It’s twenty to nine on a Saturday morning. I’ve been up since half six, and I’ve hauled myself from Reading to Paddington, then across to the other side of London. No one else is around, and the building doesn’t open until at least 11. I’ve come all this way to blow my whisky budget for December on a minimum-age bottle from a totally unproven distillery. And it’s raining. This, I commented to Mark, is the thin end of the whisky wonk wedge. Or the thick end. I can never remember.
London whiskies, apparently, are like buses. You wait a century for one to come along, and then two arrive at once. To make matters more complicated, neither can really decide which arrived first. The East London Liquor Company have been trumpeting the November coming-of-age of their spirit all year, and just as the date approached, the London Distillery Company stole a march and announced a whisky of their own.
This was further confused when London Distillery admitted that orders wouldn’t be fulfilled until their whisky hit four years old in mid-late November, which makes their claim feel a little like a bus driver insisting they’ve arrived at the station when still a couple of blocks away. East London Liquor Company promptly re-seized momentum by getting their bottles on sale in bars and calling themselves “first to be bought and drunk in London”. And on December 1st, bottles were finally available for punters to buy from the ELLC distillery and their Borough Market store. Which was how I came to be standing by their shop door in the rain, three hours before the bottles went on sale.
Rather a lot of kerfuffle then, all in all. And I’m still not sure quite who “won”. Answers, if you please, on a postcard. Or perhaps we should call it a draw? In honesty, the title “London’s first new whiskymaker” feels a little bit like the title “Scotland’s first new manufacturer of croquet mallets”. But I suppose it matters to someone.
Either way, it brings England’s total of distilleries with “of-age” whisky up to eight. Though it’s worth noting that the four to release their whisky this year (Lakes, Wharf, London Distillery and East London Liquor Co) have barely mustered 1,000 bottles between them. I can’t help comparing that to Cotswolds, who have had whisky consistently on shelves since their own inaugural last year. And indeed to Adnams, whose rye appeared in 2017, and has been constantly available since. More concerningly from a consumer perspective, this East London Liquor Co bottling was the cheapest of the new quartet, at a rather hefty £85. For which you could buy a bottle of the first Cotswolds malt and a bottle of the inaugural Adnams rye. Both of which are tasty things indeed.
However. The secondary market being what it is, £85 no longer seems the astronomical price that it once did for a distillery’s inaugural bottling. Certainly compared to the £251 asked by the London Distillery Co. As I commented a month or two ago, the important thing now is to keep an eye on the prices of second and third releases. And if they don’t come up to snuff, to shop around elsewhere.
Let’s talk about the whisky itself, shall we? It’s a rye, nominally, although it’s interesting to note that the mashbill is only 42% rye and a much chunkier 58% barley. Which wouldn’t pass muster on the other side of the Atlantic, where 51% rye is the minimum. The response to that, of course, is that English whisky is blessed with the freedom to experiment and to not be bound by as many regulations as other, more long-standing whisky nations. On the other hand, many such regulations have come about precisely to maintain certain quality standards, and to prevent things like (for example) the mis-labelling of non-Scottish products as “Scotch”, and the discreet and underhand addition of non-whisky substances to a product labelled “whisky”. Lots of new-wave distilleries across the world like to trumpet their innovative carte blanche, compared to Scotland and America. I just hope that such liberties don’t lead to less-scrupulous producers employing the sorts of practices seen in, for example, Japanese whisky and rum.
Where were we? Ah, yes. Rye. Can’t tell you anything about grain provenance or fermentation I’m afraid, so you’ll have to make do with good old casks. Which were virgin French oak, followed by ex-bourbon, followed by a brief stint in ex-PX sherry. The plan, going forward, is for different releases to feature different mashbills and different cask types. So this particular combo may be a complete one-off. But let’s see what we think.
One final aside, before I make my note. Of the 269 bottles made by the ELLC, only sixty were available for customers to buy. The rest were given to staff, or sold to bars both in and outside London. Personally I think that’s a nice approach to an inaugural – a guarantee that the majority of them will be actually drunk. I’ve already seen several photos of East London Liquor Co rye open in less than a fortnight. Whereas I’ve still yet to see anyone cracking a bottle of the Lakes Distillery’s Genesis. Bravo ELLC.
East London Liquor Co Rye (Inaugural Release)
On the nose: Its first home in virgin French oak rears from the off – a lignin hit of clove-studded orange, rye toast and ginseng. With a smatter of dark chocolate. More than reminiscent of the Adnams rye, but a little softer and less spicy. Vanilla, chocolate sponge and light plum. Delicate, but not too much so. Quite complex for the age.
In the mouth: Spicy attack straight away – more of the cloves and ginseng. Ginger too. Spicier than expected actually; caught me slightly off-guard. Wouldn’t have guessed this was only 42% rye. But that spice is accompanied by a plump juiciness – cherries, plums, light sultanas. There’s certainly more of the sherry here than there was on the nose, but they’ve weighted it nicely; it doesn’t overwhelm. Rye grass and a waft of leather keep things balanced between sweet and dry before the mid-length finish fades to liquorice and chocolate.
A good first knock for ELLC. The grain balance and casks have been well managed; nothing batters anything else with too much force. It’s all quite clever. Inevitably I tasted it next to the Adnams rye; this has less weight and spice, but a little more complexity and elegance. There’s more than space for both in my life.
In short: buy yourself a glass if you see it at a bar, and look out for whatever ELLC release next. (The 60 bottles available this time round have presumably all-but-vanished by now.) Fingers crossed for a bigger release and a more accessible, long-term price.
(But, as the Adnams was, it’s banging on the door of a 7. Scores translated here – as usual, anything above 5 is good.)