I remember seeing the site for The Lakes Distillery way back when it had just been announced that planning permission was being sought. It seemed a bit of a leap of faith. The region’s winters are not the most forgiving on building fabric, even if these farm buildings had been standing since the Victorian era.
But thankfully I am not the one who had to have the vision and the faith to turn the site into what it is now – a major visitor attraction and serious centre of distilling.
Set in the backdrop of the beautiful Cumbrian fells, the distillery is set in an area of outstanding natural beauty next to Bassenthwaite Lake. Overlooked by one of the Lakes’ highest peaks, Skiddaw, the location has been an inspiration to many people during the years including the poets Wordsworth and Tennyson.
Revisiting The Lakes Distillery a few months ago it was impressive to see what has happened and how the place has flourished. Despite the inclement February weather, the car park was near full and the shop was buzzing.
The distillery is based at a refurbished model farm. The main barn houses the mash house and still house, with stills carefully designed to produce the spirits on a small artisan scale. An old cattle shed has been converted into the warehouse, with further cattle sheds being transformed into the shop, bistro and bar.
Rather like its Scottish kin, the Lakes stands in a most impressive bucolic setting, with the water used for the spirits coming from the River Derwent, having flowed down from Sprinkling Tarn, its source in the Fells.
Most times if I am visiting a distillery I would just roll on up, unannounced, but this was a prearranged visit, to get behind the hype and see if there was substance to this company.
The answer is a resounding yes. A few changes have been made since distilling started back in December 2014, but now with the gregarious figure of Dhavall Ghandi at the helm things seem to be going well. If the ambitious plans are realised then it’s fairly certain The Lakes is going to be around and making decent whisky for a long time.
The main change of tack that could secure this future is the vision and palate of Dhavall. A chartered scientist in distilling, he has a masters degree in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University, a diploma in distilling from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, and had previously acted as a whisky maker at The Macallan brand.
He told me once he was in post, the board effectively gave him carte blanche within the distilling sphere.
He added: “I changed things when I came in – the distillate is now more complex and creamy than before.
“We are going to have more of a sherry driven single malt over the long term. We launched the blended side as I wanted to take time to release the single malt, using European oak first fill. It will give fruitier notes with dry fruit as well, all unpeated.
"We are looking for some complex fruit, berry and cereal notes. So we are looking more to Olorosso and PX.
"This will be a classic sherry edge, not a sherry bomb style, more an elegant sherry style in the next few years. We are not in a hurry really.”
Coming from The Macallan, Dhavall also brings a great deal of wood policy knowledge to the table, especially when it comes to sherry oak.
He explained, “We ship our sherry casks direct from Spain, so we can spec and control what we want. It will be fun to experiment with new make, and sherry wood. I am also planning to have a proportion of Bourbon too. The goal in all of this is to make a house style with quality and consistency.”
The changes don’t just apply to the single malt range, Dhavall has his eye on The Lakes blended side of things too.
The One, which was the first ever British blended malt when it launched back in 2013, is to get an overhaul soon.
He added, “Next year we are going to take The One up to 46.6% ABV and non chill filtered. I also want to tweak the recipe a little. I am looking for more flavour and a more creamy mouthfeel. The intention is to reduce the peat and aim for a more Speyside style.”
More work is expected to happen expanding the distillery to meet predicted growth in the coming years.
Dhavall said at the moment the distillery’s output was 240,000 litres, but this was going to increase.
He added, “We are looking to increase capacity to 450,000 litres, with more washbacks. Currently we get delivery of Yorkshire barley seven days a week. Fermentation is quite long at 96 hours.
“The challenge we have here is the space, and a heritage site. Due to restrictions we cannot build outside the footprint of the current building. We are however building a new warehouse each year and laying down for long-term supply.”
One thing that will not change at the distillery is the ethos and desire to create a premium whisky.
The initial release of coming-of-age whisky came in the form of Genesis. This was matured in Oloroso hogsheads, before being finished in American and European oak ex-Bourbon casks.
The number of casks involved was not specified, but the three components were married together in an interesting choice of cask – Spanish orange wine from Andalucia.
The very first bottle of this single malt, bottle number one, secured a world record for the most expensive bottle of whisky sold through auction for a new distillery.
The first bottle sold in July 2018 for a record-breaking £7,900. All 99 bottles were successfully sold through the auction at www.whiskyauctioneer.com, at a landmark average price of £900 per bottle. Bottle number #1 surpassed the previous whisky world record of £7,100 in auction from a new Scottish distillery held earlier that year.
At the time, Dhavall said, “We don’t just bottle our whisky because it is three years old. I look at each cask to assess them individually until I find the right flavour profile. We have reached a peak for some casks and that is why we released such a limited number now. It’s an amazing feeling that people are finally recognising whisky as art. People have a lot of faith in what we are doing.”
If whisky is an art, then after spending some time with Dhavall in his blending lab, this man is the artist relishing his palatte.