English whisky is whisky produced in England. There are currently at least six distilleries producing English whisky. Though England is not very well known for making whisky there were distillers previously operating in London, Liverpool and Bristol until the late 19th century, after which production of English single malt whisky ceased until 2003.
In his great book ‘Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom’ Alfred Barnard visited the few whisky distilleries in England in 1887. Although he states there were 10 operative distilleries only 4 were selected for visit due to production of whisky, the remainder were possibly producing industrial alcohol or neutral spirit for production of other flavoured white spirits such as gin. Barnard visited the following;
- Lea Valley Distillery, Stratford, London (founded in the late 19th century) — produced both grain and malt whisky.
- Bank Hall Distillery, Liverpool — produced grain and malt whisky
- Bristol Distillery (founded in the 17th century) — produced grain whisky which was “sent to Scotland and Ireland to make a Blended Scotch and Irish whisky, for whisky purpose it is specially adapted, and stands in high favour”.
- Vauxhall Distillery in Liverpool (founded in 1781) — produced grain whisky
By 1905 however, the last of these – Lea Valley was closed by its owners The Distillers Company Limited (forerunners to Diageo today). It is well over 100 years since English Whisky has been produced and there can’t be many remaining that have experience or memory of sampling any of this whisky. Most production appears to be for the blended market too so it is unlikely any bottles remain of unblended single malt or single grain whisky from these distilleries. Therefore there is no living memory of what English Whisky should taste like, from the above accounts it sounds like English Whisky was made in the Lowland & Grain styles of bulk output and minimum flavour for use in blending.
Both the Scottish Independence referendum and the United Kingdom’s prospective withdrawal from the European Union ‘Brexit’ have had people flippantly suggesting that England is preparing by increasing their capacity to make their own whisky, although the modern production of English Whisky already pre-dates most of these modern socio-political disruptions. The upsurge in English Whisky production and burgeoning industry, a recent map of the new distilleries in the various counties of England and a little lively discussion got me to thinking about the question ‘What is English Whisky?’ is it, could it be or even should it be different from Scotch single malt.
Scotch single malt is highly regulated and made to long-held traditions, although variants exist (e.g. triple vs double distillation) and variety abounds. The re-vitalisation of English whisky production brings with a huge potential for creativity and the formation of something new and unique, however my concern was that strict adherence to Scotch traditions may inadvertently be hampering this creativity? Why should English distilleries produce a Scotch single malt clone and enter into a massively competitive market, flooded with whisky pouring out of over 100 Scottish distilleries many of whom have over a 200 year head start! As an Englishman living in the heart of Scotland, and having a fine appreciation for whisky whatever its source, I was keen to hear from those producing it;
Is there a specific quality to English Whisky that distinguishes it from Scottish (on assumption single malt Scotch) whisky other than geographical location?
We asked those making English Whisky their thoughts on the subject;
Such a difficult question – what is Scotch if geography is ignored? Geography or more specifically “climate” plays a massive role in the distinction between one whisky and another. We all make whisky from the same basic ingredients of Barley and Water. Once the ingredients arrive at the distillery the differences begin, different mashing durations, different yeasts, different shaped stills and maturation in different climates and surroundings. The end result is not a whisky that is defined by region but a whisky that is defined by distillery.
English Whisky is still a terribly rare thing, only 2 of us have whisky that is mature and available to purchase, with others in the pipeline. In our case The English is (I hope) defined by the level of care and attention we lavish on it from start to finish. We don’t have investors or borrowings or shareholders all wanting a return on their money, so time is on our side. We grow barley on our own farms, we draw water from the aquifer beneath the distillery and then we do everything on site from milling to bottling by hand. It is this fascination with detail that I hope sets us aside from the big players who make whisky by numbers and whose primary role is to show a return to shareholders.
Our obvious difference in production from our northern neighbours is that we are based in the driest part of the country (at times officially we are effectively an Arid climate!) the heat and dryness accelerates maturation and causes the whisky to behave differently in the cask to those in a colder wetter climate.
We tend to be quite traditional with our Single Malts. Our initial goal was to make fine single malt whisky that could equal anything made elsewhere. This is why we have not gone down the route of making gin, vodka etc. We exist to make the very best single malt and therefore tend to avoid short lived gimmicky ideas, although we will always set aside the resources to test new ideas if we think the resulting whisky could be delicious. We use some Virgin oak casks (Quercus Alba, not Robur) but this is once again something used by craft whisky distillers world wide – so whilst a great alternative to a standard ASB – again not specific to a nation. We do have a separate brand that makes “grain whiskies”. The resulting whisky is beautiful and quite different, but again not necessarily representative of an English Whisky style. Our Single Grain whisky is a new product but came about due to the freedom afforded by no financial & time restraints – letting us try new things. I think indicative of a good distillery rather than a national product categorisation. We can make the same products as anyone else, although to make a bourbon a few extra bits of kit would be needed to cook the maize but the end result after maturation would be quite different as the Kentucky climate is quite dramatic in its highs and lows, which will result in a very different maturation than would be achieved in the UK.
– Andrew Nelstrop; Owner of English Whisky Co. & St. George’s Distillery
It is too early to attempt to define English whisky by region, flavour profile, or by manufacturing process. Indeed, I would be wary of ever trying to define it in this way. Perhaps it can only be defined by its incredible potential at this point. Producers here in England are not bound by the Scotch Whisky Regulations, nor tradition, which gives us an incredible advantage over our Scottish counterparts. We have the freedom to experiment and to break way from the Scottish in this regard. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Scotch in all its incarnations, but its success and wide reach has led to expectations from the market, making it hard to break from said tradition. As yet, there are no expectations for English whisky.
We don’t need to distil using a Forsyths still and we don’t have to focus on bourbon cask expressions (though cask availability is another topic entirely). We don’t need to deploy the same marketing myths that older whisky is better whisky, or that good whisky has to be made from an on-site spring or crystal-clear loch (we recently published a whisky myths blog that looked at age and water more closely:).
We have an opportunity to be honest, open and adventurous with our ingredients and process. Collectively we’re producing (or soon to be producing) such small volumes of whisky that I imagine we could source all our barley from England. We could look towards other grains, and age all our whiskies on-site without the need for large, centralised maturation warehouses. All of this would contribute to the genuine terroir of English whisky releases. If a producer does want to use caramel colouring or chill-filtration then I think it would be beneficial to be upfront and say so. This may be a slightly naive view, but I feel these are vital aspirations for the industry if we are to be recognised on a global scale as a world-class producer of whisky. The potential is there.
If honesty, openness and adventure are the industry’s potential basic foundations, then I believe the primary driving force should be flavour. There are so few producers, and even fewer English whiskies on sale, that we all have a duty to produce the best spirit we can and to only bottle and sell spirit when it is at its peak. I am aware this is easily said now, but may prove tricky to execute for some distilleries when they’re struggling with cash flow and wanting to start earning an income from all those maturing casks. One of Bill Lark’s many nuggets of wisdom to us was that we should not release whisky early. It damages your own reputation and that of the fledgling industry to which you belong. Those words are still ringing in my ears.
In a nutshell, I believe England has the potential to be recognised world-wide as a producer of exceptional whisky, if we differentiate ourselves from the Scots and focus on flavour, terroir and experimentation, over volume and reach.
– Chris & Abbie ; Founders of Cooper King Distillery Ltd
To be honest, I do not really see why English Whisky should be different from Scotch Whisky – good whisky is good whisky! To make a good single malt you need the right barley, properly malted, good water, well controlled distilling processes, and good barrels. Here in Devon, we have an excellent climate to grow good barley up on Dartmoor National Park. Just 8 miles away we have one of the oldest traditional malting houses in the country – Tuckers Maltings. We have superb pure Dartmoor Spring water filtered through the peaty soil and granite geology of Dartmoor. We have a great Master Distiller to guide us – Frank McHardy (OK we acknowledge he is Scottish), and we have access to fine barrels from the various cooperage companies that also supply the Scotch Distilleries. So all in all we in England can also produce great single malt whisky.
Here at Dartmoor Whisky Distillery our new spirit is very smooth, with sweet notes. Using Spanish sherry, French wine, and American bourbon barrels we aim to produce a darker, wine influenced whisky. Whilst there is peat on Dartmoor National Park, you would need permission to cut it for fuel, and our local maltsters do not produce peat smoked barley. So with our Alembic copper still, and our local ingredients, climate and geology, we hope to make an English Whisky that our Scottish Master distiller will be proud of!
– Simon Crow & Greg Millar; Founders of Dartmoor Whisky Distillery
It’s an interesting question, and one that we’ve been asked before. The short answer is that there is no one thing. We reckon that there is such a diversity in the styles of whiskies being made around England, the production processes and ingredients we’re all using, that there isn’t a discernible style that is ‘English Whisky’. On the one hand we’re making something that is very much born out of a love of Scotch – we’re scotch drinkers here and wouldn’t be making whisky ourselves if we weren’t passionate about the traditional stuff. The processes that we’re following and the kit that we’re using is all very traditional – it’s Forsyths-made copper pot stills that are distilling our spirit, and the distillery is completely manual; no automation or computerisation here. On the other hand, we’re taking a fresh look at that traditional process; examining every step of it to make sure the decisions we take are going to produce the best possible tasting whisky. Not at the cheapest price. Not with the greatest profit margin or efficiency score. But the best tasting.
So what we’re doing isn’t new, but it also isn’t necessarily that common in recent history. We’ve really thought about the malting, going with traditional floor malting at Warminster. We’ve selected an unusual pairing of yeasts to get the most flavour from our fermentations, and then we’ve let that fermentation run for a full 4 days. We’re running our stills as slowly as we can, and we’re searching high and low for the best possible first-fill casks to put that spirit into – some traditional, some innovative.
In our mind, these aren’t necessarily practices that mark us out as ‘English Whisky’ – they’re not just found in England, and they’re not found at all English distilleries. But they are common to a wider movement seen recently in what’s loosely been termed ‘World Whisky’ and that’s where we see ourselves fitting in. It’s a collection of distilleries across the world trying to make delicious single malt whisky, by going at the process with fresh eyes.
Now the real interesting question is, is there actually one discernible, identifiable style that is ‘Scotch’ anymore? Back when it was principally Scotland making double-distilled single malt whisky, it was so different to the other styles of whisky around the globe (American whiskies using different grains, Irish whisky tending towards triple distillation) that it made sense to lump the Scottish distilleries in together. But they are as diverse as these ‘world whiskies’ today! Is a medium peated, sherry casked, double pot stilled Campbeltown different in style to a medium peated, sherry cask, double distilled Japanese single malt? Should it be grouped, style-wise, with an unpeated, floral, light, lowland grain whisky, purely because they were both distilled in Scotland? With the new generation of Scottish whisky distilleries coming on line, will their whisky be more like ‘traditional Scotch’, or have more in common with their fellow new-whisky-makers abroad?
– Dan, Nick and Zoë (and the team) at The Cotswold Distilling Company Ltd
The team working at The Lakes Distillery have chosen to play a significant part in the growth and development of the English whisky industry born out of their love and respect for Scotch whisky. Our people learnt their trade and honed their craft in Scotland. The historical knowledge and processes are derived from their detailed involvement in the Scotch whisky industry.
That said, English whisky doesn’t need to comply with the strict production methodology dictated to by the Scotch Whisky Association. The Lakes Distillery English single malt whisky will be crafted by people who are passionate about whisky production.
As there is no set standard for English whisky, there will need to be greater focus and emphasis on educating the consumer about the variety and complexity of this magical spirit. We plan to take the best of the historical knowledge available and add inventive flair, technological advances and the imagination of our highly talented distillers and whiskymakers to produce world-class, exceptional whiskies, ensuring that English single malt whisky will be of the highest quality in its own right.
English whisky will produce a new dimension to the global whisky industry by showcasing quality, provenance and clarity behind the journey the spirit has taken in its production. The aim will be to excite and inspire existing and future consumers to learn and savour this incredible spirit.
Whisky distilleries in England, and in particular The Lakes Distillery, will add a valuable further dimension to the already established global reputation of the Scotch whisky industry.
– Dhavall Gandhi; Master Blender at The Lakes Distillery
From the replies received it appears that the makers of English Whisky span the breadth from adherence to the traditional production of a Scotch style single malt made within their own unique environment to innovators and experimenters helping the evolution of a new style of ‘World’ Whisky in England. Echoing the thoughts of those at the first World Whisky Forum held recently at Box Distillery that new distillers need to establish their own true identity and that a copy is only ever going to be as good as the original. The same forum indicated that all aspects of traditional whisky production need to be challenged by new craft distillers who should strive to constantly improve whisky.
It is still too early to tell if a distinct or unique ‘English’ style of Whisky will develop, however I feel much happier now that my fellow countrymen south of the border are not seeking to simply copy Scotch but are taking the lead in the innovation of thoroughly ‘English’ whiskies, whilst at the same time questioning if everything made north of the border is similar enough to be simply bulk-labelled as ‘Scotch’. Here’s to the future and may it be found at the bottom of a glass of English Whisky!
The other English Distilleries we contacted included: Adnams Copper House Distillery, Bimber Distillery, East London Liquor Company, Hicks & Healey & The London Distillery Co. Unfortunately at this time we haven’t received replies or their thoughts on ‘What is English Whisky?’ but I am sure they are very busy making lots of whisky!