its own character. We should focus on what the distillery can give, rather than looking at the whole area.'
David Fitt, chief distiller, The English Whisky Company
'I don’t really recognise a discernible style. The beauty of English whisky is the ingredients used generally come from the location where the distillery is built. There are definite expressions which go down well, and have even converted a few of our customers away from their regular Scotch.'
Joe Boxall, former group bars manager, Boisdale
'England is a big country and we have different conditions all over, so it would be a stretch to say that in England, per se, you would be able to already identify a theme coming through it. What we’ve set out to do is to begin to create a Kentish style.'
Stephen Russell, founder, Copper Rivet Distillery
'There’s little contract distilling. This means that every distillery and product has its own style and character. One I really like is co-operation between distilleries. Cotswolds, Copper Rivet, Adnams and other distilleries talk to each other, share their findings and how their whiskies are turning out.'
Thom Solberg, bar manager, Black Rock
'I do think that there is a market for English whisky. If the value, quality and marketing for the product is right, it can lead to success for independent brands, and success for the overall category. But it will certainly be a long road, and not as finely cut as the one of gin in the 2000s.'
Ladislav Piljar, business development manager, Bon Vivant