Whisky may be more commonly associated with Scotland, Ireland and the US, but there is a modern thriving whisky scene in England that is set to grow over the next few years.
In fact, there is a long history of whisky making in England, but the art of making whisky faded after the early 1900s and remained out of fashion until the early 2000s when tax changes introduced by the government of the time gave encouragement to artisan whisky producers.
Gin and vodka also enjoyed a boost at that time, but whisky is a different and more complex spirit, not least because it takes so long to produce. In fact, to call your drink whisky, it has to be aged in a barrel for a minimum of three years before it is sold.
The references to whisky production in England go back to the 1800s, when both malt and grain whisky was produced in various parts of the country. But in 1905, the last English distillery closed and the business of whisky became dominated by Scotland.
The renaissance of English whisky dates back to 2006 with the creation of the English Whisky Company in Norfolk. The east of England is ideally placed to be the base of a new whisky sector as that part of the country produces abundant supplies of high quality barley, which is a key factor in the whisky distillation process. In fact, at one point in history, barley was transported from Norfolk to Scotland for that reason. In addition, the area has crystal clear freshwater springs.
St George’s Distillery was the first English whisky distillery to be set up in 120 years and has gone on to produce some stunning whiskies, matured in oak casks imported from the US. The success of that rebirth has led to more English distilleries springing up around the country from the Suffolk coast to the Cotswolds, all of them producing unique whiskies as diverse and as enjoyable as any to be found in Scotland, Ireland or the US.
The English whisky scene faced a tough test in 2020, like many other categories of industry, but it kept going and thrived. In fact, last year was a significant landmark in the English whisky sector due to the staging of the first English Whisky Festival, in October. The festival was an online event, and featured two days of competition, as fourteen of the 24 English distilleries competing, and a great chance for critics to savour some of the best whiskies around.
One of the defining and advantageous features of English whisky is the relative lack of stringent rules, beyond the requirement that whisky has to be aged three years in wood. This means that English whisky makers are free to experiment and produce some truly stunning and remarkable spirits. To help you become familiar with the best of what this industry has to offer, here are some of the very best modern English whiskies around today:
The Oxford Artisan Distillery – Oxford Rye Anniversary Edition
This is a 100% heritage rye grain, distilled in a column still set-up and then matured for around a year in virgin American oak before being transferred into a Sauternes cask for another year. The result is a whisky that is packed with rich, sweet flavours, including toffee and caramel, yet still showing traces of rye with a herbal freshness and even a hint of orange peel. It has a lovely rich finish and is a remarkable and memorable modern English whisky.
The Cotswolds Distillery – Cotswolds Single Malt
This exciting single malt is the first whisky to come out of the Cotswolds Distillery, and this much-anticipated release has not disappointed whisky fans. The distillery only uses Cotswolds barley, and there is a nice touch in that the variety and farm where the barley was grown is indicated on each individual bottle.
This whisky is aged for three years in premium Kentucky bourbon barrels and reconditioned American red wine casks, and provides a light, sweet aroma, along with a deeper, darker taste.
The Oxford Artisan Distillery – Bechor Rye
This unique whisky is aged in virgin English oak casks, produced by an English cooper, and offers a cereal-heavy aroma and fruity goodness. This is a subtle whisky, with toasted spice and even peppery elements, and provides a lovely lingering heat on the tongue.
Adnams Southwold – Adnams Triple Malt Whisky
To many, the Adnams name is more familiar for their craft beers – but in sunny Southwold on the Suffolk coast, their whisky distillery is also creating wonderful things. Their Triple Malt is aged in new American oak and combines wheat, barley and oats for an unbeatably smooth, creamy taste sensation. The barrels give it bold flavours of coconut and vanilla, while the taste is a complex mixture of honey and citrus fruits.
The English Whisky Company – Single Malt
The classic whisky from the original of the modern English distillers, this is an unpeated single malt that won a Gold Medal at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It’s aged in carefully chosen Bourbon casks that are imported from the US and help to give it a gentle, creamy profile with familiar fruity flavours. The taste is nutty and clean, and has a hint of zesty orange and tropical fruits, making for an easy drinking softer whisky.
The Lakes Distillery – Steel Bonnets Blended Malt Whisky
One of the most interesting of English whiskies, this is produced by prominent English distiller the Lakes Distillery. Created by blending their own English single malt with a Scottish malt, the company say it is the first cross border blend. It has already landed an award at the 2019 World Whiskies Awards and has become a favourite with English whisky drinkers. It offers a creamy taste, with plenty of fruit flavour and heat followed by a long, mellow and nutty finish.
Anno – Single Malt Whisky
At the luxury end of the English whisky market is this remarkable drink. Anno claim that this is the first whisky to be made in Kent, distilled in partnership with the Westerham Brewery. The brewery added their own yeast-strain to local spring water and English barley to create the whisky’s mash, before the ageing process took place in a medium-charred Bourbon cask, that had previously been used with a single malt Scotch. The result is a pale whisky, with delightful hints of biscuit and marzipan, and it comes in a handmade collectors box, ideal for true whisky connoisseurs.