A view of Dartmoor, in Devon.
For an industry whose modern expression is barely into its teenage years, English whisky looks fascinatingly sophisticated.
Whisky was made in England in the past, yet by the early 1900s the last surviving maker – Lea Valley – closed down, leaving behind a thirsty, whiskyless country. It took England a century to rediscover its whisky spirit, first with a Healey’s Cyder Farm and St Austell Brewery partnership in Cornwall, then in Norfolk with the launch of the English Whisky Company.
Today, there are about 30 operating distilleries across the country, with an ever-growing number of newcomers waiting for their first spirit to come to maturity. “As the boom in English whisky results in a lot of casks that need storing for three years and over,” says industry pioneer and English Whisky Co founder Andrew Nelstrop, “we’ve launched a new company called Cadus Vaults that offers cask-maturation storage to other distillers, which has seen great initial growth.”
English producers are embracing some of the elements that define great single malts, but their liquid is by no means ‘Scotch south of the border’. They see the industry’s young age and lack of clearly defined traditions as an opportunity to paint on a blank canvas, defying stylistic standardisation while embracing innovation and experimentation.
With the launch of its first whisky expression, dubbed Wire Works, in February 2022, Derbyshire-based White Peak is the latest distillery to enter the English whisky game. Founded in 2016 by husband and wife team Max and Claire Vaughan, White Peak kicked off by releasing a wide range of plain and flavoured gins and one rum, while waiting for the golden stuff to mature. Wire Works is made with a combination of English unpeated and peated malted barley, matured in first-fill bourbon and shaved, toasted and re-charred (STR) casks. The whisky shows a delicately peated note, alongside candied orange peel, vanilla and apples, while the palate reveals a warmer character, with dark chocolate, toffee, winter spices, mocha and a creamy mouthfeel.
The distillery focuses on employing raw materials of Derbyshire provenance, such as indigenous yeast and local barley, and the team has plans to ensure it can continue to mature and bottle the liquid on site as the brand grows. According to Max Vaughan, “several” new expressions will be released over the coming months, including some single casks and a potential collaboration with Never Say Die bourbon.
“[We] follow our journey to understand how our spirit style and flavour behaves at varying fill strengths and in different casks”, says Vaughan. “We think it’s unlikely we’ll be identifying a ‘flagship’ bottling for at least a couple of years... we owe it to ourselves to continue improving our understanding of our spirit.”
This year has also seen the release of Kent-based Copper Rivet Distillery’s innovative third expression. Clocking in at 42% ABV, Masthouse Grain Pot and Column Distilled is a multi-grain blend of Belgravia barley malt, Claire wheat, and Arantes rye from the 2016 harvest of the nearby Isle of Sheppey (the same grain bill goes into Copper Rivet’s Dockyard Gin, Vela Vodka, and Son of a Gun English Grain Spirit). As the name suggests, Masthouse Grain’s wash is double distilled, first in a pot then in a column still. The launch follows Copper Rivet’s Single Malt Pot and Column Distilled, unveiled last summer, and the inaugural Masthouse Single Malt Double Pot Distilled, released in November 2020.
The same year also marked the birth of Dartmoor whisky, distilled in Devon on a 1966 copper still from Cognac. The brand was founded in 2015 by Greg Millar and production is currently being overseen by master distiller Frank McHardy, who boasts five decades of experience at Springbank in Campbeltown and Bushmills in Ireland. The whisky is cut with local water while barley is sourced from Preston Farm, just down the road from the distillery, and malted at Warminster Maltings in Somerset. The wash is brewed at local cask ale maker Dartmoor Brewery to McHardy’s specifications. Dartmoor’s portfolio currently comprises six expressions – including three single casks aged in ex-bourbon, ex-Bordeaux, and ex-oloroso barrels – but is soon set to be enriched by a new ‘Founder’s Reserve’ ex-bourbon cask.
The team at Copper Rivet
Meanwhile, Shropshire-based Henstone released its first whisky in January 2021. The distillery was established in 2017 in Oswestry, a few miles east of the Welsh border, by Chris and Alexandra Toller, and Shane and Alison Parr, whose Stonehouse Brewery also serves as the distillery’s site. The inaugural ex-bourbon single cask – just 400 bottles – sold out on release, but a second bottling is now available and more whisky is in the pipeline. The team is maturing new make in a mix of ex-bourbon, ex-oloroso, and ex-Pedro Ximénez casks, together with a couple of ‘secrets’.
The streak of inaugural releases isn’t ceasing anytime soon. While Yorkshire-based Cooper King distillery is currently selling vodka and a range of gins only, its first whisky will be reaching the three-year mark in the autumn, with the first release planned for the summer of 2023. While waiting for Yorkshire’s angels to have their fair share, the team made a one-year-old malt spirit – matured in 100-litre, first-fill bourbon and second-fill corn whiskey casks – available to Cooper King’s Founders Club members, and they are releasing a two-year-old aged in a 100-litre French oak red wine cask imminently.
Cooper King is committed to sourcing raw materials locally and to being as sustainable as possible. This includes using recycled card and FSC-certified paper for packaging, as well as running on 100 per cent green energy. The distillery fills approximately 50 100-litre casks a year, sourced directly from Kentucky’s MB Roland distillery and from France. “[We fill] French oak barrels... with a mix of NEOCs (similar to STR), fresh red wine, Cognac, Armagnac and dessert wine casks”, says co-founder and director Chris Jaume.
Meanwhile, there is no need to wait for over a year for the launch of Circumstance Distillery’s first whisky. The maverick Bristol-based distillery recently announced that about 250 bottles of the liquid – a delicately perfumed yet harmoniously rich expression – will be released this coming autumn. The whisky was made with 85 per cent malted and 15 per cent unmalted organic barley, and the spirit was matured in first-fill bourbon and new Spanish oak casks.
Since its inception in 2018, Circumstance has been yielding a diverse array of intriguing, characterful, and innovative grain spirits. The team ferments its wash using a range of yeasts – such as saison beer, British ale, and mead yeast strains – and employs anything from malted barley to rye, wheat, unmalted barley, oat, corn, rice, as well as ancient grains and some darker beer malts too. Circumstance Distillery is also particularly keen on experimenting with different woods, housing casks of various sizes and origins, from Spanish to Andean oak, alongside English oak spindles used on some of its dark grain spirits. Circumstance’s Liam Hirt expects all whisky releases over the next 10 years or so to be limited-edition single casks, with a rye and a wheat expression to follow soon after the inaugural launch.
Moving a cask at The Lakes Distillery
While such an impressive stream of new and upcoming launches speaks of English whisky’s vibrant nature, some of the most established distilleries’ planned developments serve as proof of this young industry’s achievements.Earlier this year, for instance, Cotswolds Distillery revealed a significant expansion in production at its site near Shipston-on-Stour, in the North Cotswolds. The development involves a new dedicated whisky distillery, due to be commissioned this coming summer. With a potential output of 500,000 litres of pure alcohol per year, it is believed that the new site will grant Cotswolds Distillery the status of England’s largest whisky producer.
Meanwhile, up in the Lake District, The Lakes Distillery has been busy maximising a £3.2m investment by improving the visitor experience, its warehousing footprint and increasing its spirit-making capacity. A “previously dilapidated farmhouse”, as The Lakes Distillery’s Steve Gibson describes it, was renovated and transformed into the distillery’s Whiskymaker’s House, with two new tasting rooms for visitors and guests to use as part of the tour. The Lakes Distillery also built a state-of-the-art ‘Whisky Studio’, which has become the epicentre of its burgeoning whisky-making operation.
“At The Lakes Distillery, the production process begins and ends in the Whisky Studio. Actively involved at every stage of the spirit’s journey, our whisky maker and his team begin the whisky-making process at the end, visualising the final spirit they want to create and then working meticulously backwards through each stage of the process to create the flavours they need at every step,” says Gibson.
“We have also invested in an expansion plan that has tripled our spirit production capacity. Adding eight new washbacks into the distillery, we now have the capacity to lay down spirit that is approximately equivalent to 1.2 million 70cl bottles each year,” he continues. “Coupled with our warehouse expansion project, it means we can now increase the amount of new-make spirit we create and lay down a lot more single malt whisky to mature in line with our long-term ambitions.’’ The distillery recently unveiled a further £1.25m crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube, which was already overfunded just a few days after the launch.
Then, in late March, the distillery’s Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.4 was awarded the coveted title of World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards presentation dinner in London. Having bested hundreds of other single malts of all ages from around the globe, this is the first time that this important award has been given to an English whisky, an important milestone in the development of the country’s credibility as a serious whisky producer.
London’s East London Liquor Company (ELLC) also turned to crowdfunding when, in April last year, it successfully raised £750k in a bid to accelerate its expansion plans, including laying down 250 casks of maturing whisky each year by 2023. Having already raised £1.5m in 2018, this was ELLC’s second successful campaign.
Despite its young age, English whisky is keen to fly high. Last year, a group of English whisky distillers – consisting of Andrew Nelstrop of English Whisky Co, Tagore Ramoutar of the Oxford Artisan Distillery, Stephen Russell of Copper Rivet, and Dan Szor of Cotswolds Distillery – teamed up to form the English Whisky Guild (EWG). The association grew rapidly and today embraces some 16 whisky and whisky-to-be producers, 11 of which sit on its board. While working on a strategy to promote England’s whisky as a high-quality product, the EWG recently submitted to the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) an application to legally define a geographical indication (GI) for English whisky.
The still named ‘Nautilus’ at the Oxford Artisan Distillery.
According to the group, the GI’s purpose is to ensure consistent, understandable standards for all current and prospective whisky distillers in England. “We’re not going to get anywhere unless what we make tastes really good,” says Copper Rivet’s Russell. “We need to strike a balance between putting standards in place
that scream quality but also allow for innovation.”
The GI proposal reflects the industry’s young and innovative nature, while also attempting to highlight the English whisky industry’s unique selling propositions. The draft regulations include a requirement for grains of UK origin – “almost all of the distilleries are using English grain rather than UK grain, but, of course, if one’s doing peated they might get something from north of the border,” says Ramoutar – and allow for maturation in casks made from any type of wood, not just oak.
With the United Kingdom being among the world’s top 10 barley producers, English distillers are indeed committed to making the most of locally available raw materials. Alongside the aforementioned Copper Rivet, White Peak, Cotswolds, The Lakes Distillery, Cooper King, and Dartmoor, other distilleries are already working with locally sourced grains. Spirit of Yorkshire, maker of Filey Bay single malt, sources all its barley from the nearby family farm at Hunmanby and, in 2021, it harvested its first rye crop, too. Meanwhile, London-based Bimber uses Concerto and Laureate barley from Hampshire’s Fordham & Allen. Some producers are also committed to championing historical grains: Oxford Artisan Distillery, for instance, employs populations of ancient heritage grains thanks to a collaboration with archaeobotanist, and now head of grain and sustainability, John Letts.
The draft GI is currently being reviewed and the EWG expects a response within the next six months. In its current or potentially amended form, the GI is set to benefit the country’s distillers with a degree of structural uniformity. English whisky, however, needs no GI to describe its own blossoming identity. With its producers uniformly committed to championing locally sourced grains and the spirit of experimentation, the country’s maturing whisky scene is already defined by momentous, harmonious, inspiring heterogeneity.