English whisky distilleries have been popping up across the country

English whisky distilleries have been popping up across the country

With all eyes turned to Scotland ahead of September’s independence vote some enterprising English distillers are making their own plans to turn the tables on the Scots. Yes, English whisky is back – and this time it seems it is here to stay, says Ian Buxton

Though it may seem startling and unexpected, English whisky isn’t an entirely new idea. When journalist Alfred Barnard travelled the length and breadth of the United Kingdom back in the late 1880s, he was able to record four English whisky distilleries, two in Liverpool and one each in London and Bristol.

They were all quite substantial enterprises, making grain and malt and some ‘British Plain Spirit’ (this would have been rectified into gin), but by 1905 all four had closed and English whisky was no more.

Fast forward to 2009 when the St. Georges Distillery in Roudham, Norfolk released their first bottles of single malt, creating a media frenzy, with the initial stocks exhausted in just three hours. “We had people queuing in the snow from 6am that morning,” recalls owner Andrew Nelstrop. "It 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 whisky exported to Europe, Japan, the USA, Canada, 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.

Cornwall's St Austell Brewery and Healey’s Cyder Farm followed in 2011 with the first bottling of their Hicks & Healey 7 Years Single Malt which also sold quickly. Production is very limited however and though a second batch is now available, at GBP181 for a 50cl bottle the price alone seems to likely to restrict any global ambitions they may have.

From these early pioneers an English craft whisky movement has developed, with Adnams of Southwold, better known for its beers, now offering a single malt and an unusual triple Malt (wheat, barley and oats) with rye whisky due to follow in the next year. Annual production is now approaching 100,000 litres, making Adnams England’s largest whisky distiller today. It also produces gin and vodka.

With its new-found fashionability, gin is the popular choice to generate both visibility and cash flow. Hence the London Distillery Company, based in Battersea, launched with Dodd’s Gin. But with its custom-designed whisky still, the company expects to have the first whisky distilled in London on the market by next February. Early backers of the project can reserve their own 20 litre cask, one of just 109, for GBP495.

But they will soon have rivals in the form of the Lakes Distillery, due to begin distilling shortly. The 270,000 litre capacity stills actually arrived yesterday (16 June) and the distillery hopes to capitalise on the tourist potential of its Lake District location with its GBP5m development. Its 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. According to the company, based in the village of Stourton, its 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 its work in the Scotch whisky industry. The distillery has also been advised by consultants Harry Cockburn and Dr Jim Swan, whose names feature on the websites of a number of start-ups.

Cotswolds recently recruited Alex Davies from Chase Distillery in Herefordshire where he was a principal distiller responsible for gin, vodka and whisk and aims to begin to distil 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 a premium price. 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 more than 100 distilleries working north of the border – some of them flat out – this is a golden age for Scotch producers. As such, English distillers hoping to capitalise on the whisky boom have their work cut out.

But, says Szor: "We are raring to get started.” Let’s hope no one has told Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond.