Believe it or not, a large amount of the barley used to make whisky in Scotland is actually grown in Yorkshire. So it boggles the mind that, until only recently, the region didn’t have its own single malt. Thankfully, in 2019, Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery corrected that sad fact with its first release of Filey Bay single malt – and the subsequent 11 releases have cemented it as one of English whisky’s finest newcomers.
A 10-minute drive from the whisky’s picturesque namesake, Filey Bay, and located amidst fields of gently swaying barley, it’s hard to believe it’s taken so long for a distillery to appear here. It’s even harder to believe that the small industrial estate on which the distillery
The landscape around the distillery
itself sits is where this multi-award-winning liquid is fastidiously produced.
That Yorkshire was lacking a single malt also came as a surprise to Spirit of Yorkshire’s founders, David Thompson and local farmer Tom Mellor, the latter having spent the last 20 or so years producing beer at his Wold Top Brewery, the distillery’s sister company. All the barley used to make Spirit of Yorkshire’s liquids is grown on Mellor’s farm, and a foray into making whisky was the perfect way to utilise its yield.
Casks waiting to be filled
“When you start a business, you always try and look to what’s been done before,” says Thompson of the research that went into the beginning of the duo’s whisky-making journey. “Spirit of Yorkshire was out of a desire to see what more we could do with our malted barley, farm and water.”
Setting up their first distillery – and one with the daunting task of putting its head above the local parapet first – was no
mean feat. So, Thompson and Mellor enlisted the late, great Dr Jim Swan to help them find their groove. They installed two Forsyths pot stills, as well as a rather unusual four-plate copper rectifying column – not often seen in the making of single malt – that allows the team to create not only one, but two distinct new-make spirits to play with.
It’s all part the bigger picture for Thompson and Mellor: they want to lean on the backbone of Scottish whisky-making tradition, but with their own ways of working, such as the use of the column still. Due to regulations in Scotland, any spirit run through the column could not be classified as single malt; instead, it would be labelled as grain whisky. In England, where regulations are less proscriptive, the team are free to explore this avenue without restriction.
The Filey Bay range of whiskies
Though forward-thinking, the team’s philosophy has in many cases led them to turn back the clock and embrace more traditional production methods, so a lot of what goes on inside the distillery is done by hand.
“It comes back to the ability to be different and to experiment,” says Thompson, before explaining that the team think it’s a shame much of the industry has moved away from the ‘human factor’ in distilling. “There is more control [with hand production] and by making those [production] decisions on a daily basis, you get differences and subtleties – you don’t get that if it is all automated.”
The stills at Spirit of Yorkshire
But don’t be fooled: though a newcomer to the scene, whisky making at Spirit of Yorkshire is at a respectable (if not huge) scale. Even though the distillery is currently only making around 80,000 litres of pure alcohol (lpa) per annum, the distillery is capable of an output of 292,000lpa per annum. Incidentally, Thompson isn’t too keen on the term ‘craft’ – he prefers ‘handmade on a large scale’.
The casks currently filled at the distillery range from first-fill ex-bourbon to STR (shaved, toasted and re-charred) wine barriques (the latter a calling card of Dr Swan), ‘peated’ casks (i.e. refills sourced from distilleries with peated spirit), and sherry butts. Standout whiskies include the Filey Bay Peated Finish #1, which combines its two distillates drawn from a small selection of bourbon casks, before being transferred into peated casks. The result is that the distillery’s trademark light and fruity liquid emerges with a whisper of smoke. Another favourite is the Filey Bay Moscatel Finish (of which there is now a second release), which is matured in bourbon casks for three years before moving into ex-Moscatel hogsheads, which lend the final liquid an even more fruit-forward finish.
The latest whisky to go into bottle is the distillery’s new Filey Bay IPA Finish, and the brewery has gone one step further, filling its Scarborough Fair IPA into the casks previously used to mature the whisky. Thus, the team has created its own barrel-aged IPA. Thompson says there’s even scope for the same process to be undertaken with Wold Top’s Marmalade Porter.
The low wines and spirit safe
The team’s reuse of used brewery and distillery casks is an extension of the company’s commitment to sustainability and its field-to-bottle approach. Apart from the malting, everything happens on the site: from mashing to distillation, through to hand-bottling.
Out in the fields, there’s something else the team are implementing that Thompson hopes will be adopted by their peers: direct drilling. This is where crops are sown directly into the ‘crop stubble’, with no disturbance to the remains of the last harvest. Essentially, by direct drilling, the ploughing process can be eliminated. According to a recent agricultural study, this can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a third – primarily by involving less machinery in the land-management process. Moreover, direct drilling also creates smaller air pockets in the soil (in comparison to those made by normal ploughing), within which oxygen reacts with carbon, with the help of microbes, to create CO2. Thus, emissions from the field itself are also reduced.
Checking casks in the warehouse
“There were years of heavy ploughing in the war; it was the way forward, but we realised this wouldn’t be sustainable for the future,” adds Thompson, explaining that the new method also allows for growth of a cover crop, which gives nitrogen back to the soil.
It’s an interesting concept that needs further investigation – especially in the wake of COP26, which prompted a slew of sustainability-led announcements. At Spirit of Yorkshire, the team is working on how to quantify the company’s positive impact on the environment, but they acknowledge that direct drilling might not be a possibility for farms with heavier soil than theirs. However, for Thompson, it’s the link between agriculture and whisky making that needs to be strengthened for the future of the spirit to play out sustainably: “There is a disconnect between the distilling and farming industries – and that disconnect needs to be plugged.”