The English (Whisky) Renaissance

A spirited breed of independent new distillers is looking for a new England in whisky terms. Sarah Halford charts a history in the making as English distilleries begin to redraw the global whisky map.

 ‘What has England ever done for us?’ is an understandable question for dedicatees of the dram. The Scots are unslain Goliaths of whisky but England too has its own history of making merry with – and often against – the grain. There are records of whisky making in England stretching back to at least the mid-18th century and word is that it existed in Chaucer’s day. When the country’s last distillery, London’s Lea Valley, closed in 1903 it sounded the death knell for English whisky – until now. After a dry spell lasting more than a century, the last decade has produced a bumper crop of craft distillers, a new breed that is blending tradition and innovation to not only resurrect English whisky, but to take it into a brave and buoyant new world.

Chris Jaume, who became one of the newest of the new breed when he co-founded Yorkshire’s Cooper King Distillery in 2016, took a deep draught of English whisky history while on his own journey of distilling discovery. He learnt that in 1743 there were over 18 million litres of spirit produced in England by a handful of distilleries, but most was unpalatable and sent to rectifiers, who redistilled it with botanicals before it went on sale. Rectifiers rather than distillers therefore had the biggest say over the end product. Drinking unadulterated spirit straight from the still was almost unheard of and the mellowing effects of cask maturation not yet known.

A turning point for English distillers came almost a century later, in 1825, when the chancellor reduced duty on alcohol and allowed distillers to sell direct to the public. He believed if distillers produced higher quality spirit and cut out the rectification process with its dubious, often noxious botanicals, they could prosper – and this would swell the treasury’s coffers.

Consumption of English spirit nearly doubled during the following five years, and established the country’s reputation for distilling excellence. The wooden cask also enters the story of modern cask-aged English whisky here, answering the need for transport over greater distances as demand for spirits soared. By 1885 duty going to the exchequer totalled around a sixth of the nation’s revenue – enough to fund the entire navy. Nevertheless, the crest of this wave crashed amid a perfect storm for English whisky, namely a host of changes that drove a boom in demand for and production of Scotch. These included changes in Scotland’s excise laws and its embrace of the Coffey column still, which enabled continuous distillation. The Distillers Company among others finally abandoned the English distilleries and moved production to Scotland.

Fast forward a century, and once again the treasury is one of the tapers that relights the fire of English whisky, which is rising from the ashes of its Victorian pyre. Chris Jaume points out that this is partly because in the last decade HMRC has had a change of heart, in granting licences to distill to producers with stills under 1,800 litres. By 2016 England had 14 whisky distilleries, and now there are about 20.

English pioneers

The first rumblings of an English whisky revolution were felt in 2003, when Healey’s Cyder Farm and St Austell Brewery teamed up to produce Cornwall’s first single malt in 300 years, in what was claimed to be the smallest legal still in the country, at just 1,200 litres. Hicks & Healey’s hit national headlines in 2011 when it released its seven-year-old Cornish Whiskey to a string of awards.

However, it was in 2006 that the renaissance truly began, when The English Whisky Company opened its St George Distillery in Norfolk. It was the first distillery in England for 120 years, although founders the Nelstrop family have a 600-year-old tradition of growing and processing grain. James Nelstrop and son Andrew decided to investigate a subject close to James’s heart – whisky. Much research and the exploration of several different concepts ensued, including a micro-distillery. However, HMRC wouldn’t consider anything smaller than 1,800-litre stills, so the pair submitted a planning application to build on their field by the River Thet, and English whisky history was in the re-making when this was granted in January 2006.

The pair submitted a planning application to build on their field by the River Thet, and English whisky history was in the re-making when this was granted in January 2006.

They persuaded Laphroaig distiller Iain Henderson out of his planned retirement to help get them going, and by December 2006 made their first 29 barrels of English whisky. Less than a year later they opened to the public with a visitor centre, whisky shop and tours. Since then they have made nearly 3,000 casks, with their first release, Chapter 6, selling out instantly, followed by an extensive range of best-selling, pioneering whiskies and a raft of top awards. They now produce a plethora of different whiskies, including Founders Private Cellar, the first public release of a 10-year-old English whisky, in 2017.

Barley is grown on the firm’s own farms, water is drawn from beneath the distillery and the whole process is done on site and by hand, from milling to bottling. For Andrew Nelstrop it is this small-batch craftsmanship and the diversity of distilleries’ individual processes that makes English whisky distinctive. He added that his distillery can play the long and innovative game with its whisky, since it is not reliant on investors or shareholders wanting a return on their money.

London’s first distillery since Lea Valley literally resurrected its 19th century forbear, breathing new life into the original London Distillery Company. Georgian engineer and serial entrepreneur Ralph Dodd set up The London Distillery Company (TLDC) on a site in Battersea, but was forced to abandon the project in 1808, after a legal wrangle. In 2011, Darren Rook and Nick Taylor retraced his footsteps, re-establishing the company and renovating a site in Battersea.

It was not only history that inspired them, but Dodd’s innovative spirit. The company’s head distiller Andrew MacLeod Smith said he was fired up when he discovered Dodd’s 1807 business prospectus, with an ethos that chimed with their own – a desire to make genuine British spirits using quality ingredients. He explained that their small copper pot whisky still, named Matilda after Rook’s Scottish grandmother, meant they could produce tiny batches so they could experiment with different elements, such as yeast strains and types of wood, as well as innovative distilling techniques, enabling them to create bespoke whiskies and push boundaries larger distillers could not.

TLDC’s single malt is maturing in barrels from New York, Kentucky and a range of virgin English oak barrels, and though the spirit came of legal whisky age in 2017 the distillery says it is in no hurry to release it. Slow and steady may win the race.

Two other distilleries have London’s first whisky in over a century in the pipeline – the East London Liquor Company (ELLC) and Bimber Distillery. Based at the former glue factory in Bow Wharf, ELLC set out with the mission to take spirit production back to its roots in the East End, and plans to launch its London Rye Whisky imminently. Founder Alex Wolpert wanted to create something ethical, by giving drinkers accessible, locally-produced, top-quality spirits at affordable prices and by building a successful business without being greedy with profit margins. Its London Rye Whisky is expected to cost between £60 and £70 a bottle.

Although London is synonymous with heritage, ELLC makes no pretence of have a distilling background and Alex sees this as one of its strengths, as its young staff are not weighed down by expectations or precedents. The emphasis is on going back to basics, while producing something entirely new. Since no-one can remember what London rye whisky would taste like, part of the excitement has been a fresh eye and experimentation. With no pressure from targets in terms of volumes of liquid, the team has been on a two-and-a-half-year voyage of discovery, including exploring chestnut and oak casks, seeking the holy grail – a London rye that speaks the unique character of ELLC.

The company aims to quadruple production by 2022. It made a leap towards that goal with the success of its recent Crowdcube campaign, which smashed its £750k target in 24 hours and went on to raise over £1.3m. The firm had already grown from producing 1,000 bottles of spirit a month to between 12,000 and 15,000 bottles.

Hot on its heels with a single malt release (expected in June 2019) is Bimber Distillery, West London. Bimber Distillery was set up in 2015 and its English barley whisky is maturing in four different casks: ex-Bourbon; ex-Pedro Ximenez, ex-Port and virgin American oak. Its flagship batch The London Single Malt Whisky Signature Edition is from a combination of first-fill casks and will be limited to 1,000 bottles, at £120 each. It will also be releasing a single cask of each of the whiskies maturing in the four different casks, limited to 200 bottles, at £250 each. Until then, miniatures are available of Bimber’s London Single Malt cask strength new make spirit, which won the Whisky Bible Liquid Gold award 2018.

Tradition figures prominently in Bimber’s ethos. It uses traditional processes like double distilling in copper stills, using English barley floor-malted in the old-fashioned way and sourced by one of the country’s oldest and only remaining Victorian maltsters, Warminster Maltings. Bimber’s mission was to set up a craft distillery offering something completely different from the mainstream and mass-produced, and produce spirits that are bespoke and hand-crafted from farm to bottle. Small scale operation means all the elements and recipes can be tweaked frequently, an agility not available to larger producers.

The founders of Cotswold Distillery set out in 2013 with the aim of building a ‘destination distillery,’ and visitor numbers have now reached around 30,000 a year. Having made history by producing the first ever Cotswolds single malt whisky, the firm recently smashed its £2m crowdfunding target in a week, raising £3m by the campaign close. If visitors are voting with their feet, investors also have the distillery’s impressive sales figures to ponder – they doubled yearly in the last two years, hitting £3.1m in 2017. It is now considered one of the most highly rated craft distilleries in the world, with a clutch of top awards for both spirits and visitor experience. The money from its recent funding campaign will be partly used to build a new visitor centre, which founder and CEO Dan Szor says he hopes will enable the company to bring in a new group of people to be part of the adventure and ‘own’ the distillery.

English distilleries are clearly showing signs of being investable prospects, but one new England producer recently proved that bottles of English whisky can command a hefty price tag too. In June the Lakes Distillery broke several world records with the release of its single malt, Genesis. The first bottle of its first single malt smashed the world record for the most expensive bottle of whisky sold through auction for a new distillery, when the hammer came down at £7,900. It is also the most expensive English whisky ever sold at auction, and the 900 bottles sold at the auction for a £900 average.

“This historic moment demonstrates that the Lakes single malt whisky is a credible alternative to whiskies from the world’s established distilleries,” says founder Paul Currie. The Lakes is about to launch its first full collection of limited edition English single malts, to be phased in over the next four years, kicking off with Faith (56.5%). It will be followed by Hope, Luck and Love, released in 2019, 2020 and 2021 respectively. The Lakes Single Malt Quatrefoil Collection is limited to 3,500 complete collections and will cost £895 per set.

Faith, Hope, Luck and Love is the motto adopted by the distillery founders after they discovered 30 Gothic stone quatrefoils built into the derelict Victorian cattle farm they restored in 2014. The quatrefoil’s four principles seemed a perfect fit for the way they wanted to make whisky. And their success was preceded by a dream that had been fermenting for a lifetime. Paul has whisky in his DNA, his father having been MD of Chivas Seagram, with whom he set up the acclaimed Arran Distillery in 1995. Paul had dreamt of setting up an English distillery in the Lake District since a holiday there in 2010. His vision was to create one of the leading malt spirits in the world, as well as one of the most unique visitor experiences in the Lake District. The distillery has now won just about every ‘Oscar’ of the tourism, food and drink and business industries. Individual members of the team are award-winners too – its chief executive Nigel John Mills became a CBE in the 2018 New Year’s Honours List.

The English whisky scene is certainly a melting pot, with all manner of spirits being made by all manner of makers in all corners of the country. Makers can be found everywhere from a front room in Highgate, belonging to Ian Hart who founded Sacred Spirits in 2008 and last year opened a second distillery in a nearby pub, to breweries such as Adnams, in Suffolk. The latter, known for its beer since 1872, describes itself as the first ‘bristillery,’ or brewery/distillery, in England. Its Copper House Distillery produces rye whisky that is 75% rye and 25% barley, using the same grains from which it makes its beer.

One of the most unusual pioneer spirits is about to flow from a collaboration between Wharf Distillery, Northamptonshire’s first distillery and cider maker, and Concrete Cow Brewery, Milton Keynes’ first micro-brewery. Wharf’s Laurence Conisbee and Concrete Cow’s Dan Bonner teamed up to create Cattle Creep Whisky, combining brewing and distilling arts to create a distinctive English whisky that gives the traditional a 21st-century twist. The spirit was put into Madeira cask in October 2015 and is expected to be ready this December, initially with just 50 bottles then a later release of 20 to 30 bottles.

Dartmoor Distillery, meanwhile, is in the process of creating a dark, wine influenced single malt from some global elements amid Devon’s pleasant lands. After an inspiring trip to Islay, Greg Millar and Simon Crow gave the Victorian Bovey Tracey Town Hall a new life as a distillery, to house the vintage copper still they brought from Cognac in 2014. In 2017 they got Scottish master distiller Frank McHardy on board and have been maturing their spirit in Spanish sherry, French wine and American bourbon barrels.

Another space to watch is Yorkshire, which has two distilleries that sprang into life in 2016: Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery and Chris Jaume’s Cooper King Distillery. Spirit of Yorkshire is a collaboration between farmer and brewer: Tom Mellor from Wold Top Brewery and business partner David Thompson. It has two of the largest Forsyth pot stills outside Scotland and the 1,000th barrel has just been filled with what will become Yorkshire’s first single malt, expected to flow in 2019. Two of a series of four collectible maturing malts have been released to whet appetites – the first, Distillery Project 001, sold out within four weeks.

“The Distillery Project series evolved from positive feedback to samples of the maturing malt that visitors enjoyed when touring the distillery,” says whisky director Joe Clark.

“Unlike conventional malts, DP002 is distilled in a combination of column and pot stills for an appealingly light texture. It’s then aged in a mix of bourbon, sherry and red wine casks to add depth to the flavour.”

Several of the 1,000 casks have been bought by people looking for a potential investment but there is still chance to get involved, as a limited number of first fill ex-Bourbon and ex-sherry casks have been released.

Inspiration for Chris Jaume’s whisky adventure came from Tasmania, when he and his partner Abbie Neilson decided to leave their day jobs as an architect and a scientist and travel. The pair were already lovers of whisky and while researching a whisky blog for friends they were so inspired by the ingenuity and determination of Tasmanian distillers that they made it their mission to bring their ethos back home. They not only armed themselves with a wealth of research and Tasmanian expertise but a custom-made Tasmanian still, the only one of its kind outside Europe. After four years of graft, fundraising and building the distillery from the ground up on the site of an old stable block, their whisky is set to start flowing in around 2022. Not only is it a rarity as a completely self-built distillery, but it is also one of only a handful to run on 100% green energy and the only one in Europe to join the global environmental initiative 1% For the Planet.

Free from precedent

English whisky makers are united by a blend of tradition and innovation. All are inspired by time-honoured traditions yet not shackled to them, and all are pioneers in myriad ways. Some use traditional equipment, expertise and historic buildings but experiment with ingredients and processes to take a fresh look at that heritage, while others build from the ground up and use new equipment and techniques.

Some are producing the first whisky in their region for over a century, while for others the spirit is entirely a newfoundland in their part of the country. Although motivated by their passion for whisky, many do not wish to compete with or emulate Scotch but produce something different, even when there is a strong Scottish influence.

As Chris Jaume points out, the free-spiritedness that characterises English whisky-makers is precisely because they are bound neither to the mythologies and expectations attached to Scotch, nor to the strict rulebook that binds its production.

“Both Scottish and English whisky production is governed by EU regulations, though Scotland has an additional, much tighter layer of control – the Scotch Whisky Regulations,” Chris says. “This restricts their ability to experiment and explore when compared to the distillers in Blighty.

“With consumers in England choosing from an ever-expanding range of spirit brands, provenance will become increasingly important. This is where English whisky can excel when compared to Scottish counterparts. By producing on such a small scale we have the opportunity to use solely English barley and other grains, as well as mashing, fermenting, distilling and maturing our whiskies on our own sites, rather than large-scale centralised maturation warehouses. Many whisky fans are surprised to learn that much of Islay whisky is made from barley grown in mainland Europe, and is not aged on Islay itself, due simply to the immense volumes of spirit produced.

“Our agility is another advantage over the larger Scottish distilleries,” he continues. “With our spirit ageing in smaller casks with a quicker turnaround and smaller stock reserves, we can easily adapt to changing market trends, diversifying and exploring new grain varieties, wood types and finishes, to meet the demands of the consumer.”

The new breed of distillers share, albeit in ways unique to each, this common thread of authenticity; the hand-crafted and individual in an age of increasing computerisation, anonymity and mass-production. This approach is striking a chord with an ever-expanding and diversifying whisky consumer, as is the traceability, transparency and accessibility fostered by small-scale production. The new distillers have made it their mission to open their doors to visitors, to encourage whisky drinkers to become part of the journey, with distillery tours and tastings, cask ownership and founder membership schemes and crowdfunding campaigns. The recent success of these is testament to the popularity of this ethos, with drinkers, visitors and investors alike clamouring to get on board.

According to Chris, the diversity of the new distilling community combined with an ever-multiplying new breed of whisky drinker could be the perfect recipe for England to prove its prowess on a global scale.

“Even 10 years ago it was a struggle for ground-breakers like St George’s Distillery, but things are changing enormously because people are more receptive to boundaries being broken and have opened up to new ideas,” he says. “There is now a full spectrum of whisky distillers and the scale varies hugely, from those who are all-guns-blazing like the Lakes to the one-man-bands with one barrel. There’s room for us all and it’s very exciting and accessible.

“Over the next five to 10 years we will see an array of whiskies (albeit in relatively small volumes) entering the market, as well as the opening of more distillery doors up and down the country. Whatever the approach, setting up a whisky distillery in England is a bold move and an incredibly exciting step for those involved, the wider industry and of course, lovers of good whisky. However you like your whisky, in a few years’ time there will be an English one to suit you. We’re setting out to make a robust and full-bodied whisky, while others are aiming for a lighter, more accessible spirit.

“These are incredibly exciting times,” he finishes. “England has the potential to make a name for itself as a world-class producer of distinctive whisky, if we choose to focus on flavour and terroir over quantity and reach. It’s early days, but so far, we’re on the right track.”

For English whisky it may be that, as another great countryman might have put it, the golden age is before us not behind us and all the world is its stage.