Do you fancy a glass of English?

Do you fancy a glass of English?

Increasingly we’ll have to decide, on calling for a scotch, whether we want Scottish scotch or English scotch. Brian Nicholls meets Paul Currie, who’s launching the new Cumbrian distillery with a distinctly North East flavour.

Whatever else the new Lakes Distillery becomes it will not follow Lancelot “Lanty” Slee’s example.

This 19thC farmer and quarryman, “a stiff, fresh faced” and of “great endurance” (history tells us) was of Irish descent and, living in Lakeland’s Little Langdale, he supplemented his day job’s income by distilling hooch, moonshine – whatever you’d call it – then transporting the illicit whisky by pack horse to be sold for 10s a gallon, enabling him to bring smuggled tobacco on return.

He was several times convicted but had among his clientele an ameliorating local magistrate, and his stills and stocks, so well concealed, remained the bane of excisemen. Even a £150 fine didn’t stop Lanty setting up new stills.

There have been no nudge-nudge, wink visits by magistrates to England’s newest and most northerly distillery beside Bassenthwaite lake, nor need there be. Managing director Paul Currie is officially launching this month a legitimate £5m investment aspiring, by the end of 2015 to be into 20 international markets, and a year later to be turning over £3m-£4m.

It will also be a major new tourist attraction, one of six English distilleries existing or coming up – and one with strong North East participation, its registered office in Newcastle, its bottling operation at Eaglescliffe. Board chairman is Nigel Mills the Tyneside multi-millionaire and chairman of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum. Alan Rutherford, from Hexham, was formerly a production director for Diageo running all its Scottish distilleries, and has led renovation of The Lakes Distillery buildings. And the brasserie there will be run by the celebrated North East chef Terry Laybourne MBE. Master distiller Chris Anderson, ex-Dewars and born on Islay, has produced whisky over four decades.

Mills and his board has raised £3.7m in EIS funding from 76 high net worth individuals, the largest single fund raising for EIS by an independent company in the UK this year, exemplifying how the Government’s EIS money raiser can be an alternative to banks.
Laybourne of course operates the Newcastle-based 21 Hospitality Group, and was the first chef to bring a Michelin Star to the North East in 1992, an accolade he and his 21 Queen Street restaurant held for nine years, before he switched to developing bistro-style venues.

Around 15m tourists a year visit the Lake District, about 80% of them day trippers, of whom almost a third visit nearby Keswick. “It’s a huge amount of visitors to tap into,” says Currie. “In Scotland, 8% of visitors go to a distillery. If we get 8% we’ll do all right. We’ve amazing buildings here and the setting is great. It’ll be a real wow.”

He doesn’t exaggerate. The distillery, with its silent spirits, forest of gleaming silver pipes, burnished copper stills – two for whisky, one for gin and vodka –  in what was the barn, also has its bistro, a visitor centre for tasting parties, guided tours, and a shop. There’s also an audio show of a helicopter flight down the Derwent from 3,209ft high Scafell Pike to Workington and 3D holograms of an old and notorious illicit distiller. Who could that possibly be?

A conference and function room has already been booked for a wedding next spring, and can be reached by North East businesses taking a short helicopter hop to nearby Armathwaite. There’s even a bus stop outside connecting regularly with Keswick if you can’t trust yourself to drive afterwards. The visitor centre will feature now on shopping tours, and is convenient for Higham Hall, the popular study centre.

So while primarily a whisky, gin and vodka production centre to serve the world, tourism will play a big part too, with hopefully 50,000 visitors a year. “You need a lot of cash upfront to ensure you can lay down stock which has to be kept for up to 15 years,” Currie explains. “So you need other sides of the businesses, like tourism, gin and vodka, to get you that.”

But for sure The Lakes Distillery will be significant in reviving an English whisky industry, which thrived in Liverpool, Bristol and London until the late 19thC and finally disappeared with a final distillation of a single malt in 2003. Today whisky is being distilled once more in Norfolk, Suffolk, the Cotswolds, Cornwall and on two fronts in London.

The Lakes, though, will be England’s biggest centre, Currie confidently predicts. “Our capacity is 1m bottles a year in whisky, with similar capacity also for gin and vodka.”

So even though researchers have suggested in The Grocer that vodka through younger drinkers may overtake whisky as Britain’s favourite spirit within two years, The Lakes will meet either preference.

Distillery2Its initial whisky already on sale at £29.95, The One, is the first totally British blend, sourced in England, Wales, and both sides of the Irish border. “Irish whisky tends to be smooth because it’s distilled three times, whereas Scotch whisky has fantastic character,” Currie explains. “The two together contribute to a great blend.” A winning one too.
Since its launch at the Taste Cumbria food festival last year The One, in bottles of Finnish-style finesse, has received a silver award as one of the best blended whiskies In the blue riband International Wine & Spirit Competition drawing tens of thousands of entries.

That’s been the icing on the liquid cake. “Response has also been great from whisky critics, from consumers and bloggers,” Currie adds. It’s selling already not only in the UK online and off, but also in France, Belgium, Netherlands and the UAE, and will be sold in Finland and Denmark shortly, with Spain and the USA to follow.

At home, it has been listed nationally by Majestic Wine and is joining the racks of Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason and Booths. A big lift is expected towards Christmas following last year’s trade surprise that Marks and Spencer’s branded Fine Single Malt English Whisky (from Norfolk) outsold its new Scottish Single Malt by two to one, both costing £35.

Currie, however, with a foot in both camps, denies intention at Lakeland to war with Scottish producers. While Norfolk until now has been England’s pacemaker in England’s five year old revival of whisky, The Lakes Distillery will produce about 250,000 litres
of alcohol a year.

The smallest competition in England is nearer 10,000 or 20,000 and the biggest in Scotland 12m. “So we’re big by English standards but pretty small by Scottish standards,” Currie points out. Barley used comes from Yorkshire.

“Scotch whisky is worth more than £4bn – 85% of Scotland’s food and drink sales,” he elaborates. “In fact 25% of UK food and drink sales are in whisky. That’s how important it is.

Major companies have huge marketing spends we could never compete with. But there’s market growth at the premium end, whereas it’s reasonably flat or dropping at the volume end of spirits.

“Also, the internet has made a big difference. Twenty years ago trying to start a whisky and get it known was very hard with no internet to tell your story. Now whisky bloggers, writers and enthusiasts exist in their thousands. Even a small business like this can communicate with them.”

It cannot have delighted Scots distillers that a Tasmanian whisky, Sullivan’s, was recently adjudged the world’s best. But it indicates the global growth of whisky making now evident, with distilleries thriving in Taiwan, India, Australia, France and Sweden. “I have a bottle of Sullivan’s here,” says Currie. “It’s excellent.”

So Currie sees an ongoing Scotch industry thriving as being much to Lakeland’s benefit. “We want whisky to keep growing worldwide then we can be part of that growing market. We’re proud to be different though, this side of the border. The One is a British whisky, while our Lake malt will be very much marketed as an English whisky.” A “very positive response” is reported among Scots over the border, and a spokesman for the Scottish industry agrees there’s room for other nations. “But we’ll beat competition,” he adds defiantly.

Currie says that, as with craft beers, people are searching for something different and maybe better. “They may be drinking slightly less whisky and beer but are prepared to pay more for it.”

The skill and mystique of distilling has long swirled around Currie. His father Harold headed a global whisky business. The instant he showed Paul inside a distillery at the age of six, he was enraptured by the sight of the copper stills. His first sip of Scotch (“very small”) came at 11, and he was committed by his late teens with no sign today of being worse for wear. In 1995, father and son, in family enterprise, set up the Isle of Arran Distillers, Scotland’s first new independent whisky distillery for around 80 years. With Paul as managing director, award wins, and sales have grown across Europe, Asia and North America. On holiday at the Lakes with his three teenage children five years ago Paul was struck by the likeness to Scotland and whisky country: perfect scenery for publicity overseas and ideal natural conditions for the time-tested transmogrification. Now, at 49, he’s making whisky in England too.

The distillery and visitor centre stands against a background of Skiddaw, England’s fourth tallest and often snowcapped mountain. Another side of the building looks onto Bassenthwaite lake. Water used from the Derwent river 150 metres away is similar to that blessing Scotland.

Currie explains: “The Derwent comes down from Sprinkling Tarn, high in the fells, through peaty foothills, ensuring the water is lightly peated. Damp conditions here help too. When you’re maturing whisky, you don’t want it too hot because it will evaporate.”

Turbidity of the water – basically its clarity – is ideal. On a scale of zero (perfect) to 100 (not good) Derwent’s water came out at 0.6 – “amazing”.

And the reasonably damp, moist, cool atmosphere minimises “the Angels’ share” – evaporation in the cask – in Scotland perhaps 2% loss, against 5% loss in warmer climes of Norfolk. At The Lakes it will be about 2%.

The buildings chosen for conversion were once a model farm of the 1850s, Low Barkhouse, beautiful once but abandoned and looking dangerously neglected for over 20 years. However, introducing “industry” within a national park took around four years of navigation through planning regulations, and another year for planning the project itself.  

Up to 60 workers at a time have since been bringing about transformation. With up to 40 distillery specific jobs being created, plus a likely input from tourism, the Lakes economy
is benefiting already.

Curious callers have included relatives of former occupiers of the farm, and a man from South Shields who’d worked there as a young wartime evacuee. He shed a tear of joy on seeing the farm’s rescue.

‘Join the club’

Lakes Distillery

To stimulate a widespread community of loyalty, The Lakes Distillery is creating two clubs:
The Connoisseurs: enabling 60 members to own their own rare cask of The Lakes Malt.

Each Spanish made cask of sherrywood will contain around 100 bottles-plus equivalent, with members there on that historic three years and a day on to make the whisky themselves, fill their own cask and see it stored. It will be two years after that before the malt whisky can be generally sold.

Membership costs £12,000, which includes the unique signature cask, exclusive annual events, accommodation at the nearby 4-star Trout Hotel, delivery, all duty and VAT. It’s estimated if kept, the cask will appreciate to £20,000-plus eventually. Companies and families have been buying in, aware that they can bring friends, contacts, clients or valued staff to an annual tasting ceremony.  Memberships are being snapped up.

The Founders: the first ever 100 casks of malt whisky will be produced exclusively for members of this group. Yearly for 10 years, they’ll receive one 70cl bottle plus two tasting miniatures of the maturing malt, making up a collectible set of the distillery’s first ever production, all with unique, limited edition labels. Membership at £595 could give a value of £1,400-plus over the decade if investment is preferred to fortification, with the first bottle delivered next year. That opportunity is expected to be sold out before Christmas.