English whisky strides ahead

A host of niche new distilleries is making a name – and an enticing claim – for Sassenach whiskies

Image: Chris Burke

The other day I hosted a whisky tasting that included bottles from Sweden, the US, Scotland, Ireland, England and Japan. At the end, I asked everyone to vote for their favourite. The English whisky won hands down. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The winner, Cotswolds Single Malt, is excellent: fruity, rich and rounded, with a complexity that belies its tender age. 

There aren’t a lot of English whiskies on the market – but quite a few of the country’s 160-plus gin distilleries have one on the way. The Cotswolds Distillery’s single malt is interesting because it’s made with 100 per cent local barley – the label says which variety they used, and which farm it came from. Does that make it taste different to Scotch? I wouldn’t say that, exactly – the cask remains by far the most important factor in a whisky’s flavour – but that level of traceability is unusual in a business where barley is often sourced from all over the country (even from overseas).

The Oxford Artisan Distillery also uses local grain: all its rye comes from four organic farms in the area; 90 per cent of that is heritage varieties, cultivated and sourced in collaboration with archaeo-botanist John Letts. “This project is a life raft for biodiversity,” says Letts. “It shows how distilling could become more sustainable.” TOAD’s first batch won’t be ready for a couple of years, but you can buy a bottle of the unaged new-make, which tastes like a nutty, sweet vodka, for £39.95. Or you could lay down your own cask for £6,000.

Not long ago, I tasted some opening salvoes from The Lakes Distillery in Cumbria, which were also showing great promise. Whisky Maker’s Reserve goes on general release this autumn.

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In Victorian times, London was home to at least six whisky distilleries. Now the capital’s whisky industry is being revived. The East London Liquor Company recently released a rye whisky finished in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks. Peppery and characterful, with concentrated fig, black chocolate and leather notes, it tastes more like an American rye than a Scotch single malt. The London Distillery Company in London Bridge and Bimber in Park Royal are making whiskies too.

The number of distilleries in England recently overtook Scotland for the first time. Most of them are tiny. But still, the Scots would be wise not to rest on their laurels.

@alicelascelles

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