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.

One Response to “In focus: English and Welsh whisky”

  1. Chris says:

    Good article, could you do one for Northern Irish whiskey? It’s a sector that’s ill served in terms of coverage from global media, Irish media (focusing on whiskey from RoI) and British media (focusing on whisky from GB). There are currently 7 operational distilleries with a further 4 in development, not bad going for a country with half the population of Wales which was home to only 1 distillery at the beginning of the last decade.

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