In focus: English and Welsh whisky

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.

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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