It goes without saying that whisky is an ever-expanding industry, one that relentlessly juggernauts into new horizons. Turn back the clock 20 years and, certainly in Britain, one would never have imagined relaxing with a glass of French, Italian, Dutch, Australian or Taiwanese whisky, to name but a few. The list of new world whisky distilleries grows virtually by the month. For a whisky newbie and seasoned connoisseur alike, it's an exciting time to be alive.
Established a mere three years ago in the spring of 2014, to say that East London Liquor Company (ELLC) hit the ground running would be something of an understatement. As well as the daily production of gin and vodka, the running of a bustling cocktail bar and restaurant all onsite, they are also quietly, though not secretly, "...planning the release of East London's first whisky in over a century". The times, they are a-changing. With exciting news of English whisky distilleries popping up from Yorkshire's single estate Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery to Warwickshire's Cotswolds Distillery, and with an application for Dartmoor's not first, but second whisky distillery in the pipeline, I thought it time to shine a light on what these hip gentry are up to in my neck of the woods - East London. Having been a resident of Whitechapel for several years, it pleases me to say my local whisky distillery is an appealing 40 minute walk door-to-door.
Not only are the pioneering chaps at this edgy craft distillery creating a London whisky but, even more titillating, they're sitting on rye spirit presently maturing in chestnut casks. "Chestnut?!" I hear you gasp in disbelief. Indeed. It was a couple of years ago that a friend of mine, David Fitt, head distiller at The English Whisky Company, mentioned in passing that whisky does not necessarily - or more accurately, legally - have to be matured in oak. Admittedly, I was not previously privy to this information. Whilst laws regarding Irish, Scotch and Bourbon clearly state that only oak is permitted, a quick check online confirmed that EU law stipulates that whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years in wood casks - wood, not oak. It would seem the idea that whisky must be aged strictly in oak is a common misconception.
Soon after learning these rather interesting titbits of information, I hit upon a chapter of Charles MacLean's Miscellany of Whisky in which he suggests that even today there may still exist the odd chestnut cask lurking undisturbed in a dark corner of a Scottish Highland warehouse. Indeed, it was only as recently as 1988 that law was introduced declaring that Scotch must be aged strictly in oak barrels, so perhaps there's some truth to MacLean's notion, though finding evidence would prove difficult, especially when considering that chestnut casks look almost identical to those made of oak. Reading those few lines in MacLean's book raised a few questions for me regarding the supply, malleability and cost of using chestnut on a commercial scale. Though my biggest curiosity was regarding flavour - what does a chestnut cask-aged grain spirit, or 'chisky', taste like?
There have been very few studies into the comparative analysis of volatile compounds found within oak and chestnut. And I am no more a chemist than I am a ballet dancer, so admittedly I found deciphering the contextual meaning behind complex compounds such as 5-hydroxymethylfurfural somewhat tasking. After some further research, I managed to deduce that chestnut has been known to impart flavours of caramel, toffee and toast, as well as vegetal notes. Like American oak, chestnut also contains high levels of phenolic aldehydes, chiefly vanillin, which imbues, as one might suspect, the flavour of vanilla. I also find it noteworthy that chestnut and oak are the only two types of wood approved for ageing wine by the International Enological Codex of the International Organisation of Vine and Wine. However, chestnut is more porous than oak, which is not ideal for ageing wine as this leads to faster oxidisation. Where ageing whisky is concerned, this higher porosity will surely lead to a greater angels' share.
It is with all this in mind that I sat down with ELLC's Alex Wolpert and Andy Mooney, founder and whisky distiller respectively, to ask a few questions about the anarchistic alcohols they're creating within the bare-bricked walls of their refurbished glue factory.
So tell me gents, what whisky are you making?
Andy: We're making our own style of rye whisky at the moment: 42 per cent rye, 58 per cent pale ale malt. The rye content will be scaled up eventually, but with 42 per cent rye, you still get a lot of creamy texture coming through from the pale ale malt but you also get a hint of spice from the rye. We're also making single malt, but aged in ex-rye casks instead of ex-bourbon casks. And then also some French oak and new American oak.
So what can you tell me about chestnut?
Andy: Oh yeah, we're also ageing in chestnut! The cool thing about the UK is we're not restricted to the type of wood we use.
Alex: Yes, it's amazing how many people are misinformed about that.
Is chestnut cheaper or more expensive? How does it differ from oak?
Andy: No, it's a similar price. It's a finer kind of wood though so it leaks. I put in 61 litres and after a year there was just under 60 and the ABV had only dropped by 0.5 per cent . However, it does age progressively faster in terms of taste and wood.
What size are the casks?
Andy: We've got 30, 60 and 120 litre casks. The chestnut ones are longer, cigar-shaped, so there's more contact with the wood.
And where are they being aged?
Andy: Below, just beneath us. We can hold 120-150 casks down there in each room and there are two rooms.
I hear there's a small race to release London's first whisky in over a century. Is that right?
Alex: Oh, we're aware of it but we aren't taking part in the race. We'll release it when it's ready. Ours will be excellent, whether it's before or after anyone else.
Andy: Yeah, it has to be good. And I have to like it!
You've done so much in just a couple of short years. Where do you see yourself after 10 years?
Alex: I guess after 10 years we'd hope to have our feet under the table by having a London's gin and to differentiate between having our gin and the other gins made on a big scale… And once we've released a whisky after three years, we'll be in the position to be able to hold some whisky back for five, eight or 10 years and then really be able to develop what we release and when we release it.
A little birdie told me you're also ageing distilled mead…?
Andy: Aha, yeah. You can try some if you like…
As well as 'honeyshine', single malt, wheat and rye spirits, Andy has also distilled stout from a London brewery that's currently ageing amongst his growing armoury of casks. But it's their chestnut-aged rye spirit I am most keen to try. At only one-year-old, it's by no means yet a whisky and in fact it had already been removed from the cask due to taking on so much flavour from the chestnut in that fleeting year, Andy told me. The nose has the peppery spice one would expect from this level of rye, with a lot of grass, some agave syrup, caramel, butterscotch, orange pomander and wood polish. The palate is an explosion of cloves and a woodiness that's noticeably different to oak. The finish is very tannic, long and tingles with white pepper, cinnamon and more wood polish. It's huge and claws at the palate insatiably. Overall I'm impressed, if a little perplexed. I can say with certainty that East London Liquor Company is well worth a visit. Tour manager Alex Ling's knowledge and entertaining demeanour makes for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The premium £55pp tour includes an excellent cocktail on arrival and a post-tour tasting of no fewer than eight spirits, including Sonoma County whiskies imported by ELLC from California. And should you feel the need to soak up that hefty degree of libation with some sustenance, their appetising Italian tapas menu is close to hand.
Come the year 2020, England will be home to no fewer than a dozen whisky producers. Although most will be focused on single malt, it's reassuring to learn that some are branching out into other grains. Whatever these gentlemen of East London have planned for the coming years, I have no doubt it'll cause a few ripples in the whisky pond.