This sceptred isle

This sceptred isle

A journey round the English distilling world

Whisky & Culture | 19 Oct 2018 | Issue 155 | By Rob Allanson

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There is a quiet revolution happening in these isles, and quiet because it is partly clouded by the
gin explosion.

Set up a distillery and what’s the best way to create an instant cash flow? Make gin; especially in England at the moment. But a lot of the distilleries launching themselves in England, if not laying down spirit already, are eyeing the burgeoning whisky market with interest.

The English have not been best known for their whisky making, due to the historical prominence of its neighbours, but back when the great whisky travel writer, Alfred Barnard took to the road, the nation boasted four distilleries, that he visited. A fraction compared to Scotland and Ireland, but a start.

It is difficult not to imagine some cross border distilling happening in northern counties such as Northumbria and Cumbria. Certainly whisky and rum were being brought into the country in large quantities, but scant evidence of production seems to exist – gin yes, but not really whisky.

Barnard’s substantial tome, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, provides a valuable insight into the British whisky-making landscapes at a pivotal point, and before things changed with the Pattison crash at the turn of the 19th century. The great man hit the road and researched and wrote the survey between 1885 and 1887, when the world’s thirst for blended Scotch was reaching its zenith.

Barnard visited no fewer than 129 Scottish distilleries, 29 in Ireland, and four in England – Lea Valley Distillery
in London, Bristol Distillery, and Bank Hall and Vauxhall distilleries both in Liverpool.

By 1905 the last distillery standing in England, Lea Valley, had closed its doors. The strides and successes made by Scotch whisky, spearheaded by the blends, saw most larger companies focus their attentions on Scotland, closing operations in England and moving production north. Whisky did not flow again from stills in England until 2003.

Following their neighbours in Scotland, most whisky makers in England will mature their spirit for a minimum of three years in oak so it can legally be called whisky.

The exciting thing is that, not really bound by the Scotch whisky regulations, a lot of English distillers are experimenting away with mashbills, heritage grains and wood. Also a lot of the new distilleries are about to come of age into next year, meaning some interesting whisky on the horizon.

So let’s take a tour round this green and pleasant land to see what’s cooking in the mashtuns and flowing from
the stills.

We start our tour in the far north east of the country in the cathedral city of Durham. Here, after launching a gin brand, the Durham Distillery aims to launch the North East’s first single malt. The company is due to move to new premises at the time of writing, into the centre of the city, where it will be creating a grain to glass whisky from mashing local malt and fermenting through to a double distillation on two custom built copper pot stills, a 1,200L wash still and a 1,000L spirit still.

Further down the east coast we reach Yorkshire, home to two new distilleries, Cooper King and the Spirit of Yorkshire.
Cooper King distillery sees an interesting development after founders went on an adventure to Australia and came back with the whisky-making bug, and a 900L copper still from Tasmania – very possibly at the time of writing the only one of its kind outside Australia.

The distilling pair intend to use 100 per cent local barley, traceable back to the farm of origin and malted at Britain’s oldest working maltings, Warminster Maltings. We can expect to see the fruits of their labours in 2022.

Over at the Spirit of Yorkshire distillery, the county’s first whisky is already laying quietly waiting to
be launched.

Using two of the largest Forsyth pot stills operating in the UK outside of Scotland, along with a four-plate copper column, that works in tandem with their spirit still; and having had the expert hand of renowned whisky creator, Jim Swan at the helm, the team here are aiming to create something that is not just going to replicate Scotch.

Since firing up the stills for the first time in May 2016, they have filled casks of various types – including sherry butts and Bourbon casks. Certainly the whisky will be imbued with the qualities of the county as all the barley and spring water used is grown and sourced on the family farm.

As we head south and east we come to East Anglia, a vast region well known for its grain growing capacities, big skies and undulating landscapes.

First stop is the English Whisky Company in Norfolk. Set in among fields of grain, St George’s Distillery is currently the most prolific producer of English malt whisky.

The distillery was founded in 2006 by farmer and businessman James Nelstrop and his son Andrew. Making peated and unpeated liquid, the Nelstrops have distilled several thousand casks of English whisky, experimenting with grain and rye, as well as barley.

The distillery benefits from the purest, cleanest water drawn from an aquifer beneath the distillery

The distilling team doesn’t add colour, using the Forsyths designed stills to fill mainly high end Bourbon casks, although they are also filling some sherry casks, and various other wine casks. Heading out towards the Suffolk coast we eventually reach the region’s Copper House distillery, part of the Adnams brewing empire.

With a long legacy as a brewer, Adnams opened the distillery in 2010 and installed Carl distilling equipment to create a variety of spirits, including whisky from various grains.

It’s one of the most energy-efficient distilleries in the UK and also generates water and steam for the brewery, and again places serious emphasis on using local ingredients to make their spirits, even growing their own rye in fields just a few miles from the distillery.

Heading back inland for a bit and next to the Big Smoke. London is currently home to three distilleries of note for whisky lovers, The London Distillery Company, East London Liquor Company and Bimber Distillery.

The London Distillery Company, known for its gins more at the moment, is a short walk from Tower Bridge and is home to three stills, each creating a distinct spirit type. With ingredients being sourced across and nearby London, everything is pretty much done by hand. Whisky is resting here, and the imminent release of an interesting tipple is expected soon.
Over at the East London Liquor Company, another release is anticipated at the time of writing, possibly by the end of the year even.

Using pot and column stills, and a variety of wood, including French oak and Chestnut, the distilling team aims to create small batch whiskies.

Finally in London, Bimber Distillery’s the team is expecting its first batches to be ready in early Summer 2019 – possibly the first single malt to come out of London in more than 100 years. Here we are told that the distillery’s new-make spirit is matured in four different cask types: ex-Bourbon, ex-Pedro Ximenez, ex-port & virgin American oak.

Just before heading further south, out to the east we find the home of the historic Chatham Docks.

For 414 years Chatham stood at the cutting edge of industry and innovation. Fifty years since the last ship was launched from its historic dockyard, The Copper Rivet Distillery was born.

Set in a historic pump house, the team undertakes the complete process of brewing and distilling from grain to glass, using bespoke stills and top quality wood.

Further south, and a little hop across the water to the Isle of Wight and we find something completely new. There are no records of any distillery prior to the Isle of Wight Distillery, setting up at the Mermaid pub. Being very much an island, the team here has sourced local ingredients and has been laying down the first island single malt since 2015.

The whisky is maturing in a combination of American and French oak casks and is expected to spend a portion of its life in either sherry, Madeira, Cognac, port or even peated whisky casks.

Now out to the South West, down the A303 as an old Levellers song went, we find the producer of the oldest English whisky.

The Hicks and Healey Distillery is Cornwall’s first distillery in more than 300 years, and is a joint venture between the Healey Cyder farm and St Austell Brewery.

Next county over we come to one of the younger distilleries, Dartmoor Whisky. The rugged backdrop make
this feel like the perfect place for whisky making.

Production began here back in 2016, after a group of whisky lovers visited Islay and came back determined to make whisky in Devon. Time will tell if the climate, soil and spring water converge to make a decent drop.

Heading north now we come to the Cotswold Distillery. Plenty has been written in this magazine about this idyllic distilling spot.

With state of the art distilling equipment and the expertise of legend Jim Swan in the start-up period, the team here are turning out a very decent drop.

Lastly as we head back north toward the Scottish border we find the Lakes Distillery. Having set up Arran Distillery in 1995, founder Paul Currie decided that the Lake District National Park was a perfect spot to make whisky.

Set in a restored Victorian dairy, the team here is working on some interesting and lovely whiskies, and their own style.
Using mainly sherry casks and a little Bourbon, master blender Dhavall Gandhi says he is looking to make intense and elegant sherry styles in the next few years. If you haven’t noticed, there is certainly plenty to watch in the next few years.
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