English whisky? You could be forgiven for thinking that Scotland has a monopoly on the famous spirit, but with a growing range of English brands and distilleries coming to the fore, English whisky could be the next big thing. And it’s worth remembering that there’s a long and proud history of English whisky.
Whisky making in England faded from prominence in the early 1900s at the time when the famous Lea Valley Distillery closed, but around 15 years ago, there was a burst of new whisky producers on the English scene. Thanks to the boost given to craft distillers by tax changes from the Labour government early in the 2000s, whisky has taken its place alongside gin and vodka at the forefront of new and exciting English drinks.
The major difference between those spirits and whisky is the time taken to produce it. The legal minimum requirement for whisky to remain in the barrel is three years, which means that it takes longer for this product to hit the market.
So what makes a good English whisky? The main difference from Scottish whisky is the freedom to experiment. North of the border, whisky is strictly regulated on everything from advertising to production, but English whisky makers can be a little more experimental. This has led to a wide variety of whisky types including single malts, single grains, blends, and whisky that has been aged in a range of barrel types. There are also peated and non-peated whiskies and whisky that has been produced with oats, barley or wheat, or a blend of the three.
The English whisky scene is likely to become one of the most interesting areas of growth in the domestic spirits market over the next few years, but there are already some extraordinary English whiskies that are worth sampling. Here is a selection of the best.
Cotswold Single Malt Whisky
One of the newest English whisky makers, The Cotswolds Distillery debuted its whisky in 2017, and has since picked up no fewer than 13 awards including a prestigious gold medal at the 2019 World Whiskies Awards. Described as the first ever single malt distilled in the Cotswolds area, the whisky relies on locally grown barley, and it is aged in Kentucky ex-Bourbon barrels, along with American oak casks that have been used for red wine.
This results in a soft and fruity aroma along with hints of orange and marzipan. That softness is enhanced by flavours of dark sugar, red fruit and caramel along with a little spice. It’s a whisky that is a great all-rounder, enjoyable neat, with ice or mixed. .
Adnams Triple Malt Whisky
Southwold-based distiller and brewer Adnams has an impressive range of whiskies in its portfolio, and it has been among the leaders of the English whisky renaissance, having released their first whisky back in 2013. Their Triple Malt is a five-year aged whisky made from wheat, barley and oats, and then aged in new American oak, giving it an almost tropical flavour, which includes hints of toasted coconut, banana and chocolate. It’s almost like a dessert in a glass.
Adnams Rye Malt Whisky
Another contender from Adnams is their Rye Malt Whisky. Rye tends to produce a peppery, spicy flavour, and the higher the rye content, the spicier the whisky. This Rye Malt is matured in French oak for a minimum of five years, and is made with 75 per cent English rye and 25 per cent barley. It has scents of black pepper and a nutmeg, with a taste that includes raisins, fudge and even blackberry, blended to an almost chewy dryness.
The Norfolk Malt ‘n’ Rye
Another of the pioneers of the English whisky scene, St George’s Distillery in Norfolk, became England’s first officially registered whisky producer for nearly a century when it launched in 2005. This is a single grain whisky that uses a special blend of malt and rye spirits. It is a fruity, light whisky, with plenty of distinctive character, and offers hints of coffee and chocolate along with a herbal fruitiness.
The English Small Batch Virgin Oak
The English Whisky Company took the bold decision to age their whisky in virgin American white oak casks, which ensures that the drink takes on the character of the wood. This particular vintage, which was distilled in July 2013 and then bottled in March 2019, has developed impressive flavours, with plenty of body and vanilla sweetness, and it has an impressively long finish.
Anno Single Malt Whisky
If you’re looking to splurge on a truly luxury English whisky, this could be your best option. Anno claim that this is the first whisky to be made in Kent, produced in partnership with the Westerham Brewery. The brewery added their yeast-strain to local water and English barley to produce the whisky’s mash, before the ageing process was undertaken in a medium-charred Bourbon cask, that had previously been used to age a single malt Scotch. This is a pale whisky, with hints of biscuit and marzipan, and is sold in a handmade collectors box for true whisky connoisseurs.
Sacred Peated English Whisky
Sacred, based in London, are known for their gin range, but they have now turned their hand to whisky with this peated single malt, aged initially in bourbon barrels then finished in sherry casks. This is a whisky that has been aged for five years, and produces a thick, almost Christmas cake inspired flavour, along with plenty of smoky flavour. A drink that is best allowed to sit in the glass a moment before drinking, it is perfect if you enjoy Islay whisky.
The Lakes Distillery Steel Bonnets Blended Malt Whisky
Technically, this is not a pure English whisky, but it is produced by prominent English distiller the Lakes Distillery. Created through blending their own English single malt with a Scottish malt, it is what they describe as the first cross border blend. It has already scooped an award at the World Whiskies Awards last year and has fast become a favourite with English whisky drinkers. It has a creamy taste, with plenty of fruit flavour and heat, but a long, mellow and nutty finish.