So there I am in Cumbria on a crystalline, crackling October morning. Outside, the pale sky reflects in Bassenthwaite’s shimmering blue and the patchwork rust of deciduous canopy gleams under the folded muscle of low, weather-rounded hills. I’m in the neo-Victorian boardroom of an actually-Victorian farm building, I have six glasses in front of me and I am confused.
Let’s wind the clock back a bit. A couple of months ago the Lakes Distillery sent me a sample of their new blended malt, Steel Bonnets. It was accompanied by a press release which told me a great deal about the border folk of seventeenth-or-so century Cumbria, and almost nothing whatsoever about the whisky itself. I didn’t think much of the marketing, and, as it transpired, I didn’t think much of the liquid either. So I rattled out a rather withering review, fired it over to Mark, and that, I supposed, was that.
And then I got an email from the Lakes Distillery, thanking me for my piece (which was awfully big of them, considering) and inviting me to a writer’s event at the end of October, where they hoped to tell me more about their processes, ethos and plans. A month or so later I was hurtling past Keswick on the A66, stab vest stashed in the Corsa’s boot.
In preparation for my trip I had peered over their website, which really only buttressed my scepticism about their marketing. Words like “premium” and “luxury” loomed large, augmented by all manner of fluff squeaking “faith”, “hope”, luck” and “love” and how various Cumbrian natural features epitomised those virtues.
Here’s a sample: “Sunrise at the summit of Scafell Pike; a new dawn, a panorama of possibility, of the farflung corners of this Sceptred Isle. An awakening of hope, the catalyst for ambition.” Right.
Personally, having tramped all-too-often up and down Scafell Pike, quite the grimmest and most wretched pimple on this Sceptred Isle’s sorry visage, the only hopes it has ever inspired in me are hopes that there will be dry clothes at the end, hopes that I won’t twist my ankle or break my boot again, and hopes that it’ll stop raining in a bit. (And not once have those hopes ever been realised.)
There was even a claim here and there purporting that the Lakes “put/are putting English whisky on the world map”. Which, given four other distilleries beat them comprehensively to the punch, makes the Lakes Distillery sound like that person who turns up four hours late shouting “let’s get this party started!”
So I wasn’t feeling all too optimistic upon arrival. But, with time to kill before the event began, I thought I’d swot up further by buying and reading their book. (A tenner from the gift shop if you’re keeping score.) Over ninety minutes, a coffee, and a brownie the size of a housebrick, I learned all sorts about the renovation of their stunning farm buildings, about the erection of their lavishly wrought gates, about the gourmet credentials of their bistro (in fairness, that brownie was biblically good) and about the filming of Derwent River (one of the fastest in Europe, don’t you know) by a team also responsible for David Attenborough’s Life on Earth.
But as to how they actually went about the nuts and bolts of making their “luxury”, “premium”, “elite”, “for-connoisseurs”, “hand-crafted”, “meticulously-created”, “exceptional” spirits with the“provenance, purity, passion and honesty that is the essence of the Lake District”, I still didn’t have a Scooby. Other than that they used “a variety of casks”. Which is true of literally every whisky distillery in the world.
And given that they had flogged their inaugural Genesis for an average price of £900-per-bottle at auction, and had launched their Quatrefoil Collection at £895 a throw, I really wasn’t sure what I was going to add with this piece that I hadn’t already said in the Steel Bonnets polemic.
But here goes: one or two of the samples I tried that day were the best English whiskies that I have ever tasted. And I have tasted the vast majority of English whiskies.
There. I’ve said it.
These weren’t samples of Genesis, you understand. They weren’t early peeks at the Quatrefoil Collection. They were simply bits and pieces that “whiskymaker” Dhavall Gandhi, who was leading the presentation, had put together in his blending lab. Not all of them were showstoppers. A couple were simply fine. But, as I say, one or two of them were super. Were Cotswolds good. Were approaching Smögen good.
And here’s where things get baffling. Did you know that the Lakes Distillery ferment for a whopping 96 hours? I didn’t – it’s not on their website. Did you know that their cask programme is heavily sherry-dominant? I didn’t – it’s not on their website. Did you know that a little while back they moved from a 40% abv bottling policy to a 46.6%-abv-minimum, non-chill-filtration, natural-colouring-only policy for everything they commit to glass? I didn’t – it’s not on their website.
Most intriguingly, did you know that they use three different yeast strains to produce three different new makes, which are blended in a particular way before being put into casks, to maximise complexity of spirit before maturation has even begun? I didn’t – guess why.
The amount of useful, tangible, flavour-relevant, impressive information – information that would enthuse whisky drinkers and would signpost effort and quality – that I learned from Dhavall was staggering. There is so much to potentially get one’s teeth into, produced by people who seem genuinely excited about what they’re making … yet not one jot of it is being communicated properly, and I’m being sent press releases that list historical border clans.
As I messaged Mark, once I’d got back home: colour me confused.
I was struck, when Marketing Director Kirsty made her introduction, by how openly she admitted that the Lakes Distillery “hadn’t got everything right”. That they were “on a journey. Still learning.” The vision (and this is verbatim from the slides Kirsty presented) is “to create a global luxury whisky brand. In pursuit of single malt perfection.” The motive behind inviting a gaggle of have-a-go pencil-scratchers on a secret-squirrel tasting jolly was, apparently, “to get opinions, advice and feedback”.
I’m a spare-time hack, not a consultant, and it’s not my business to do advice. But opinion is my molecular structure, and if the Lakes Distillery is really interested in my opinion, here goes:
The website is a mess. Looks great, reads terribly. I’m force-fed meaningless words like “premium” and “luxury” without any grounding or context. I think they need to look at the sites of good new distilleries like High Coast, Waterford and Cotswolds, and focus more on talking about what they are making and how they are making it. No single malt in the world is pitching itself as “everyday and ordinary”. I’ll decide for myself whether your stuff is luxury and premium, thank you very much, and I’ll decide that based on whether or not the liquid is properly, interestingly made and whether its flavour stands out in a clamouring crowd.
What they need, at minimum, is a blog page on their website maintained by someone who knows why their whisky is interesting and different, and is able to communicate that to a whisky-literate audience. That means no nonsense about how the water source is fast and pure – makes sod-all difference; anyone can purify their water. And it definitely means no guff about local mountains, clans, rivers and forests. I can see all that in the accompanying pictures. I want to be told about yeasts, fermentations, distillation, wood policy and blending. (I’d also like to be told about barley – the Lakes Distillery gets theirs from Yorkshire, as it happens.)
The difference between the dedication to process that the Lakes are practising, and the irrelevant, smoke-and-mirrors bunkum they are preaching is jaw-dropping. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and if I hadn’t been shown (and tasted) the proof then I still wouldn’t.
The Lakes Distillery is at a crossroads. They’ve yawped out their first, ultra-limited releases, with all the associated gewgaws, to great pomp and ceremony. Their production isn’t small – by 2020 they’ll apparently be making 1,200,000 bottles-worth per year. And before they go mainstream with their single malt they need to decide what their identity is, and how they want to be thought of.
If they really want to one day be mentioned in the same breath as whisky’s global elite, they first need to talk the language. To show their working. To demonstrate quality, rather than merely asserting it. They need to realise that their first releases risked alienating their core consumers and that a long-term distillery cannot be maintained without a reasonably-priced flagship malt. Look at the ten-year-olds from Springbank, Ben Nevis and Benromach. At Glendronach, Benriach and Kilkerran 12. In newer parlance, look at Kilchoman’s Machir Bay. At Wolfburn’s core range. At (yes, I’m bringing them up again) Cotswolds. At the new releases from the English Whisky Co. First-edition bottlings at cricket-score prices are one thing, but there simply isn’t a millions-strong market of tycoons and oligarchs interested in the standard, day-to-day malt of a sub-10-year-old distillery. The Lakes needs to stop trying to be some kind of instant, ready-meal, just-add-water Macallan (whose own prices, incidentally, start at under £50 a bottle, even if those bottles are pretty meagre fare.)
The rhetoric desperately needs overhauling. They need someone on stands at shows who knows why the whisky is actually good, who talks with respected authority and can advocate for the brand in whisky enthusiast language as fluently as they can chat to the nascent non-obsessivist. A Georgie Bell. A Billy Abbott. A Zoë Rutherford. A Dave Worthington. The distillery needs to understand why Steel Bonnets appears at face-value to be cynical, overpriced style-over-substance. And they need to understand that, whilst whisky is a business, it is not a business in which all investment can be made back overnight. And that it is a business dependant on the goodwill of loyal, long-term supporters. Not to mention locals and tourists. Who will not all be millionaires. And who will not want to be directed solely to the gin section of their gift shop.
Ambition is all very well. But to meet those ambitions, yards need putting in on focus, on voice, and on appearance. “Premium” status is hard-earned; you can’t simply announce yourself to be elite. And, frankly, the current overtly-corporate sheen is jarringly discordant with the locally-focussed, rural, Cumbrian farmhouse reality. Why on earth would you try to act like hoity, impersonal, arrogant London when you are the incomparable Lake District?
So that’s my tuppenceworth, which the distillery is, of course, free to totally ignore. And since you’ve read all that, here’s a review of their newest expression of “The One”. It’s a limited release, blended from English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh malt and grain whiskies, and finished in PX casks for a year. It contains an upped dose of the Lakes’ own whisky, but you’ll have to take my word for that, because the website doesn’t say so. It costs £45, which seems a smidge pricey at a glance. Oh, and I got a bottle as a freebie for turning up to the event. But our Steel Bonnets sample was free too, and look what I said about that.
The One – Limited Edition Sherry Expression
Colour: An ironic Amontillado
On the nose: Significantly fruited and sherried. There’s big plum jam, raisin, clove and nutmeg sitting on top of the drier malt. The grainy, spirity aspect of former “The One” bottlings is completely in absentia, and there’s a distinct orange marmalade and BBQ smokiness in the background. Comforting stuff.
In the mouth: Palate’s lovely and thick. There’s a chewiness of date and cherry compôte and ginger biscuit and raisin. Baked apple and poached pear. Bags of char, and that thick BBQ woodsmoke grows and grows. Oily and sonorous; a nice intertwangling of high notes and depth. Also, quite simply, very drinkable. I opened my bottle at an early Halloween party and half of it had been whizzed within an hour – most of it not by me. The other half will be jealously guarded…
It’s very nice indeed. Best ever iteration of “The One” by miles. I said at the tasting that I hadn’t thought much of the original “The One”, to which Dhavall responded that, when interviewed a couple of years back for his position, he had opened by criticising the existent bottlings. This version also blows Steel Bonnets out of the water (we tasted that too, and my opinion remains as-was.) It is maybe £5 or so dear, but I’ve tried hundreds of £45-or-more-per-bottle whiskies that weren’t nearly as good as this is.
I’m glad I got the chance to peek behind the curtain at The Lakes Distillery. And I hope that they tear down the curtain completely, because what they’re actually doing is worth looking at. Above all, I hope that the distillery’s primary single malt, once released, isn’t priced in line with their inaugural bottlings. It’s no good making interesting stuff if you don’t talk about it properly. And it’s no good talking about it properly if you’ve alienated your consumers.
Is that enough opinion to be getting on with?
Thanks very much to the Lakes Distillery, particularly Dhavall, Kirsty and Karen, for hosting me and providing the whisky for today’s review.