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SB Voices: Could English whisky win in innovation?

As more experimental distillers move into English whisky, Amy Hopkins asks if Scotch producers will be given a run for their money in the innovation stakes.

Spirit of Yorkshire is a lesson in innovation

For many years now, an unspoken division of spirits categories has existed across the United Kingdom: Scotland makes whisky; England creates gin. However, not only have we seen a recent upsurge in the number of Scottish distilleries moving into provenance-led gin production, but English whisky distilleries are popping up across the country – and have the potential to move into experimental spaces off-limits to their Scottish counterparts.

In April this year, I went to visit the new Spirit of Yorkshire distillery, which will produce the county’s first single malt whisky. An extension of Yorkshire’s Wold Top Brewery, the “grain-to-glass” distillery is a lesson in innovation.

Founded with the invaluable input of the late, great Dr Jim Swan, the company will eventually offer full traceability of its products, with plans to list the number of the field from where the base barley ingredient was grown. Two still designs have been implemented: a traditional wash and spirit still, and a four-plate column still that will distill malted barley – taking note from such world whisky innovators as Nikka.

Spirit of Yorkshire is also in discussions with a local estate to fell some trees to create casks from Yorkshire oak. An innovative maturation programme includes the use of oloroso casks that contained Sherry macerated with Seville orange peel.

Of course, a number of Scotch producers innovate to an impressive degree. However, producers such as Spirit of Yorkshire prime examples of English whisky makers inspired by Scotch whisky, but willing to deviate from the category’s traditions and regulations – which, of course, they are not bound to.

As debate over innovation and transparency in Scotch whisky skyrockets, will consumers eventually view English whisky more broadly as an example of what a ‘no holds barred’ Scotch whisky industry could look like? Perhaps, but the exalted quality representation of Scotch whisky around the world suggests the category would not lose any fans because of this. And an innovative challenge from English and other ‘world’ whisky producers could in fact spur Scottish distillers to up their experimental game. Just last month, Steven Kersley, head distiller at BrewDog’s Lone Wolf Distillery, told SB that the industry is “almost entrenched” with a feeling of tradition that “limits progression”

When Spirit of Yorkshire, Cotswolds, East London Liquor Company, Chase, and The Lakes Distillery’s whiskies come of age, I for one will be interested to sample English whisky’s point of difference.

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