Mike Hughes puts down his Jack Daniel’s and reaches for the newest drink on the shelf – Yorkshire’s first single malt whisky – to toast Spirit of Yorkshire with its managing director, David Thompson.
Stroll through the fields of barley at Tom Mellor’s farm near Hunmanby and you can feel and smell Yorkshire. There is a spring on the farm as well, so I suppose if you were some sort of home-grown entrepreneur with a passion for brewing and maybe even a crazy idea to make Yorkshire’s first single malt whisky then you might have a game-changing combination.
So, say hello to David Thompson, who has teamed up with his good friend, Mellor, founder of the Wold Top Brewery, to launch Spirit of Yorkshire and do just that. It’s early days – only one year on from the first still firing – but the signs are good; Mellor and Thompson may just have made not only the region’s first single malt, but a damn fine drink.
But even though the visitor centre is open and Yorkshire folk with good taste are seeing the product and eagerly snapping up pre-ordered casks at £2,850 a go, no-one knows how the finished product will taste because it needs at least three years in the cask before it can even be classed as whisky.
“We’re at the stage now where we know the distillate is spot-on and we’re very happy with the maturing malt and the way the new spirit is coming off the stills,” Thompson explains. “We have had reports from the top whisky writers that are very promising.
“That is very encouraging because we were always very keen not to just replicate a Scottish distillery, we wanted to put a bit of a twist in there, so we have the traditional pot stills from Scotland, but have put a column still next to it to rectify the spirit to a level that is very fruity and very quick to mature.
“It is a massive point of difference for us and, as far as I am aware, there is nobody else with both a pot still and a column still linked together in tandem. When we do the tours and people get to taste the very young maturing malt they just want to buy it there and then.”
In a way, the move to whisky may seem bold, but it has a certain logic to it. Mellor had plenty of experience of the brewing process, and when they were looking for a project together they were able to quickly rule out gin because it is one of the region’s booming smaller industries, meaning Yorkshire has lakes of the stuff. So, why not try whisky with the innovative double still process giving it the uniqueness they were looking for?
“We also always wanted a traceability and provenance to what we made from the field to the bottle,” says Thompson. “The whisky market generally has become more sophisticated and younger people are drinking it, with whisky bars starting to open up, and it is one of those things that people are becoming more knowledgeable about – it’s not just the bottle of Bell’s that you picked from your dad’s cupboard and got a headache from.
“Both Tom and I are of the age when maybe this is our last chance to set something up that is different. Unfortunately, with whisky we have this lead time issue, so perhaps we are doing something for the next generation, but it is very exciting.
“A lot of surprised people will look at businesses like this and ask, ‘What are you doing?’, and we love that, we feed off that sort of challenge. If we just fancied ‘doing something’ we would have looked at gin because that has low capital investment, you buy your spirits in and that is why there are bootleg gin manufacturers out there.
“We have banned the word ‘craft’ here because that builds a picture of a hobby and a garage-type operation, but the stills we’ve got are the biggest outside Scotland and future-proof us against the demand, although our consultant, Jim Swan, told us we would be needing more at some stage.”
Swan is a deeply sad note in all this celebration. A revered legend to whisky makers and drinkers, he conducted ground-breaking research and was an adviser to countless distilleries, particularly helping start-ups, so his death in February aged 75 was a huge blow and many glasses of fine whisky will have been raised around the country in tribute.
“We had Jim on board right from the concept, before we had even decided to do it we employed him to do some research and, to be honest, he was so infectious that once we had him with us there was no way back,” says Thompson. “His knowledge of the business was unbelievable and you put Jim Swan’s name to any new distillery and the credibility goes through the roof. He came up with the concept of the flavour wheel for whisky [a visual representation of how much of each flavour and taste is in each whisky], and we needed that knowledge and experience because we were starting from scratch with no idea of how to make it.”
The friendship and experience that Swan brought to Spirit of Yorkshire is irreplaceable, and now his presence is lost. But what Thompson and Mellor learned and the progress they have made since has been distilled into something he would be so proud of.
So, here’s a big question – what does it taste like? “When Jim first started dealing with us he asked us what we wanted to create and we said something drinkable for the majority of people, so nothing too heavy or peaty, something light and fruity and from that we built our pot and column stills around that concept, which would become our signature spirit,” explains Thompson.
“We are casking off the pot separately to the column and will bring them back together at the end to bottle it in a single malt marriage of the two distillates – body with the pot and lightness with the column – which will be uniquely Yorkshire. We are also going to brand our maturing malt as ‘Callow Spirit’, which will be on the shelves for Christmas. It will be a very small bottling and we can’t call it whisky because it isn’t three years old.”
After that, the bottling of the whisky will take place in its own time, although the casks that are flying off the shelves come with a ten-year storage plan that can be extended to accommodate personal tastes, taking care to factor in the 2% “angel’s share”, which is lost each year as part of the process.
Spirit of Yorkshire will be available to buy online direct from Hunmanby as well as through top-end stockists capable of providing a market for the £50-£55 bottles.
As well as the perfectly-timed art of the perfect whisky, the recipe also asks for just the right amount of friendship. Too much and the business acumen loses its edge, too little and the working relationship is sour. Mellor and Thompson have put a lot of their own money into it, and have then had remarkable support from Yorkshire Bank, which became a key element of all the planning.
The business model then needed the boost of the visitor centre, where events are also scheduled to draw in even more of the east coast tourists, to maximise the return on investment. There is a global market out there, with a sliding scale of “Yorkshireness” to be utilised depending on the market they are working in.
These guys trust each other and wanted to work on this life-changing project together, and have even brought in their families to work with them: Mellor’s daughter, Katie, runs the farm, bottling and brewery side of the main business with her husband; Jenny Mellor is down in London doing the marketing; Max Thompson has done all the electrical work on the visitor centre and buildings; and his brother Harry, although based in France, has reported that the country is now the biggest drinker of whisky, so he has his eyes firmly on that market for his dad.
“Tom and I are very close friends and one point that is often made is ‘Don’t work with friends or family’, so we wanted to prove people wrong and show we can work together and be successful,” says Thompson. “Also, we wanted to do all the distilling ourselves, at least for the first year-and-a-half because, unless you put your heart and soul into something, you can’t then then go out and sell it as being yours, so we have learnt the whole process from the bottom up and can pass on what we have learned from Jim.
“Business-wise, I think you can sit in an ivory tower and look down on it all, but unless you physically get your hands dirty you really don’t know what business is about. One of the beauties of running your own business is that we don’t have to turn around a tanker each time we want to add something and our board meetings consist of me and Tom looking at each other over the stills with a bacon sandwich and a coffee saying, ‘That sounds good – yes, let’s do it’.”
That might as well be the company motto at Spirit of Yorkshire and one for the walls of so many Yorkshire companies: “Is there a market? Do we believe in it? Then let’s do it.”