English whisky: ‘Biggest challenge is raising awareness’
While it is tiny in comparison with the might of Scotland, England’s fledgling whisky industry is gaining strength – and is set to become even stronger in the coming years.
*This feature was originally published in the November 2018 issue of The Spirits Business
Ask any consumer or drinks industry professional what springs to mind when they hear the term ‘single malt’ and chances are their first point of reference will be Scotch.
A centuries-old category, Scotch whisky producers have done a fine job of creating a credible, quality-driven and lucrative sector. Furthermore, established whisky divisions such as Scotch and American have helped pave the way for a new world whisky order to flourish. Among the globally scattered new regions springing to the whisky fore is a burgeoning English contingent.
According to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, there were at least four distilleries operating in England towards the end of the 19th century: Lea Valley Distillery in London; Bristol Distillery; and Bank Hall and Vauxhall distilleries – the latter two based in Liverpool. Around 1905, Lea Valley Distillery became the last of these to turn off its stills as Scotch soared and attention turned to north of the English border.
It wasn’t until 2003 that English whisky’s rebirth came about. One of the pioneers of this second wave of English distillers was The English Whisky Company, established in 2006, which focuses on the production of single malts at its St George’s Distillery in Norfolk.
“When we started, there was practically nobody making English whisky,” recalls Andrew Nelstrop, managing director of The English Whisky Company. “We now have new competition, which we have never had before. But at the same time there’s now a category called English whisky, which makes having a presence in retailers and markets easier to obtain.”
Competing for market space among the likes of Scottish, Irish, American and Japanese whisky is a tough fight. English whisky is bound by EU regulations, which require a minimum maturation of three years before a product can legally be called ‘whisky’. As such, due to the infancy of the industry, there is very little bottled English whisky on the market.
The Cotswolds Distillery joined the small band of producers with legally-mature whisky stocks in 2017 with the launch of its inaugural no-age-statement (NAS) single malt – made from barley harvested in 2014 to give an indication of the liquid’s youth.
Though perceptions of whisky are changing, thanks to growing education in the on- and off-trade, many consumers still perceive age statements to be indicative of quality. For a category that is little known even among aficionados, a lack of aged stock means it’s been an even harder battle to win over consumers.
“Arguably, ‘English whisky’ doesn’t exist as a uniform category with a recognisable style or flavour profile,” says Dan Szor, founder and CEO of the Cotswolds Distillery. “To our mind, it doesn’t make sense to categorise whisky by country or production anymore, as it tells you very little about the flavour or style of what you’re about to drink. There’s also no unifying standard of quality – in any whisky-making country, you get some incredible whisky and some not so good. It’s definitely going to take a while before English whisky is as widely recognised and accepted as Scotch or Irish, but we’re confident that there are brilliant examples of English whisky out there that are convincing people that great whisky can be made anywhere.”
Would a geographical indication assist English whisky’s success and help ensure greater quality by enforcing stricter regulations? Opinions are divided. “Geographically, it’s great if you make a great product and then gain GI protection for it – but it comes that way round,” says David Thompson, co-founder and director of Spirit of Yorkshire. “But you can’t protect something in the marketplace that’s not seen as being of a particular standard yet. It may come in time, but in these early days I don’t think it’ll add anything to the category.”
MORE RULES EQUALS LESS EXPERIMENTATION
East London Liquor Company’s (ELLC) distiller, Andy Mooney, agrees that it’s too soon to start imposing restrictions on a category that is just gaining momentum. “It’s going to ruin the innovativeness and creativity,” he warns. “The more rules you have the less experimental you can be and the less you’re able to do.”
Thompson says a governing body to oversee production and quality would be better suited to a category still in its beginnings, rather than a GI. “What is needed is a governing body to say: ‘These are the rules in England, this is how we should make whisky.’ But it may come with time. We don’t want to go where Scotland is where it acts as a restriction to innovation. It needs to be about controlling quality but not how you can make it.”
English whisky producers so far, it seems, have embraced the country’s lack of regulations and upped the ante when it comes to experimentation. At ELLC, Mooney and his team have been playing around with numerous distillation techniques involving triple distillation, column distillation and single column runs “usually associated with brandy”. Various mash bills have also been a focal point, as well as yeast and cask types.
“We’re interested in flavour rather than yield,” explains Mooney. “We’re not limited by law, we don’t have to use oak, so we’ve also got chestnut, ash, acacia, mulberry and more typical Sherry, Port and Cognac casks. But we’ve also used orange wine casks, grappa and beer casks.”
The Lakes Distillery takes a different approach, however, and follows the Scotch whisky guidelines as closely as possible. Its whiskies, once old enough, will be predominantly Sherry-led, with some Bourbon and wine-cask maturation as well. “We’re not experimenting with different woods, but we’re sticking to the standard in Scotland,” explains Paul Currie, founder and chief operating officer at The Lakes Distillery. “Scotch has been there for a long time and the standard has been set. The important thing is whisky remains whisky, without too much experimentation around the edges.
“We’re not trying to be different and that’s the innovation; we want to make traditional whisky and be one of the very best.”
He adds that he wants The Lakes Distillery to be viewed as a ‘world whisky’ rather than categorically English, bringing together qualities from “all the best whiskies”. And he’s not alone in his stance.
Up until now, English whisky has typically been grouped in the ‘world whisky’ category, which covers producers everywhere from Europe to Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand. Spirit of Yorkshire’s Thompson has also wholly embraced English whisky’s position in this sector. “We don’t really focus on the fact we are English whisky; we are world whisky,” Thompson explains. “If you look at the world whisky category, it’s seen phenomenal growth with people in Japan and Taiwan making fantastic whiskies. I wouldn’t isolate English whisky as there are only a few of us who have got stock old enough to produce whisky.”
STYLES AND FLAVOURS
The next few years will be extremely telling for the English whisky category, as more producers finally have liquid old enough to call ‘whisky’. With a greater variety of styles and flavours, consumer perceptions will also evolve. A gateway audience for several English whisky producers is perhaps an unlikely one – gin drinkers.
As distilleries wait for their stocks to mature, several have turned their hands to creating gins. Some, such as Spirit of Yorkshire’s Thompson, have steered clear of creating any juniper-based spirits: “It can be distracting as your focus isn’t purely on making single malt whisky. Your focus is on a cash cow product.”
However, distilling is an expensive business, so other producers, such as The Lakes Distillery, have bottled white spirits while their whiskies age. The distillery boasts a range of gin, vodka and liqueurs, and Currie believes doing so has created a readymade audience for when its whisky comes of age. “They open up routes to market, so when our single malt is launched next year the route to market is already in place,” he says.
His views are backed by Karl Bond, owner and distiller at Forest Distillery, which this year revealed plans to enter the English whisky category. Bond’s company started as a dedicated gin producer, creating Forest Gin, but plans to launch limited, single-cask whiskies.
“We would love to bring along our existing gin drinkers to the category,” says Bond. “English gin is so well respected around the world, and we feel that we are ideally placed to introduce English whisky to their cabinets and bars alongside it.”
Much like gin, demand for English whisky is already being felt around the globe. After speaking to various producers, it soon becomes clear the UK is the category’s most crucial market at present. But opportunity abounds as far afield as Australia, Taiwan, Belgium, Luxembourg and Bulgaria. But the biggest challenge remains education and raising awareness about this new whisky division. The next three to five years will be fundamental to its overall development.
“It will take time to throw off the ‘it’s not old and it’s not Scotch’ hang-ups, but we’re optimistic,” says Szor. “If the category is going to grow you have to reach the wider whisky-drinking community too and even people who don’t think they like whisky yet. So there’s a lot to learn from the established whisky markets and big industry players in terms of how to do whisky sales and distribution.”