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In focus: English and Welsh whisky

The renaissance of the English and Welsh whisky industries has come on apace in the past few years, and shows no signs of stopping. Phoebe French discovers that the sector is in fine fettle, and is poised for future growth.

With just 20 years of distilling under their belts, in whisky terms, England and Wales are relative newcomers to the industry. Whisky distilling died out in both countries at the turn of the 20th century, and it wasn’t reborn until the dawn of the 21st century.

In 1903, the Lea Valley Distillery in Stratford was the last English whisky maker to turn off its stills. England had to wait 100 years for whisky production to resume. In Wales, it is a similar story. In around 1900, the Welsh Whisky Distillery Co, based in Frongoch near Bala, was wound up, despite receiving a royal warrant from Queen Victoria in July 1895. In 2000, the Welsh Whisky Company, now known by the brand name Penderyn, was established, and the red dragon was reunited with firewater once more.

There are now 21 whisky distilleries in England (as of 2018) and four, soon to be five, in operation in Wales. Once thought to be the preserve of Scotland, Ireland and Kentucky, whisky is now made all over the world. Spirits from countries like Japan and Australia have brought legitimacy and respectability to the world whisky category, and consumers are more willing to deviate from traditional tipples.

Producers in England and Wales have benefitted from the category’s growth. Perceptions have changed and stigmas have been lifted. The market is now more receptive to whisky made outside of Scotland. Dhavall Gandhi, master blender at The Lakes Distillery, which was founded in 2011, describes the change.

“The market used to be very different, people really used to shy away from anything that wasn’t Scotch,” he says. “Now customers are much more willing to try English whisky – consumer tastes and palates are evolving.”

New category

Andrew Nelstrop, owner of The English Whisky Co. in Norfolk, one of the first distilleries to be established in England in 2006, explains that it’s not just about making whisky, but also creating a new category.

He says: “The early work we have done has been to open doors and set the scene for the sale of English whisky. When we started there were no ‘English whisky’ shelves in whisky stores, and no ‘English whisky’ categories on online retail sites. This has changed and we now are fully recognised as a national producer of whiskies.”

The situation in England mirrors that in Wales. Stephen Davies, CEO of Penderyn, notes how marketing was initially a struggle. “If you cast your mind back 15 years, the idea of a Welsh whisky was slightly jarring and at odds with where whisky came from,” he says. “People didn’t take it seriously.”

Since then, Penderyn has won awards and critical acclaim, and that, together with appearing at shows and tastings, has helped the brand grow and expand into new markets such as the US and Asia.

From the outside, the relationship between English and Welsh whisky and Scotch might appear fractious. Dan Szor, founder and CEO of The Cotswolds Distillery, compares it with the connection between English sparkling wine and Champagne.

“Just as English fizz producers will always be compared with Champagne, we’ll always be likened to Scottish single malt,” he says.

Putting this aside, however, there is respect rather than animosity. Just as the Scottish assisted London distiller Sipsmith in gaining a gin distilling licence in 2009, they have similarly supported the establishment of the English whisky industry.

Former members of the Scotch industry are now pursuing projects in England, while industry greats, such as the late Dr Jim Swan, have provided guidance to English and Welsh distilleries including Penderyn, the Cotswolds Distillery and the London Distillery Company.

Gandhi of the Lakes Distillery explains how Scottish connections run deep in English whisky. He says: “I started my career at The Macallan, and our founder and chief operating officer, Paul Currie, helped establish the Isle of Arran Distillery. Our chairman, Dr Allan Rutherford, also came from Diageo. We all cut our teeth in the Scotch whisky industry and even at Lakes, we share ideas and take advice from Scotch whisky producers. There’s a constant dialogue.”

Davies of Penderyn stresses that support from Scotland was critical in the establishment of his distillery. “We’ve had nothing but help from the Scotch whisky industry,” he says. “One of the great highlights of my time at Penderyn, and one of the highlights of my entire career, was getting to work with the great Jim Swan. He was the man who really created the house style for Penderyn.”

Wales also has links to the Bourbon industry. Evan Williams, now a brand of Kentucky Bourbon bottled by Heaven Hill, gets its name from a Louisville distillery, established by a Welsh immigrant of the same name in 1783. There are even claims that Jack Daniel was Welsh, though supporting evidence is patchy, and the early records of the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg,Tennessee, were destroyed when a fire swept through the court house where they were being stored.

English and Welsh whisky distillers currently abide by EU regulations that govern the production of whisky. Under EU law, whiskies must be matured for at least three years in wooden casks of 700 litres or less. They must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV and can be neither sweetened nor flavoured with any additives, apart from plain caramel for colouring.

Aside from this, producers are free to experiment, though Stephen Russell, co-founder of Chatham’s Copper Rivet Distillery, believes that rather than pushing the boundaries, English and Welsh whisky draws inspiration from established styles.

Identify a style

“I have little doubt some distilleries borrow heavily from Scotch whisky techniques, while others may tend towards Bourbon, Irish or perhaps Japanese. It’s one of the beauties of it being a young category – the distillery can identify a style it wants to pursue,” he says.

As distilleries and their stocks mature, increasing volumes of whisky, which has undergone the required maturation, is being bottled. But is it possible to ascertain a ‘style’ or any defining characteristics of English and Welsh whisky, both in terms of flavour profile and production method? Views are mixed, but the word mentioned time and again is ‘individuality’.

Alex Wolpert, founder of East London Liquor Co (ELLC), sums up the point. “Already, with comparatively few whisky distilleries in England, there’s a huge amount of diversity in the whisky offering,” he says. “There are no distilleries mimicking each other’s mash bills and processes. Everyone is just carving their own niche in how they produce, what they focus on, and how they present their whiskies.”

Gandhi of The Lakes Distillery compares the English whisky landscape with making a cup of tea.

“Everybody has their own style of making it,” he says. “Some people dip the bag in, some people leave it for longer. For English whisky it’s these individual quirks that make the industry more interesting.”

Some, like The Lakes Distillery, follow the Scotch model closely, with the majority of production undergoing maturation in Sherry casks. Penderyn uses an “unusual” Faraday still, created by Dr David Faraday, a descendant of Sir Michael Faraday, and combines a pot still with column distillation. Aber Falls, based in Abergwyngregyn in north Wales, can condense using both stainless steel and copper, while last year ELLC launched a blended whisky made in collaboration with California’s Sonoma Distilling Company.

Szor of The Cotswolds Distillery believes the quality of what is in the bottle is the defining characteristic of English whisky.

“The question always comes up, ‘what defines an English whisky?’. And the answer is probably ‘quality’ these days,” he says. “You have to be crazy to build a distillery in this day and age, with all of the financial demands that places on you, without wanting to invest in making really good quality whisky.”

Szor believes that for such an investment to pay off, increasing exports must be a primary focus.

“I always tell my staff to remember these words: England is a gin-drinking nation,” he says. “We are making whisky in a country that prefers gin. This means that in the future, I will not be happy until exports constitute more than 50% of our sales. There’s a lot more people drinking whisky outside of England than in it.”

Overseas sales

Early signs are promising. Penderyn already sells its whisky to 40 markets, and Adnams in Suffolk exports to 22 nations. The latter’s rye whisky is also part of the Britain is Great campaign, which is active in 133 countries.

James Wright, managing director of Aber Falls Distillery, says he’s had considerable interest from overseas despite that fact that he is yet to release his first whisky.

“What’s been really interesting for me is the excitement and interest I’m getting, not just nationally but internationally. The attention paid to Welsh whisky has been phenomenal, and there’s great anticipation and excitement around our first launch next year,” he says.

Architect images of Aber Falls’ new visitor centre.

“I’ve been surprised at the amount of correspondence I’ve had with Asia, Australasia and the US. That said, our vision has always been to build the Welsh whisky category and gain global distribution.”

Aber Falls will be opening its first permanent visitor centre in April. Wright cites tourism and sustainability as being two guiding principles behind the brand. The distillery collaborates with local businesses to boost the regional economy.

“If you take a tour with us then you will get a percentage off a tour with another business. It really makes it about the customer journey around the region,” Wright says.

All of the grain used in Aber Falls whisky is sourced from Wales, and Wright is working with the National Farmers’ Union to build a network of farmers growing Welsh malted barley for the distilling and brewing industry. Both his water and power, via a hydroplant, are sourced from the Aber Falls. According to Wright, the distillery is the only one in the country that can lay claim to being “100% Welsh”.

Copper Rivet in Kent has taken a similar approach. The distillery has created the Invicta Whisky Charter, which stipulates that only grain grown in Kent can be used in the production of its whisky. All methods of the production process must also be carried out in-house.

The future looks bright for the English and Welsh whisky industries. Copper Rivet will be launching its first whisky in July, while the English Whisky Co. will be launching two age statement whiskies this year. Aber Falls will unveil two firsts in 2021: an un-age statement and a Welsh rye whisky.

Producers are also expanding. Lakes Distillery is upgrading its facilities to triple production to 400,000 litres of alcohol per year. Penderyn will be opening two distilleries – one in Llandudno in 2021 and another in Swansea in 2022.

While English and Welsh whisky has not enjoyed the rapid rise of gin, the foundations have been laid for its future. With the launch of the first spirit from several distilleries in the next few years, the whisky landscape in England and Wales will be transformed once again.

This article was first published in the March 2020 issue of the drinks business magazine. All information about future events and launches was accurate at the time of publication.

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