Back in the 19th Century a celebrated farmer and slate-quarryman by the name of Lanty Slee distilled reputedly excellent illicit whisky in the Lake District valley of Langdale, but since then, Cumbria has been sadly lacking in a distillery of any sort. Until now.
In December, the first spirit flowed from the stills at The Lakes Distillery, located close to Bassenthwaite Lake and half a dozen miles east of the town of Cockermouth. The venture is the brainchild of Managing Director Paul Currie, son of Harold Currie, one-time 'MD' of Chivas Brothers and later founder of Arran Distillery in the 1990s, along with Paul and his brother, Andrew.
"I was on holiday in the Lake District with my family and I just thought there really should be a distillery here," recalls Paul Currie. "It took a year to find the right Lake District site. No new-builds would be allowed so we had to find the right existing site which would satisfy the planners."
That site came in the shape of an 1850s Victorian 'model' farmstead, which had lain derelict for several years after being used for dairy farming, and construction work to transform its buildings into a functioning distillery began in March 2014.
"It's a beautiful place, it's got great, characterful buildings to work with, and an excellent location, just over a mile from the A66 which runs east to west through the Northern Lakes," explains Currie. The water source for the distillery is Sprinkling Tarn, a tributary of the River Derwent, which feeds into Bassenthwaite Lake.
From the start, the aim was to create a distillery which could produce gin, vodka and whisky, but also generate a substantial income from the visitor side of the operation, capitalising on the extraordinary popularity of the Lake District with tourists.
Accordingly, a lavish visitor centre and shop were incorporated into the plans, along with a 100 cover high-end bistro and the ambitious target of attracting 100,000 visitors per year. Some £6 million was raised for the venture, with 15 private investors, grants and bank finance providing the capital.
Currie also dusted off an old idea first used in the development of Arran, offering members of the public the opportunity to invest in a Founders' Club, where for £595 members receive one bottle of limited edition Lakes single malt annually for 10 years, with stock being taken from the first 100 bottles filled.
More exclusive, and boasting a £12,000 price tag, is the Connoisseurs' Club, with admission limited to a maximum of 60 people. This provides members with their own cask of Lakes single malt, and membership will entitle Connoisseurs to participate in a series of dinners, tastings and other events. A dedicated Connoisseurs' Club boardroom, dining and tasting room has been created beside the on-site warehouse, with a window opening into that warehouse to reveal the rows of casks as they mature, though larger scale warehousing has been secured in nearby Cockermouth.
The first 60 casks, dedicated to the Connoisseurs, are being filled into ex-sherry wood, and Paul Currie notes that both the Founders' Club and the Connoisseurs' Club are expected to be fully subscribed by spring. Take up has been excellent, especially now people see spirit is being produced." Stylistically, Currie describes that spirit as "A fairly, light, fruity and easy-drinking single malt," and notably long fermentations are being undertaken to help generate such a style.
Renowned brewery supplier Musk from near Burton on Trent has created much of the distilling apparatus, while one unusual feature of the pair of stills fabricated by the ubiquitous firm of Forsyth of Rothes is that each has both a conventional copper condenser and also a stainless steel one, either of which can be used at any one time.
"The stainless steel should give a heavier spirit and it may be that ultimately we vat some of that with the lighter spirit for our principal bottlings," says Currie. "At the moment it's all theory. Each still has a clear glass circular panel in the 'man door' so that you can see what's going on inside. It's the only one of its kind."
He adds that, "We started up full production in early January, and expect to make 120,000 to 130,000 litres per annum, with five or six mashes per week. We could achieve 240,000 litres if the fermentation times were shortened, to prevent a 'blockage' at that stage, and that could be an option at some point. We also have a bespoke gin still, which is making our Lakes Vodka and Lakes Gin."
The Lakes Distillery team has also created a 'British Isles blended whisky,' named The One, which is helping to put the distillery on the map while its own single malt ages. "Sales of The One are doing very well," declares Currie. "It has been winning medals in international competitions and is in nine global markets, as are the gin and vodka, with developing UK distribution and a deal with Majestic Wines.
"Our plan with the single malt is to offer experimental bottlings from time to time, but ultimately have a relatively small core range," explains Currie. "We are using first-fill bourbon casks, some sherry, and a few wine casks, and are also filling 50 litre casks for more rapid maturation."
Additionally, Currie intends to dedicate a few weeks each year to experimentation - what he terms 'Mad March.' "We will do some peated production and wood experimentation, filling half a dozen casks each of chestnut, acacia and maple wood, for example, as well as using the stainless steel condensers, though we will use those at other times, too.
"Unlike Scottish distillers, we are not bound by Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) rules which specify oak maturation, so we can be as experimental as we like. With the more unorthodox woods, already being used by some US craft distillers, we will see how maturation progresses after a year or so, which ones work, which don't, and which might need transferring to other casks. We may also use internal staves and new oak cask ends, as pioneered by John Glaser of Compass Box, but while the SWA outlawed the staves, it's not a problem in England!"
A key member of the Lakes Distillery board and non-executive director is the highly respected Dr Alan Rutherford, former Production Director for Diageo, while the Master Distiller's role is occupied by Islay-born Chris Anderson.
Following in the Anderson tradition, Chris commenced work at Caol Ila in 1968, ultimately moving into management, and in 1995 he was appointed manager at Royal Brackla, near Nairn. From there he transferred to Aberfeldy in Perthshire, ultimately being responsible for all five Bacardi-owned Scotch whisky distilleries.
Anderson's retirement was interrupted when Paul Currie invited him to join the Lakes Distillery team. "I immediately decided I liked the challenge of the project," he says. "It's not often you get the chance to be involved in the creation of a totally new distillery."
While Chris Anderson brings a lifetime's experience of the whisky industry with him, distillery manager John Drake is quite another matter. According to Paul Currie, "John is a local man, who has worked as a civil servant, but is passionate about whisky and has had a holiday home on Islay for years. He studied distilling at Heriot Watt University and after qualifying, trained at various distilleries in Scotland. The plan is for him to gain experience under Chris Anderson and then gradually take over as Chris retires."
Only time will tell just how good the Lakes single malt will be. One thing is for certain, however. Lots of money will have to be paid to the government before a drop can be savoured - not a problem Lanty had to deal with!
Malt: Unpeated Concerto barley variety
Mashing: Semi-lauter mashtun - 1 tonne mash
Fermentation: 4 x stainless steel washbacks - 6,000 litres each. Average 90 hour fermentations
Distillation: 1 wash still, 5,500 litres charge, 1 spirit still, 3,500 litres charge
The Lakes Distillery
Bassenthwaite Lake Cumbria CA13 9SJ
Enquiries: +44 (0) 1768 788 850
Bistro and distillery tour bookings: +44 (0) 1768 788 852
Online shop tel: +44 (0) 1768 788 857