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English Whisky? Yes, English Whisky!

Ian Buxton
 
Cotswolds Distillery's two buildings.


I wrote here recently about the great debate on Scotland's independence. While that won't be resolved until the national vote on September 18 (and, I suspect, the arguments will roll on for some time afterwards) a few bold English distillers have been making their own plans in case the Scots decide to go their own way.

Yes, these hardy pioneers have been making—wait for it—English whisky. If the idea sounds shocking I've got a further surprise: Though we haven't heard about English whisky in more than a hundred years, it's not exactly a new idea.

Back in the late 1880s, whisky journalist Alfred Barnard described four English distillers making whisky-one each in London and Bristol and two in Liverpool. They were quite substantial businesses producing volumes of spirit that would still be significant today—if they had survived. But the last one closed around 1905 and that, so far as anyone knew, was the last hurrah from the English who, after that, stuck to making gin.

However a new generation, excited by whisky's fashionability and appeal to a younger crowd, have started making whisky and the trend looks set to grow over the next few years.

First out of the box was the aptly named English Whisky Company, based in rural Norfolk. Farmer Andrew Nelstrop had been growing malting barley for some years when, in 2005/6, he decided it was time he went a stage further and turned it into whisky. Hiring a Scotsman as distiller and buying his stills from Scotland might suggest he was simply trying to copy his neighbors in the north, but with home-grown barley and Norfolk water he rapidly adopted the idea of a strongly-branded national identity.

   
   The English Whisky Company

And with what success! When his St. Georges Distillery in Roudham, Norfolk released their first bottles of single malt late in 2009 (it was just three years old), it created a media frenzy, with the initial stocks exhausted in just three hours. "We had people queuing in the snow from 6 a.m. that morning," recalls Nelstrop "and created a demand that we couldn't hope to fill."

Today production at St George's has grown by 50% from those early days, with their English whisky exported to Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Sales to Hong Kong and China are "growing nicely," according to Nelstrop, and steady expansion is now the order of the day. Happily St George's Single Malt is now available in North America through PVI Global, based in Alberta, Canada.

They were soon followed by the tiny Hicks and Healey operation, working out of Cornwall. But with very limited supplies (literally batches of a few hundred bottles) and prices running to close $300 for a single 50cl bottle it was little more than a boutique curiosity.

   
 Adnams Whisky.  

More significant was the decision by regional brewers Adnams to enter the distilling business. First they produced an award-winning gin and vodka but soon turned their attention to whisky. With a strong retail presence through their own shops and pubs, they were able to give their brands the exposure needed and now the whisky is growing steadily. Adnams offer a Single Malt and an unusual Triple Malt (wheat, barley and oats) with a Rye Whisky due to follow in the next year.  Annual production is now approaching 100,000 litres annually, making Adnams England's largest whisky distiller today.

But it must be acknowledged that that is tiny compared to the Scottish industry, where more than 100 distilleries make around 255,000,000 liters annually. However, they all started small so the next generation of English whisky makers aren't deterred.

Hence the London Distillery Company, based in Battersea, launched with Dodd's Gin but with their custom-designed whisky still expects to have the first whisky distilled in London on the market by February 2015. Early backers of the project can reserve their own 20 liter cask, one of just 109, for £495 (around $800).

   
   

But they will soon have rivals in the form of the Lakes Distillery, due to begin distilling shortly. The 270,000-liter-capacity stills actually arrived this month and the distillery hopes to capitalize on the tourist potential of its Lake District location with its £5m ($8m) development. Whisky should be available from 2017.

Also hoping to exploit the tourism market is the latest entrant the Cotswolds Distillery, the brain-child of ex-banker Daniel Szor, who hails originally from New York where he attended the preppy Riverdale Country School and later worked for First National Bank of Boston. According to the company who are based in a tiny country village, their whisky production "will incorporate the full 'grain to glass' experience" with the use of organic Cotswold barley and malt from the nearby Warminster Maltings, one of Britain's oldest floor maltings. The highly traditional copper pot stills have come from Forsyths of Rothes, well-known for their work in the Scotch whisky industry, and the distillery has been advised by consultants Harry Cockburn and Dr Jim Swan, whose name features on the web sites of a number of start-ups.

   
Alex Davies, Head Distiller of Cotswolds
PHOTO: DAVID PATON
 

Cotswold recently recruited Alex Davies from Chase Distillery in Herefordshire, where he was a principal distiller responsible for gin, vodka and whisky and aims to begin to distill gin as its first spirit in September, followed by whisky. "What we put out in a year will be what the medium Scottish firms put out in a day or two," says Szor.

"We are looking to build a reputation regionally. To us Scotland is not intimidating; it is a road to follow. I see a lot of people who want to go off and do their own thing, but I'm in this to make a product, I need to be able to sell my second bottle as well as my first."

And there lies the challenge. The curiosity factor will undoubtedly make the sale of the first bottle relatively easy, even at premium pricing but, as Andrew Nelstrop recounts, "The first day's sales wiped out around a fifth of our initial stock and within three days the media circus moved on."

Whisky, as the Scots know very well, is a long-term business demanding patience and deep pockets. With over 100 distilleries working north of the Border—some of them flat out-this is a golden age for Scotch producers. English distillers hoping to capitalize on this whisky boom have their work cut out.

But, says Szor, "we are raring to get started." Let's hope no one has told that passionate advocate of independence Scotland's fiery First Minister Alex Salmond!

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