UK / Europe

The business behind English whisky

English whisky

Amy Hughes

Move over Scotland, it’s time to make room on the shelf for English whisky. London’s first distillery in over a century is about to begin production of single malt whisky in a former Victorian dairy. Darren Rook and his partner set up The London Distillery after reading about Australian distilleries. “We wondered why there were none in London.”

London did have a distillery once. Lea Valley Distillery, located at the site of the recent Olympics, was one of four English whisky producers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It was also the last distillery to produce English whisky in 1897, before the entire building burned down a few years later.

There are a couple of theories about why the English stopped making whisky more than a hundred years ago. Whisky historian and author Kevin Kosar says it was down to supply and demand.

“The whisky market crashed in 1900. Leading up to that time, the Scots and Irish were overproducing whisky, causing prices to drop, and distilleries to go bust.”

Kosar says because of the long lead time involved in the production of whisky, many distilleries over-leveraged themselves.

“Distilling, whisky especially, is very costly. You put all this money out there for the equipment and staff, then you put it in casks and wait three years. There are a lot of upfront costs with delayed revenues.”

In order to generate income quicker, many distilleries, including Darren Rook’s, also distil gin which only takes about three weeks to produce.

Andrew Nelstrop has been at the forefront of the English whisky revival with his St. George’s distillery in Norfolk, producing whisky since 2006. He believes English whisky also suffered because of suppliers servicing the heart of the market.

“England became the capital of gin, and Scotland became the capital of whisky. Whisky needs to go into oak casks. Most of the oak casks arrived at the docks in Liverpool. By the time the English were producing whisky, which was much later, most of those casks were heading north, not south. If you haven’t got enough casks to pour your whisky, you’re out of luck.”

Passionate… Darren Rook

But casks are no longer a problem. And Darren Rook says only the Scots and Americans are bound to use oak.

“We’re going to use some oak casks, but we’re also going to experiment with other woods to see how it affects the flavour.”

Rook’s whisky won’t be bottled for another three years, but Andrew Nelstrop’s St. George’s whisky will begin exporting to the US in April. Nelstrop concedes Scotch has an advantage, being a brand in itself. Only Scottish whisky can be called Scotch. Instead, he’s hoping to trade in on England’s identity and heritage.

“When people think of England, they think of quality products. Think of Rolls Royce, Bentley and others. We need to provide a high quality whisky to match the expectation. We’re not a brand yet, so we need the national brand of England to sell our whisky internationally and generate interest.”

Darren Rook compares Scottish whisky to French wine.

“Scotch will always be the standard bearer for quality. We’re not here to compete with the Scots, we’re trying to create something complementary. We’re trying to create something we’re passionate about and proud of; something that people can see as a separate offering to excite and engage whisky drinkers in a different way.”

Rook says there are many English micro-breweries now trying to enter the whisky market. He predicts a surge in craft distilleries, but cautions the novelty of English whisky is just that, and only those pouring quality from their casks will survive against their Scottish rivals.

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