April 23rd, 2020: St George’s Day. It was an unseasonably warm spring day in England as 16 burgeoning distillers logged into a historic Zoom call. No doubt every participant felt a sense of nervous anticipation, for this was the first meeting of English whisky producers in their collective mission to establish a formal, self-governed association, and a binding definition for the category.
Up until six years ago there was just one distillery in England regularly making whisky. “For a long time English whisky meant my whisky,” says Andrew Nelstrop, owner of the English Whisky Company, which began distilling at St. George’s distillery in Norfolk in 2006. “We were the only whisky company in England running a distillery dedicated to the art of whisky. Some 15 years later we are now joined by several new distilleries, and so English whisky has changed from being a single brand to a national industry.”
By 2014 whisky was also being distilled by London Distillery Company in Battersea, at The Lakes Distillery in Cumbria and the Cotswolds Distillery at Shipston-on-Stour. It wasn’t long before more operations sprang to life all over the country, from Durham in the Northeast down to the Isle of Wight.
Today there are around 25 distilleries making whisky, each with its own unique style and approach influenced by its local surroundings and the vision of its passionate founders and whisky makers.
At The Lakes, whiskymaker Dhavall Gandhi uses his experience working with the likes of Heineken and Macallan to create a layered, sherried style of single malt, using a multitude of cask types. Across at the Spirit of Yorkshire distillery the focus is on local barley and the creation of a ‘field to bottle’ whisky influenced by the team’s backgrounds in farming and agronomy.
Earlier this year Henstone Distillery at Oswestry in Shropshire launched its Old Dog Corn Liquor, an eight-month-old ‘Bourbon style’ spirit distilled from a mash of corn, wheat and barley on a hybrid pot and column still. Meanwhile East London Liquor Company has been turning out its own rye whisky since 2018, and takes an experimental approach to limited-edition releases, like the collaboration with California’s Sonoma Distilling Company on a London rye-Bourbon blend. Fellow London distillery Bimber takes a traditional approach to whisky making with its rare use of coal-fired stills, while Norfolk’s St. George’s distillery also produces a rye, as well as both peated and unpeated single malts.
It’s clear there is no singular style or direction that defines English whisky, although the one aspect every distiller has in common is an intense passion for the spirit. “English whisky is about diversity of influences and thought processes, and letting the world know that good whisky can come from anywhere,” says Dhavall. “It shouldn’t be different for the sake of being different. It should be different because we are trying to make something compelling, something we believe in.”
For Abbie Neilson, co-founder and director of Yorkshire’s Cooper King Distillery, English whisky means ‘exploring what whisky could be rather than should be’. “For us, English whisky draws on the heritage and tradition established by Scotland but with greater freedom for innovation, as inspired by New World whisky. At Cooper King this means utilising locally grown, non-traditional barley varieties, long fermentations, a Tasmanian copper pot still and a diverse portfolio of small 100-litre casks, including smoked Bourbon, red wine, armagnac, and virgin oak.”
How to define a category when every distillery is forging its own identity? That was the question put to the 16 distillers attending the first meeting of the English whisky association (name still pending). “There’s been so much more agreement than disagreement, and everyone wants it to move forward and work,” says Dan Szor, owner of The Cotswolds Distillery who organised the meeting. “We all feel generally most of our process has to be done in England. Some feel the grain has to come from England, others agree it has to be distilled in England, and we’re pretty much all agreed you couldn’t buy in whisky from another country and label it English.”
Certainly there is agreement that only the ingredients of water, grain and yeast should be permitted, though there is also discussion around allowing for experimentation with cask sizes and wood types. “There’s also no great desire to over-legislate,” adds Szor. “There’s a strong desire for the contrary, that any kind of proposed regulation doesn’t stifle the ability to be creative.”
The trick is establishing a binding definition that can be inclusive for all distilleries in England and not just for those already with whisky in bottle, but which also allows for creativity while protecting the burgeoning category from controversial experimentation.
“It only takes someone to put out some bad stuff and that knocks back the reputation of English whisky quite significantly,” says Kirsty Taylor, marketing director at The Lakes. “That’s where collectively everyone talks a really good game about the quality agenda, but I don’t know whether there’s a bit of naivety. It would be a shame if someone did something daft and because we don’t have regulations controlling the English whisky scene...”
English whisky’s story is only just beginning, so proposed legislation defining a nascent category that’s not yet seven years old demonstrates some gutsy optimism. Right now, while the category is on the radar for whisky enthusiasts, the wider world is yet to realise whisky can even be produced outside of Scotland, Ireland or the US.
“There’s a complete lack of appreciation for England even making whisky at the moment,” says Matt McKay, marketing and communications manger for Bimber in London. “Among whisky enthusiasts there is a rapid interest in the category but there’s a lot of work we need to do together to simply highlight the category and acknowledge England as a leading whisky producer.”
While English distillers fall into the general category of New World whisky, which is slowly gaining visibility thanks to the success of headline brands like Kavalan, there is work to be done. Szor claims there’s a need for collaboration. “The two real focuses of the [Zoom call] were to agree a definition of English whisky and the degree to which that is protected, then also raising awareness of the category and promoting it.”
The formation of an official English whisky ‘association’ is not simple. With around 25 potential stakeholders there is still much discussion to be had, not least the challenges presented by Covid-19. Nonetheless, Szor is hopeful some semblance of an organisation could be ready by St George’s Day 2021.
“The most exciting thing is this feeling that we’re in at the start of something that could be a multi-decade, multi-generational thing,” Szor adds. “Suddenly you’re part of a category, there is movement.”