Small is beautiful

Small is beautiful

Writer, commentator and consultant,Ian Buxton has more than 20 years experience in the whisky business. said his most recent book 101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die offered “insight on the spectrum of heritage, innovation and variety in the world of whiskey”

Thoughts from... | 26 Oct 2012 | Issue 107 | By Ian Buxton

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Welcome to the London Distillery Company of Battersea, brain-child of Darren Rook formerly of Master of Malt and the London branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

Here Darren met Alan Powell and may have unwittingly have changed the course of distilling in the UK.

If you don’t recognise the name, don’t worry –just be grateful to him, because this is the man who blew the whistle on the ‘400 gallon’ still rule. Just to backtrack, it’s always been held that HM Customs & Revenue (and before them, HM Customs & Excise) would never licence a still in the UK with a capacity of less than 1,800 litres (400 gallons is 1,818 litres). This goes right back to the 1823 Excise Act and was a measure to prevent illicit distilling, the theory being that anything smaller than this was too easily moved in order to evade duty.

Everyone believed that there was simply no point applying for a licence to distil on a smaller scale, and thus the possibility of an artisanal, craft distilling industry in the UK was stillborn. Quite apart from the capital cost, stills of this size need room (think Kilchoman) and produce at least 100,000 litres of spirit annually, way more than the typical craft distiller in Europe or the USA can successfully market.

But our continental cousins and the entrepreneurial Americans continued to frustrate Darren, who happened to mention this to Alan Powell former HMRC man.

Powell pointed out that, quite contrary to general belief, HMRC are required only to “protect the revenue” and must act reasonably in applying their judgement. In other words, if you are properly financed; have a decent business plan and don’t have a criminal record get your application in now.

Using a crowdfunding website – itself an innovative way to raise capital – Rook was able to secure the necessary £350,000 to secure premises and install two stills, from Christian Carl in Germany, are tiny – a 160 litre alembic style for gin and a 650 litre whisky still.

Leaving aside the Drumchork Lodge in Scotland and various laboratory installations, the gin still is the smallest commercially operated currently running in the UK.

Whisky distilling will start very soon, guided by John McDougall, formerly of Springbank, Laphroaig, Balvenie and elsewhere. After three years maturation another English whisky –London’s first for more than a hundred years –will join St George’s, Adnams and Hicks & Healey on the shelves.

The enthusiasm of the London Distillery Company is infectious and now that the regulations on still size have been clarified we potentially could see a major resurgence in craft distilling in the UK.

Operations like the London Distillery Company don’t trouble the big boys but they do add variety, interest and excitement to the category. Enthusiasts will debate the merits and demerits of their various products in the blogosphere and, judging by the growth in craft distilling in the USA, we could see a real outpouring of innovative and experimental spirits that cross all sorts of category boundaries and break all kinds of rules.

It is to be hoped that the Government respond positively to this development. In parts of Europe, for example, small distillers enjoy favourable tax treatment and, in the USA, the American Distilling Institute are lobbying strongly for a Small Spirits Makers' Equal Tax Act, supported it’s only fair to say by DISCUS (the big boys’ club).

Here, policy has yet to emerge though the newly-formed Craft Distillers Alliance, led by Dominic Roskrow, will no doubt have plenty to say. They will be lobbying for the nascent industry with an on-line magazine to spread the word.

There will be plenty of challenges, of course, and setbacks, and failures. Money will be made –and money lost but it will surely be exciting, fun to watch and give us lots of new things to try.

That dram in the SMWS London lounge may just turn out to be game-changing.
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