In recent years England has begun to produce sparkling wines that rival those produced in Champagne. Now in the 2020s it’s the turn of English distillers to show that they can compete with Scotland’s most famous export.

In Britain, whisky has strong associations with Scotland. So much so in fact that in the 19th century the word ‘Scotch’ came to mean whisky not only in neighbouring England but all over the British Empire. But that hegemony has begun to shift in the last 15 years. In 2006 there was only one whisky distillery in England. Now there are more than 30.

England will never produce the big single malt guns like Laphroaig and Tallisker nor the internationally-famous Scottish blends like Johnny Walker and Famous Grouse but these days there are some wonderful artisanal distillers producing great idiosyncratic whiskies throughout England. These small distilleries have been set up all over the country, in Yorkshire and the Lake District, on the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts, and of course in London. Each pursues its own vision, sometimes even to the point of eccentricity, but all of them are producing great whiskies in small batches – and best of all you can visit and share in their enthusiasm.

English Whisky Company

Any whisky tour of England has to start with The English Whisky Company in Roudham, Norfolk.

It was here in 2006 that James Nelstrop and son Andrew, constructed St George’s, England’s first whisky distillery to be built in over a century.

The Nelstrop’s come from a long line of English farmers who can be traced back to working the land in Yorkshire during the 14th century.

It was on James’s 60th birthday that he decided he wanted a new venture and chose to produce whisky.

It was a bold move, but he had the help of his son Andrew, and advisor, Iain Henderson from Laphroaig, the only Scottish distillery to be by appointment to HRH Prince Charles.

Norfolk is in East Anglia, which in James’ opinion is one of the few areas in England suitable for growing topquality malting barley, the essential ingredient in single malt whisky.

Andrew Nelstrop, Chairman of The English Whisky Co who helped set up the business with his father, James.

The second vital ingredient – water – would come from a 160-foot bore hole that draws up water of purity and high mineral content in Roudham. With great confidence, the distillery chose to name its single malt The English. It now produces eight English single malts, each flavoured by the barrels in which the whisky matures.

“He had the help of his son Andrew, and advisor, Iain Henderson from Laphroaig, the only Scottish distillery to be by appointment to HRH Prince Charles…”

There is also a grain whisky series called The Norfolk which has a bowler-hatted seal on its label, a nod to the fact that the bowler hat was first produced for gamekeepers working at Holkham Hall, also in Norfolk. The complete range is available at the company’s spacious modern distillery and visitor centre, with its black clapboard exterior and cowled roof close to the Thetford Forest Park.

Adnams

Across the border in Suffolk, in the picture-perfect coastal village of Southwold, stands Adnams, which was originally founded in 1872 but as a brewery, not a distillery. The enterprise was set up by two Suffolk brothers, George and Ernest Adnams. In the 20th century their substantial brick-built factory produced huge amounts of ales and ciders for Suffolk and beyond.

The building was a familiar site for visitors with its mechanical figure of ‘Southwold Jack’ on its exterior. Jack’s job was intended to sound the hours by striking his axe against the metal bell that hung over him.

Adnams Copper House Distillery
Adnams Copper House Distillery

Moving with the times, in 2010 Adnams successfully challenged an old English law that prevented brewers from having a distillery on the same premises. This enabled the firm to build a new Copper House Distillery behind the old premises to make gin, vodka and whisky, all from the same locally sourced ingredients – Suffolk barley, rye, wheat, and oats – that go into Adnams beers.

There are now three reasonably priced whiskies made on-site, a Single Malt, a Triple Malt (made with wheat, barley and oats) and a Rye Malt Whisky. All are aged in oak barrels and you can buy a sample pack of all three in 20cl bottles (£41.99) from the busy visitor centre.

East London Distillery

A very different whisky experience is on offer at the East London Distillery on Bow Wharf in Hackney. The building is a low, grey-painted former glue factory that faces on to the old Regent’s Canal. The East London Liquor Company was founded here by former actor and bartender Alex Wolpert who stands for “Great spirits without the crafty bullshit. Everyone should have good booze for good prices from good people. It sounds radical, but it shouldn’t.”

East London Distillery’s Andy Mooney carrying a cask. Image credit Charlie Mckay

Since July 2014 Wolpert’s selfstyled People’s Drinks Company has been producing and importing a wide range of spirits, including gins, vodka, rum and whisky. Success came quickly. In its first year his team of five were producing 1,000 bottles of gin a month for East London bars and restaurants.

Because of regulations, whisky cannot be released for three years, but today there is an East London Wheat Whisky, an East London Rye, and a new East London Blend, which is a cross-Atlantic collaboration with the Bourbon produced by Sonoma Distilling Company in California. Wolpert describes the blend as “chock-full of sweet corn, brandy-soaked cherries, fresh grass, and not for the fainthearted.”

The East London Distillery is proud that its neighbours are “canalside warehouses and old school boozers” and indeed the exposed brickwork of the distillery’s interior gives it an edginess that matches its claim to serve “kick-ass cocktails”.

Bimber

Twelve miles to the west, on the other side of London, is another remarkable distillery, set up by two long-term Polish immigrants Dariusz Plazewski and Ewelina Chruszczyk. Bimber is the Polish word for ‘moonshine’ or illegally distilled spirits. It’s also the name the couple chose for their new distillery, tucked away in the unassuming Park Royal industrial estate.

Bimber brings to British whisky the skills perfected over centuries by Polish moonshiners, but it applies them legally. The distillery laid down its first casks in May 2016 and released the inaugural single malt whisky, known as The First just over three years later. All 1,000 hand-numbered bottles sold out within three hours. Bimber puts its success down to handcrafted traditional techniques and the founders’ passion for single malt whisky.

Casks at the Bimber Distillery

The barley used here is grown on a single farm near Basingstoke and traditionally dried in Warminster Maltings. It’s then hand-mashed and fermented slowly for seven days in wooden washbacks at Bimber. These washbacks were handmade by the company’s own coopers.

This highly artisanal approach continues with direct fire being used to heat unusually small copper pot stills. Absolutely no computers come near the production process. Everything is based on the artisanal human senses of smell, taste and even touch.

After maturing in hand-selected casks – charred oak, bourbon, sherry and oloroso – this precious and reassuringly expensive whisky is bottled on-site. As far as is possible today, this is how whisky might have been made centuries ago.

The Oxford Artisan Distillery

Fifty miles north of Bimber along the A40 stands The Oxford Artisan Distillery, known locally as TOAD. TOAD is another new venture and one that burst on the market in 2017 with an excellent Oxford Dry Gin that used a picture of Mr Toad himself (as drawn by Ernest Shepard) on its label.

TOAD is the first legal distillery in Oxford and occupies a charming position in tatty old farm buildings at the top of Headington Hill. Its founder, Tom Nicolson was inspired to make a commitment to the ‘grainto-glass’ ethos of handcrafting gin, vodka and spirit of rye using grain specially grown for the distillery. To this end, the archaeo-botanist John Letts helped TOAD find and plant medieval heritage grains that were commonplace in England before the rise of industrialised agriculture.

In keeping with its self-consciously eccentric, not to say theatrical style, TOAD’s master distiller Cory Mason commissioned two very special steam-punk stills, named Nautilus and Nemo, like something out of Jules Verne, to do the work. These are now producing TOAD’s first whisky. It’s actually a pure rye whisky that costs £75 a bottle, the most expensive product from this ambitious distillery. Rye is thought by many to be the new direction for whisky in the 2020s. It has a distinctive taste and makes for great cocktails.

“A visit to TOAD is always fun. Despite the company’s huge success they give the impression they’re a bunch of guys who like putting spirits together to see what happens.”

Oxford Rye whisky

Cotswolds Distillery

A slicker – but equally welcoming – operation is at the Cotswolds Distillery, just south of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Dan Szor who built the distillery is a New Yorker who made a small fortune in the City of London and dearly wanted to create whisky from all those barley fields surrounding his Cotswold home. So in 2014 he opened this distillery, and its gin – with its lovely hints of lavender – became a quick success. Gin is a favourite start-up product for whisky producers because it provides a quick turnaround on investment.

This distillery is located in idyllic countryside in a new building constructed of local honey-coloured stone and richly seasoned wood.

It looks like a beautifully designed barn conversion. There is a shop and café, and a seductive tasting room with leather sofas that makes you feel that you’re staying in the spacious country cottage of a very wealthy friend. No expense has been spared.

Upstairs are two more rooms, one for serious whisky tasting and one for gin. Cotswolds Single Malt Whisky is now available in several editions. There is the Single Malt, the Founder’s Choice, three single malts from flavoured casks – peated, sherry and Sauternes – and Lord Mayor’s Single Reserve, which was blended for the 691st Lord Mayor of London, Peter Estlin who has been a keen supporter of the Cotswolds Distillery from its inception.

Cotswolds Single Malt Whisky

Scotland will always have the gravitas and will continue to dominate the market but it’s clear that English whisky is doing things the Scots have never dreamt of. Later this year an English Guild of Distillers will be launched to create a regulatory body to maintain quality and decide what we actually mean when we talk of an English Scotch. Whatever it decides in the world of whisky there is no doubt that the English are coming.

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Words | Adrian Mourby