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Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Rise Of English Whisky

Funny old business, whisky making. So steeped in tradition, proud values and time-honoured recipes and practices.  Yet on the other hand, so vibrant, challenging and bubbling with creativity. Well some of it. 

Recently we've seen a massive growth in craft distilling in the US, so much so that to a point, the whole 'craft' thing has somewhat 'Jumped the Shark', (look it up if you're not familiar with this phrase) with a new whisk(e)y seemingly being created every week by a micro distiller.  These 'whiskies' are seldom whisk(e)y but just spirit, rested in oak and fired out the door to try and nail down the spiralling costs that running a distillery presents.  

However some distillers, like the magnificent Balcones, Tuthilltown and Corsair have taken their time, experimented in the right way and diversified their businesses to offer genuinely different products that have captured the attention of a very crowded market place, now gaining international reputations and - importantly, distribution.     

But the same thing hasn't really kicked off here in the UK -  yet. 

Last week saw the very first spirit run from London's newest craft distillery, The London Distillery Company in Battersea, which has been producing a gin for the past year to supplement the business plan of actually creating a new spirit from scratch. Finally, after months of wrangling, HMRC granted LDC a license to distil the first malt spirit in the capital -  the first in over a century, since the Lea Valley Distillery closed in 1910.  

What does this all mean? Well, the precedent has now been set for other would-be distillers to follow suite and similarly create something from scratch. Rather than the dusty, leather-bound rule book being ripped up, it has just been re-published in a handy, wipe clean paperback size, which seems to be a good thing.  

In a little under three years and a day now, we'll be able to clearly see whether the LDC has achieved its objectives and made a single malt whisky as brilliant as that produced by, let's say, Kilchoman on Islay, or more appropriately, St George's in Norfolk especially after such a short time. Until then, let's applaud someone for moving things forward and boldly opening the doors on so many distilling possibilities. 

Of course, an English whisky is nothing new.  As mentioned above, St George's in Norfolk have been distilling successfully since 2006.  Then in 2010 came the Adnams Brewery, who only last week released their very first 'whisky'- two in fact.  

Adnams have taken a great position in the new emerging sphere of English whisky, by applying their brewing prowess (which spans some 140 years) and coupling it with brand new distilling technology. With stills that look like they have been lifted from the pages of a Jules Verne novel, Jonathan Adnams, Head Distiller John McCarthy and his team have already successfully built a formidable distilling reputation with several very creative recipes: Oak aged vodka matured in French oak, Spirit Of Broadside, using the classic Broadside ale and now a brace of 'actual' whiskies:  a traditional single malt matured in French oak and a triple grain, using East Anglian barley, wheat and oats, which is then matured in American oak.

Only 20 casks have been produced in this first batch (dating back to a fill date of November 2010), but the results are impressive indeed -  at least when it comes to the triple grain, which we have been lucky enough to sample.

Adnams -  Triple Grain Whisky  - Three Years Old - 43%

Nose: An initial spirit note gives way after a few seconds in the glass revealing some slightly sweet boiled vegetable notes, vanilla, golden syrup, porridge oats, gingerbread and rich dark chocolate.  It's slightly unusual at first, then the true picture of the recipe comes to life.  

Palate: The malty notes from the nose develop into malted chocolate milkshake, creamy oak, a hint of white pepper and caramelised peaches. The influence of the oats is very noticeable here and the lingering sweet cereal really shifts this up a gear. 

Finish: The malt notes deliver a slightly spicy note as the palate dries, with a return of the oak and the vanilla.  

Overall: Undeniably youthful, but cleverly delivered. This triple grain has balance, emerging complexity and a personality all of its own and we can't wait to see where it develops with more time in cask. If the single malt (which we haven't tried) can replicate this potential, then the category of 'English whisky' is very much alive, full of vitality and growing in stature by the day. The gauntlet has been thrown down to all.  Who will pick it up next? 

Look out next week for a review of The One, the UK's first 'British Whisky'... Intrigued? So are we.