During the past four years, the United Kingdom has seen a thriving resurgence of independently run distilleries, eager to cater for the growing number of new spirits drinkers and their broadening palates. With small distilleries already achieving considerable successes in a short space of time, such as Kilchoman on Islay, a handful of brand new boutique operations have sprung up all over Scotland, from the likes of Daftmill in Fife, to the tiny Abhainn Dearg distillery on the Isle of Lewis, which produces just 20,000 litres of spirit annually.
But this renaissance is not simply confined to the canny Caledonians, recently England has also become host to a number of pioneering distillers.
This year, St George’s distillery in Norfolk became England’s first malt whisky distillery in more than 100 years, boldly flying the flag for its highly regarded (and well publicised) single malt.
Forty miles to the east in Southwold, local brewing legends Adnam’s has just announced plans to install a small-scale distillery at their Sole Bay facility, becoming the first brewery in the UK to make beer and distil spirits on the same premises.
In the capital, the term ‘micro distillery’ has also been taken to new extremes with fledgling gin makers Sipsmith, which is operating London’s first new copper pot still (amusingly called ‘Prudence’) in 189 years, from the site where late whisky and beer writer Michael Jackson had his offices.
Sipsmith’s owners, Sam Galsworthy & Fairfax Hall, may be historically in good company with London’s well-documented heritage of gin production, but what about a London malt whisky? To answer that question, we have to look back to the writing of Alfred Barnard, who, in 1887, produced The Whisky Distilleries of The United Kingdom at the time the most comprehensive account of whisky making across the British Isles. On his travels, Barnard documented that in England there were around 10 licensed distilleries, “most of them confined to the manufacture of plain spirit for rectifying, but four have been selected as coming within the scope of the present work” (ie the manufacture of whisky).
Liverpool, which Barnard describes as the “second city in the Queen’s empire” was at the forefront of English distillation in the 1880s, being an industrial powerhouse and home to one of the largest docks in the UK. The Vauxhall and Bank Hall distilleries on the outskirts of the city produced around 3,500,000 gallons of British plain spirit and grain whisky between them, stored in casks within their on-site bonded warehouses. Barnard documents the grain whisky as “maturing rapidly and after five or six years maturation and is said to be almost equal to old brandy”.
In the West Country, The Bristol Distilling Company was one of the oldest distillation sites in England, with its roots stretching back into the 17th Century. The distillery, manned by a staff of 100 workers and six excise officers, produced predominantly grain whisky, sold to Scotland for the purposes of blending and also for the production of Irish whiskey.
Of the four sites that Barnard highlights, only The Lea Valley Distillery, founded around the late 1880s in Stratford to the East End of London, manufactured a specific malt whisky, the process of which Barnard describes as “certainly a bold experiment to make a trial in the very heart of the Kingdom, so far away from the hills and mountain streams”.
The water source used was from the New River, an artificial waterway close to the distillery site, which was opened in 1613 to supply Londoners with fresh drinking water, taken from the River Lee. It seemed to be an experiment worth investing in, as the company’s annual malt whisky output was around 155,000 gallons, which at the time, would have placed it among the top 20 malt distilleries in the UK. The distillery used a combination of three pot stills manufactured by the renowned Fleming, Bennet & McLaren of Glasgow, later installing one of Coffey’s Patent stills when it began manufacturing a grain whisky to meet the demands of the burgeoning blended whisky market around the world. Another distillery, based at the nearby Three Mills Island, also began production of a grain-based spirit around the same time, predominantly for use in gin.
Sadly, little is known about the character of the whisky produced by The Lea Valley distillers and Barnard’s account gives no indication as to what he tasted on his visit. But judging by the type of set up, using the three pot stills and triple distillation methods, the spirit should have been light in flavour and aroma. There is also no mention of the use of peat in the processing of the malt, but traditionally coke and perhaps a small amount of peat will have been used to dry the barley over open fires or Chauffeurs, as they are described by Barnard.
Today, the sites on which these former titans of English distillation once dominated are sadly either long since re-occupied or demolished, with virtually all trace of English whisky making wiped out by the early 20th Century. In East London, the original Lea Valley Distillery buildings have made way for modern day industry and only a few of the original Three Mills Island buildings exist, but those which have are sympathetically maintained, with a memorial to distillery workers who suffocated in a nearby well in 1901. A serious fire destroyed the Bristol Distillery Co. premises and along with the now infamous ‘Pattison Crash’ in 1900 (which caused wide-spread distillery closures across the UK) and subsequent parliamentary reforms to the distillation business, the term ‘English Whisky’ was consigned as a footnote in history, until its recent renaissance.
The next few years will surely prove to be very exciting times indeed, with more pioneering distillers no doubt rising to the challenge of putting English whisky firmly back on the map.
At the cutting edge of this pioneering spirit, business partners Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall have installed a unique copper still on the very spot where late whisky writer Michael Jackson used to assess his beers and whiskies, the first new business of its type for more than 200 years.
You suspect Michael would have approved of Sipsmith, the new occupants of his west London offices.
To get their fledgling business off the ground the duo have successfully battled against bureaucracy and effectively changed the law of the land.
Now, with the aid of distiller Jared Brown, they’re producing hand crafted small batch spirits and winning plaudits at every turn. Sipsmith was launched a year ago and is now producing vodka and London gin in small batches of 500 bottles or less.
The still was purpose built by German designer Christian Carl and is the only one of its type in existence.
All of which would be of only passing interest to Whisky Magazine readers if it weren’t for two other factors: one, that the duo may have inadvertently opened the door for a whole host of micro-distillers to follow. Two, give it time and Sipsmith may well turn its hand to producing a London whisky.
The distillery raised eyebrows because under British law small stills are not permitted. The rules stretch back stretch back to one of the several laws introduced with the aim of bringing distilling under the tax system. In return for favourable tax rates distillers were forced to produce a minimum annual output of 90,000 litres – which would require a still too big to be hidden from view of the excisemen.
A few years ago when whisky enthusiast John Clotworthy successfully teamed up with Scottish Liberal Democrat MP Charles Kennedy to take advantage of an exemption clause, which permitted small stills in some Highland regions. The loophole was closed the very same day, preventing others from taking the same route.
Now it seems that a law tweak combined with the determination and unbridled enthusiasm of Hall and Galsworthy has paved the way for micro-distilling in Britain.
“Essentially we had seen the passion in the States for small micro-distilleries,” says Galsworthy. “When we came back we wanted to do something similar so we went to see the Customs and Revenue and told them our plans and they said we could not do it.
“But there was an amendment to the 2006 Finance Bill that changed everything. We still had to persuade them properly, though, and we had to draw up a detailed business plan showing we were a long term business and not a couple of moonshiners.”
Both men have a drinks background -Galsworthy worked for London brewers Fuller’s and Hall worked for Diageo.
By coincidence Galsworthy had worked with Michael Jackson on a special Beer Hunter beer brewed by Fuller’s. He had even been to Jackson’s offices. That the company is based on the same site, however, is coincidence.
“While we were looking for viable premises Fairfax’s wife sat next to the landlord’s wife at a lunch and it was mentioned,” he says.
“When we went to look at it, it had all been cleared out and I didn’t recognise it. But then John Glaser, who is a good friend of ours, mentioned that it was where Michael had been based and it all fell in to place.”
Glaser brings us neatly to the subject of whisky. The industry’s most respected innovator makes no secret of the fact that he’d love to produce a London whisky one day. Sipsmith has a small distillery. Two and two equalling four and all that...
“We would definitely like to do whisky in the future for sure,” says Galsworthy. “In what form exactly I don’t know but I’m sure it will happen.”
Could Sipsmith be beating a path for other micro-distillers to follow? Quite possibly.
“This is a very exciting time for us, it’s been the experience of a lifetime. But we’ve been amazed at how much interest there has been. We’ve been asked for help and to give advice on how we did this and we take the view that it would be great if there was a wave of small artisanal producers making discerning products because there seems to be a demand for it.”