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Don't miss the meteoric rise of English whisky

 

A few years ago, the mention of “English whisky” would have drawn some confused and slightly patronising responses - even amongst people who grew up in England. My English law professor's response was “You mean Scotch whisky right? 

That’s understandable. Scotland is so closely affiliated with whisky that its sibling country is often overlooked. But this year, England has a firm place on the whisky world map after an English distillery was crowned World’s Best Single Malt at the 2022 World Whisky Awards. 

 

(Image Source: Lakes Distillery)

 

England is fast becoming an important whisky region with an exciting selection of different profiles. So, let’s first take brief look at whisky’s early days in England and then learn all about the English whisky renaissance of the 2000s.

And no, they don’t just taste like an “English Scotch”.

 

 

Foiled by Gin and Pattison

 

Stratford, East London was home to Lea Valley Distillery – the last English whisky distillery to close before a 100-year hiatus (Image Source: Newham Archives)

 

Old records show that the practice of whisky distillation was as present in medieval England as in Scotland. However, the early English seemed to really love their spices and botanicals (no historian is surprised). They much preferred gin, which became a national staple spirit since its arrival to English shores in the 1600s. 

By the late 1800s, only a small handful of English whisky distilleries were in operation. Alfred Barnard recorded in his book The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom that by 1887, there were only 4 English whisky distilleries in operation: 

  • Bristol Distillery
  • Vauxhall Distillery (Liverpool)
  • Bank Hall Distillery (Liverpool)
  • Lea Valley Distillery (London) 

What little whisky business there was in England went down together with the Scottish Pattison Crash of 1899. All 4 remaining distilleries were shut down. Lea Valley Distillery was the last to go around 1903 when it was mothballed by Distillers Company Limited (a forerunner of Diageo). For exactly 100 years, no whisky distillation took place in England.

 

 

A late English renaissance

 

In 2003, the first English whisky in a century was distilled at the Healeys Cyder Farm in Cornwall (Image Source: Healeys Cyder)

 

After a century-old dry spell, whisky distillation returned to England with a vengeance in the early 2000s. This began first in Cornwall with Hicks & Healy - a partnership between a brewery and cider-maker, and next in Norfolk where the English Whisky Company established St George’s Distillery.  

 

St George’s Distillery became England’s first full-fledged distillery in over 100 years (Image Source: Tripadvisor)

 

St George marked the beginning of a revival. A troop of English enthusiasts became emboldened to venture into whisky distillation, one-after-another. There is now over 26 whisky distilleries scattered across England from Cornwall in the South to Cumbria in the North.

 

 

How is English whisky unique?

English distilleries are carving out a niche for themselves, with a huge array of different styles and characters. There is no one identity for an English whisky, but by and large, we can see two influences.

 

(Image Source: Country Living Magazine)

 

Compared to Scottish climate, English weather is slightly dryer and warmer. This tends to result in quicker maturation and slightly more intense cask influence.

But more importantly is the fact that English distillers enjoy much more freedom to explore and find their identity. And I mean A LOT more freedom. Just like the Irish, English distillers are not required to comply with strict and possibly inflexible Scotch Whisky Regulations - that for instance, outlaw the use of ex-cider casks for maturation. 

 

 

Furthermore, the English are not burdened by tradition. The Scots and Irish are still beholden to three-hundred-year-old traditions and cultural baggage of how a Scotch or an Irish pot still whiskey should taste like. English distillers have none of that. The historical umbilical cord has already been long severed by the 100-year hiatus of English whisky-making. Quite the opposite, these young English distillers are free to crave out their own world and bring to life their own interpretations on how whisky should taste like. And they have quite many sources of inspirations.

 

 

Borrowing Cognac traditions

 

Lakes Distillery is based in Cumbria, north-west of England in an area that borders Scotland (Image Source: Lakes Distillery)

 

Near the border shared with Scotland is Cumbria’s The Lakes Distillery which was just founded in 2011 and already beaten prestigious names to win the 2022 World’s Best Single Malt title. Lakes is known for its fanciful design and glitzy marketing efforts. But cut through that style and you will find substance in the form of their Macallan-trained master blender, Dhavall Gandhi. 

 

Élévage is a French term that refers to the shaping of a spirit during its adolescence, using techniques such as barrel aging, filtering and fining (Image Source: Lakes Distillery)

 

Many give special credit to Gandhi’s methods for the quality and success. The distillery makes much of their élévage approach - a practice more commonly seen in the Cognac industry. While most distilleries seal whiskies in casks before returning after years to sample the result, Lakes constantly moves the maturing spirit around different casks as the spirit matures. By keeping a watchful eye on the casks as they age, flavours can be balanced, enhanced, deepened or nuanced. 

All that might sound like marketing puff. But the distillery was able to quell its cynics as its whiskies leave the barrels. In recent years, it appears that this approach has helped Lakes produce very high quality whiskies that have converted critics and won the support of drinkers.

 

 

Un-American Rye 

Rye whiskey was first distilled in the 1700s in Pennsylvania, and closely tied to American and Canadian whiskey heritage. 

A string of English distilleries are taking the offbeat path and are also making their rye whisky. And while they acknowledge that rye is rooted in American whisky history, they aim to produce ryes with their own distinctive traits. 

 

(Image Source: ELLC)

 

There is the East London Liquor Company (ELLC) that, instead of producing single malt, made a London Rye as its inaugural whisky release. Unlike the classic American variety, the London Rye is much gentler and smoother with minimal heat and spice and made to appeal to a wider range of drinkers and bartenders. Only 42% rye was used (as opposed to the 51% rye requirement that US rye-makers must comply with) and distillation was done with both pot still and column still.

 

(Image Source: Oxford Artisan Distillery)

 

There is Oxford Artisan Distillery that focuses on organic and sustainable farming practices and using long-lost heritage grains in producing whisky - including a rye whisky that exhibits herbal rye notes and nutty caramel wheat notes. 

 

(Image Source: Adnams)

 

Finally, there is Adnams’ rye that comes a little closer to the style associated with American or Canadian rye. Adnams is actually an ale brewery based in Southwold, in southeast England, that began distilling its own whisky using rye grown in a local farm. The Adnams Rye Malt demonstrates dominant spice, a good deal of oak richness and some dryness. 

 

 

English Purists

There are also single malt purists within this pool of diverse-minded newcomers. 

 

(Image Source: John Watkinson)

 

The London-based Bimber Distillery focuses on making single malts using very traditional practices from Scotch whisky that we rarely see today even in the Scotch industry. It sources barley from an English farm, then floor-malts the barley. It uses a long fermentation period to produce fruity notes. Even its copper stills are direct-fired whereas most Scotch distilleries have long since switched to indirect steam-heated stills. This makes the distillation process a little harder to control, but creates more caramel and nutty notes.

Despite being founded in just 2015, Bimber’s single malts are known to demonstrate surprisingly good complexity and have impressed many despite their relatively young age.  

Our writer @111hotpot has tasted several bottles of Bimber himself and does have some good things to say: –

 

 

Our take

Some of us may have only just begun to pay attention to English whisky. Yet the country is already a candy shop for whisky enjoyment and exploration. Its new generation of whisky-makers borrow best practices from around the world to create a kaleidoscope of profiles we haven’t seen in Old World Whisky (by Old World I mean Scotland, Ireland, Japan, US and Canada). It is still too soon for us to see an iconic “English whisky style” arise from the mix, but from the looks of it, English whiskies would demonstrate an incredibly wide range of profiles. 

Their passion and expertise are demonstrable and undeniable. And with such an interesting range of unusual styles, English whisky could really appeal to the growing market of young whisky geeks who seek both quality and novelty in their dram. There's a new competitor in the ring. Would it still be a decade for Irish whiskies to take over Scotch? English distillers are saying “Hold my dram.

 

@charsiucharlie



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