Gavin Haines sinks a few drams in Norfolk, where the great English whisky revival is gathering pace.
“Now that’s what I call a good breakfast whisky,” smiles David Fitt, admiring the amber liquid in his glass. “Cheers.” We raise our tumblers and knock back the single malt. It’s 9.20 in the morning. I haven’t even had my porridge.
Perhaps more surprising than the fact we’re drinking at this hour is the fact we’re drinking English whisky. Yes, English whisky, distilled right here at the St George’s Distillery in Norfolk, Alan Partridge country.
“People think whisky and they immediately think Scotch, but it’s not all about Scotland,” says David, the resident distiller. “There’s a world of flavour out there – if you just stick to what you know without taking a risk you’re going to miss out.”
David would say that, but he’s right. Though the Scots have long been synonymous with malt whisky, their dominance in the global market is being challenged by upstart distilleries from here to the Himalayas. Even the Islamic republic of Pakistan is getting in on the act – despite the fact most of its citizens are not permitted to drink alcohol.
"Now that’s what I call a good breakfast whisky."
The Orient is leading the charge, though. Earlier this year a whisky from Taiwan scooped Best Single Malt at the 2015 World Whiskies Awards, while the latest edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible – the go-to resource for connoisseurs the world over – declared a single malt from Japan to be the finest on Earth. The sigh from Speyside was palpable.
The fledgling whisky industry in England is also coming of age. A decade ago there were no malt whisky distilleries in the country, but today there are six.
“None of them existed before this place,” says David, as we tour the distillery. “The day we released our first whisky the police had to be called to marshal the traffic – people were queuing outside the gates at five in the morning.”
Was that down to novelty value or a genuine interest in English whisky?
"I think English whisky sold as a novelty to begin with, sure,” admits David, whose tipples can be found in high-end department stores such as Harrods. “People thought ‘oh it’s English whisky, it’ll be crap, but let’s have a bottle anyway’. It was like buying a kiss-me-quick hat on holiday. But I’ll tell you what: it isn’t a novelty anymore.”
A new chapter
Quite. English whisky is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment. Distilleries are opening across the country – from London to the Lake District – and critics are beginning to take note.
In the latest edition of the Whisky Bible, The English Whisky Company, which owns St George’s Distillery, received favourable praise. Not least for its Chapter 14 Not Peated, which was declared European Whisky of the Year 2015 (excluding Scotland).
Though nobody alive today is old enough to remember it, England had a rich tradition of producing whisky, but that dried up in 1905 with the closure of Lea Valley Distillery in Stratford, East London.
Located on what is now the Olympic Park, Lea Valley was pushed out of business when the whisky market crashed in the early 1900s. With Scotland and Ireland overproducing the spirit, prices became suppressed and England’s small-scale distillers were forced out of business. It was the end of an era.
But that wasn’t to be the end of the capital’s whisky story. Last year The London Distillery Company brought the art of whisky distilling back to the city after more than a century, when it set up its stills in a former milk factory in Battersea.
"It sold as a novelty item to begin with."
“I think it’s great that other people are doing it,” says David. “Perhaps one day we could work together and have an English blended whisky.”
While David prepares for the first tasting session of the day, I drink a cuppa in the distillery. Located just outside the village of East Harling, overlooking the picturesque River Thet, the St George’s Distillery is surrounded by rolling countryside and agricultural land, which is perfect for growing malted barley.
It’s also a popular destination for holidaymakers who can enjoy afternoon tea in the distillery café and scenic river walks along the Thet. But it’s David’s tasting tours that pull in the crowds.
“Most distillery tastings offer just whisky from that distillery, which is just marketing,” says David. “I deliberately don’t do that.”
We spend the next hour sampling five whiskies from unlabelled bottles. “I want to challenge your preconceptions about what whisky is,” says David, ominously.
The tasting gets under way and the largely male participants make approving and disapproving noises about the various drams, noting down their comments on pieces of paper. By the third whisky, it’s getting rowdy. Speculation about the provenance of the various whiskies swirls around like the liquid in our glasses.
After tipple number five, all is revealed and there are some surprises, not least that an Indian whisky, Amrut Single Malt, had won widespread praise amongst the group. “Indian?” says the guy next to me, shaking his head incredulously. “Indian?”
Turns out my favourites were an English whisky (Chapter 13, produced at this very distillery), which had delicious toffee and vanilla flavours, and a Japanese blended whisky (Nikka), which had a rich spicy flavour with a hint of orange peel. Incredibly, I shunned the Scotch. The Glaswegian half of me feels ashamed.
“We can’t compete with Scotland and we’re not trying to – in fact we actually sell our whisky to Scotland,” says David, reassuringly. “I just want to show people that they shouldn’t judge what’s inside by the label. And that applies to other things in life, not just whisky.”
Five of the best places to quaff English whisky:
1) Soho Whisky Club, London
Splash out on a membership for this whisky club in old Soho and you can choose from more than 400 competitively priced whiskies, including drams from England’s flourishing distilleries. sohowhiskybar.com
2) St George’s Distillery, Norfolk
Leading the great English whisky renaissance is this distillery in scenic Norfolk, which runs daily tours and serves afternoon tea for non-boozers. englishwhisky.co.uk
3) The Lakes Distillery, Cumbria
Producing gin and vodka, as well as fine whisky, there are few prettier places to enjoy a dram than at this distillery, which sits in the heart of the Lake District. lakesdistillery.com
4) Adnams Brewery, Suffolk
Better known for brewing beer, Adnams has turned its attention to whisky and gin with impressive results. The distillery runs regular tasting tours plus the chance to make your own bespoke gin. adnams.co.uk
5) Healey’s Cornish Cyder Farm, Cornwall
Also in the business of diversification is this cider farm in Cornwall, whose new distillery was described in the Whisky Bible as “amongst the best debut bottlings of the last decade”. thecornishcyderfarm.co.uk
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