More and more English distilleries are producing their own whiskies, so should Scotland be worried? Drinks writer Peter Ranscombe eyes up the competition.
Think whisky, think Scotland. Few other countries could lay claim to be the ancestral home of the dark spirit that’s captured the world’s imagination for the past 150 years.
Scotland has even spawned its own category within the world of whisky: to be called “Scotch”, a spirit must be made in Scotland and aged for at least three years in oak barrels. But Scotch isn’t the only game in town. Hot on the heels of the craft beer movement, craft distilleries are popping up all over England. Should Scottish distillers be worried about the competition from the auld enemy south of the border?
It’s early days – after all, it can take eight, 10 or 12 years to age a single malt to a desirable level of quality. Yet some of the initial indications are very exciting indeed.
To bring in cash while their whiskies age – and to generate the buzz and excitement required to pre-sell casks and bottles – some distilleries are releasing grain spirit. It can’t be called “whisky” because it hasn’t undergone those first three magic years of maturation in oak, but it does indicate how each distillery’s underlying spirit will taste.
For me, one of the most exciting examples is Son of a Gun (£31.25 for 50cl, Master of Malt) made by the Copper Rivet Distillery at Chatham dockyard in Kent. Don’t be fooled by its translucent colour, which belies its intense and complex flavours.
It’s got a really fruity nose, with gin-like citrus flavours of grapefruit and lime, plus spicy cloves and sweet mandarin. And it’s those orange flavours that carry on through to the palate, mixing with chocolate notes that remind me of Dalmore single malt Highland whisky – high praise indeed.
Distillery Project 001 (£39.95, spiritofyorkshire.com) from the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery has the more classic aromas of grain and honey. I found it thinner and less mouth-coating than the Son of a Gun, but the sweet caramel and honey flavours still hit the spot.
While some distilleries chose to release their new-make spirit, others went down the blending route, including The Lakes Distillery, which created The One (£29.95, lakesdistillery.com), a British blended whisky, using spirits from other producers. The nose has light wood smoke and green apple aromas, which lead into honey, raisins, toffee and those TCP notes from a peated component.
The One has an enjoyably smooth and rounded texture, but its flavours are more muted, as would be expected from a blend. A second version of the whisky, which has been finished in Pedro Ximenez (£39.95, lakesdistillery.com) sweet sherry casks, is much more distinctive and nails its colours firmly to the mast, with flavours of golden syrup and fruitcake accompanying the smoky notes. The Lakes’ own maiden single malt is due to be released later this year.
Yet there was whisky in England before the current craft distillery boom; the English Whisky Company opened its St George’s Distillery in Norfolk in 2006. The Original single malt whisky (£36.99, englishwhisky.co.uk) has become something of a benchmark, with a big hit of dried fruit and a touch of smoke on the nose, then a lighter mouthfeel full of caramel, honey, raisins, and a savoury element reminiscent of roast pork and apple sauce.
The English Whisky Company also produces Marks & Spencer’s own-label Fine Single Malt English Whisky (£35), which has lighter lemon, cereal and spun sugar aromas and a surprisingly-sweet toffee depth given its light colour. Tourism is another big dimension to its business and its distillery is well-worth the short train ride from Norwich.
Another early entrant was Adnams in neighbouring Suffolk, best known as a brewer and wine merchant, but with a distillery that’s so advanced its design has made it into spirits textbooks. Its Single Malt Whisky (£34.99, adnams.co.uk) is packed full of lemon, apricot and vanilla flavours – sweet and honeyed like a Speyside malt.