Celtic Cousins - A bit of Cornish spirit

Celtic Cousins - A bit of Cornish spirit

The Celtic fringe of Britain has a long tradition for some of the world's finest whiskies. Ireland and Scotland have refined their creations over centuries, so why has it taken so long for Cornwall to catch on and produce its first single malt whisky? Jamie Smith finds the answer lies, of all places, at a cider farm

News 25 Nov 2004 | Interviews | By Jamie Smith

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Somewhere in a dark, cobbled cellar not far from Cornwall’s craggy north coast something very exciting and, for many, long overdue is taking place.In a dark, damp cellar, Cornwall’s first malt whisky is slowly maturing inside re-charred Speyside bourbon casks. Hidden in the bowels of the Cornish Cyder Farm at Penhallow, near Newquay, these casks were set down in February 2002 and early tests of the raw spirit show promise.Like most good ideas, the plot to create this special brew – Cornwall's first legitimate malt whisky – was hatched over a pint or two. Those pints were in the hands of two food industry experts: former operations manager of the Cornish Cyder Farm Steve Cadwallader and head brewer at St Austell Brewery Roger Ryman. The two are old colleagues who once worked together for drinks giant Scottish and Newcastle and whose career paths brought them independently to Cornwall.Between them, a wealth of experience in alcoholic drinks and a wild enthusiasm for the task in hand soon had them wondering if the pot still installed at the cider farm in 2000, for making apple brandy, could be turned to a darker purpose.The natural setting of Cornwall, well associated with its abundance of clean, fresh, water and an agricultural landscape with picturesque moors (worthy of being pictured on any whisky bottle) were all positive signs. The cider farm has three boreholes of its own, producing all the water necessary for the process. All they needed was a good source of barley.Roger Ryman had already persuaded Cornish farmers John and Chris Bond to grow maris otter barley for his brewing. It wouldn’t be a usual choice for distillation, but it was local and it was available. Roger explained: “The thing with maris otter is it’s not well known in the industry as a distilling malt but it is well known in the brewing industry for making cask ales. It’s one of the premium varieties for brewing beer and it’s been around for a number of years so there’s a consistency to it and it is consistently of high quality.“It performs well in the brewhouse, clears well and it’s also got a distinctive flavour. I always notice this great smell around the mash tuns. The maris otter debate is one that brewers will sit around debating late at night for the next ten years – but that’s another story; I’m a maris otter devotee.“The reason we used it is because it’s our stock barley. We didn’t want to bring in a special malting barley to make the whisky. Also, it is Cornish and I suppose we were less concerned about the commercial side and spirit yield was not something we were really worried about. We didn’t mind how much we got as long as we got a few casks off. It’s a pale malt, there are not going to be any peaty characteristics to the whisky and on tasting the raw spirit, it was found to have a very full, sweet and fruity character.The still is also rather special. “It’s a short-necked still with the line arm sloping downwards away from it,” explains Roger, “which contributes to you your full, fruity spirit.It is extremely small: at 1,200 litres it’s smaller than the legal minimum size. In fact, we had to get special permission from Customs and Excise to have it built. I think the law on still size probably dates back to the 19th century to prevent people distilling with their own equipment in their back rooms. Its tiny size means a very high ratio of copper contact with the spirit.”The spirit’s makers point out that this is the county's first legally produced malt. It would be difficult to establish how many illegal stills Cornwall may have had in its chequered past. With the Cornish tradition of capitalising on the county's remoteness for good, honest mischief in mind, it would be nice to believe that at least some of the more remote barns on those weather-beaten moors might have gurgled to the sound of a home-made still that never saw the light of the Customs man’s torch.Although the final whisky has, as yet, no name or even a price tag, it does have a waiting list. But those on the list still have no idea how long they will be waiting for the bottled product.Roger said: “Having spoken to people I know in the industry in Scotland their advice is clear: don’t release it too soon. That would suggest we should be looking at an eight year maturation.“That said, Jim Murray has visited us and has tasted the spirit at the one year. In his opinion it’s maturing particularly quickly, which could be something to do with the mild climate we get down here. He is keen that we should bottle it when it’s ready rather than wait for a specific number of years. And that could be as little as four or five years and the first one is coming up for two years in the can now.”Andy Mason, distillery manager at the cider farm, was sent to Edradour, Scotland’s smallest distillery, to learn about the intricacies of small-scale whisky making prior to working on the project. He said: “The whisky has been deemed a success so we’ve gone on and done another eight barrels this year. It is a joint venture between St Austell Brewery and us. That first one was really a trial so we only did one barrel just to see how it would work. One barrel between two companies is not a lot of whisky!”Roger added: “It will certainly be a very collectible item as the volumes are, in truth, going to be tiny. It’s been fun doing it, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the project. Distillation is very much related to brewing. It’s been very nice taking the skills I've learned as a brewer and transferring them to
the project.”
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