The Spirit of Yorkshire distillery lurks in eastern England’s agricultural margin without much concession to aesthetic. Loosely tacked to the grey, faintly somnolent village of Hunmanby, it’s pretty well-disguised on the periphery of a small industrial unit archipelago. A strictly-functional assemblage of metal fences, red brick, corrugation, plastic drainpipe and windows the seventies would have baulked at. It’s not what you’d call Lakes pretty. It’s not even what you’d call Wharf pretty. It’s prettier than the London Distilling Co, but so are stalags.
The landscape, too, is drawn from the countryside’s more utilitarian pages. Vast, bare, gently-sloping fields, and that’s more or less your lot. The sort of thing that’s only really attractive if you live in London and have forgotten what green is. Oh – and there’s a semi-distant sea view. But that’s also true of Alcatraz. Welcome to God’s own country. My father, almost reproachfully, asked where the cows were. “I thought this was a farm. Kilchoman had cows.” I don’t know what to tell him.
Gosh. Just 150 words into 2019 and already I’ve sashayed into sneering and snidery. But for two good reasons. Firstly because that sort of thing is partially what keeps the lights on here at Malt. And secondly because I have very little else to say about Spirit of Yorkshire that isn’t overwhelmingly positive. I recently re-read a piece in which Mark gawped and gasped and gushed his way through the tour at Ballindalloch. My experience with Spirit of Yorkshire – far less fêted than its Scottish opposite number – was much the same. And, as you shall see, for many of the same reasons.
This is another Single Estate. Capital letters and everything. Though that’s not their term for it, as Single Estate would be far too pretentious for Yorkshire. Here they just call it a farm. And it’s a big one. Six hundred tonnes of barley per year. A third of that goes towards their whisky, which is still twice as much as the average farm supplying Waterford. (Unless Waterford’s Head of Communications has been feeding me porkies.) [Ed: it’s a bit more complicated, due to whether or not we’re talking tonnes of green barley, dried barley, or malted barley … 100 fresh off each farm becomes about 75 when malted. Waterford uses just under 5,000 tonnes of green barley overall from each harvest.]
If Mark’s quite finished showing off about his gaff…? Onwards.
It’s rare to find distilleries growing the entirety of their crop. But perhaps not surprising to find one in Yorkshire, which, after all, is the largest barley grower in the UK, and the place so many Scottish distilleries go to for theirs. Tom Mellor’s family had grown barley here for generations before, looking to make it more profitable, he set up the Wold Top brewery on his farm in 2003. One thing led, as it often does, to another, and thirteen years later the first new make splashed over Spirit of Yorkshire’s stills.
The distillery first bleeped on my radar just under a year ago, when Ben of “A Dram a Day” reviewed their second batch of maturing spirit. More significantly, a few months later, I caught sight of them at the World Whisky Forum where, as far as I could see, they were the only English distillery to visit … despite the Forum being held in England. That told me something. The World Whisky Forum is a place where distillers convene to share knowledge; to increase understanding; to learn how to do things better. Representatives come from the likes of Chichibu, Box, King’s County, Kyrö, Zuidam. And it isn’t cheap. If a small distillery bothers to visit the World Whisky Forum, chances are they’re a distillery interested in doing things properly.
Curiosity titillated, I nabbed a sample of batch 002 from Ben, who also chucked in a sample of batch 003 and – even more usefully – an email introduction to Joe, Spirit of Yorkshire’s distiller. And one grey and misty pre-Christmas morning my father and I crossed the Pennines in search of grog. I do so enjoy having a designated driver…
It’s more of a looker on the inside. A neat, well-ordered shop leads, via a flight of stairs, to a rather pleasant little café. Pretty good coffee, too. And – nice touch – a window into the distillery itself, with ringside views of stills and casks. A lovely place to sit and watch the bustle of making whisky. Which, had the distillery been working that day, would be just what we would have done.
At this point, before I start sounding embarrassingly tripadvisor, Joe joined us and the important stuff began. Joe’s a proper enthusiast. Your archetypal whisky hobbyist-turned-professional. His CV before joining Spirit of Yorkshire read Whisky lover, Whisky Shop, Whisky Lounge. In that order. When he’s not drinking his own, he tends to buy seventies blends on auction, which I think tells you much of what you need to know.
The only part of the Spirit of Yorkshire process that happens off the farm is the malting. That’s done close by, in Bridlington. But Spirit of Yorkshire’s barley is strictly ring-fenced; there’s no cross-contamination at the maltings. Once malted the mashing and fermentation takes place – as you’d expect – at their sister brewery on the farm, Wold Top. Clear worts and ripe, fruity esters are the aim. Curiously they don’t use beer yeasts for the spirit; instead they use two strains of distiller’s yeasts over a 75-95 hour fermentation. “That’s a Jim Swan trick”, says Joe.
Like so many new-age distilleries, Spirit of Yorkshire was mentored by Jim Swan until his death in 2017. But, more than any of the other Jim Swan alumni I’ve visited, these chaps seem keen on ploughing their own furrow. And nowhere do their idiosyncrasies bulge more noticeably than on Joe’s turf, by the stills.
They’re bigger than most of the stills you see in England. That’s the strong first impression, actually: this isn’t some crafty alembic in the corner of a garage (however charming such things might be). Rather it’s a proper-sized distillery that, flogged to maximum capacity, could probably eak out 450,000 litres of plonk per year. Though, for the time being, they make less than a fifth of that.
More strikingly unique is the four-plate column still attached via a series of pipes to the spirit pot. A large handle protrudes from the lyne arm just before it feeds into the condenser. Pull it, and the spirit moves into the column, where after heavy rectification it is drawn off at 87% or thereabouts. This spirit is casked separately to the standard pot still spirit, which comes off at 70% (ish). It’s impossible not to notice the difference between makes. The pot still spirit is unctuous, bold, fruity. The more highly-rectified stuff that has gone through the column is silkier; sweeter. Almost vanillin. Both are unique, distinct, and tastier than most of the new makes I’ve been given in the past. Father Wells was a huge fan. And he only got to smell them.
Another little detail that sets Spirit of Yorkshire apart seemed far more innocuous. Joe and the team take their cut by lifting the lid of the spirit safe and tasting it for themselves. Just as they do at Chichibu and at Waterford. Ostensibly, that seems a lesser guarantee of quality than entrusting the precise cut points to a machine. But under the fluctuating conditions and temperatures of a distillery, spirit does not always come over the lyne arm with the same qualities at the same strength. Cutting manually, Joe can decide exactly when the spirit tastes as it should. Which, after all, should be the main – if not the only – consideration.
When I mentioned Spirit of Yorkshire to Mark he asked whether they were using Shaved, Toasted and Re-charred (STR) wine casks. “Jim Swan effect n’all that?” Mark doesn’t particularly like STR casks; or rather he doesn’t like their over-discussion, seeing it as contributory to whisky’s wood fetishisation. (And he may have a point – though plenty of marketeers make just as much of sherry casks, American oak etc.) At any rate, he will be pleased to learn that STRs make up a very small percentage of Spirit of Yorkshire’s wood inventory … and even more pleased that they don’t seem particularly pre-occupied with banging on about one type of wood or another anyway. After all, what would be the point of all that pre-cask wonkishness if 80% of flavour really did come from the oak?
For the record, the majority of Spirit of Yorkshire’s casks are ex-bourbon, with the remainder comprising various types of sherries, other fortified wines and STRs. At the moment they’re filling about 14 or so casks a week; all are stored on the farm. Joe is less interested in talking about the different wood seasonings than he is in discussing how the two different makes interact with each one. He’s not concluded whether there’s a “best” type for each spirit yet. The tastings, experiments and blends are ongoing.
That experimentation can already be seen in the distillery’s “Maturing Malt” range, now on its fourth bottling. Again, when Joe discusses them, he’s more interested in talking about the spirits than the casks. The first was mostly pot-only, and the second had more of the spirit that had gone through the column. The third and fourth were a fifty-fifty split. I ask what the whisky might be when it’s ready, but either Joe hasn’t made his mind up yet, or he’s not letting on.
The Maturing Malt series was never intended from the distillery’s birth. Unusually, for a new-age distillery, Spirit of Yorkshire doesn’t make vodkas or gins. “We could, and I’m not saying we never will, but we were focused on the whisky.” Eventually Joe got fed up of telling people there was nothing for them to buy. For what it’s worth, I don’t mind the idea of selling maturing spirit to curious drinkers. It’s certainly more interesting than a flash-in-the-pan gin or vodka. And it’s given Joe a chance to tinker with blends and to see what customers think.
Will Spirit of Yorkshire be a better seller because they produce two different new makes and blend them together in the whisky? No. Will they sell more by being a Single Estate? Negligibly. Are they going to make more money because they ferment for longer than they need to, get a proper brewer to do the brewing and take their spirit cut by raising the safe lid and going by taste and smell? Of course they won’t. Does it make them more interesting; more worth your time and money? Absolutely.
Much will have to be decided before the spirit becomes whisky in May this year. Joe and the team will have to work on figuring out how best to blend spirits and casks. Wisely, Joe’s talking about the importance of developing a house style before getting bogged down with sundry off-piste releases. The distillery will also need to figure out what the whisky is going to cost. And I’m wary of talking a place up too much and then being stung by inaugural prices.
But, somehow – I am such an optimist – I don’t think Spirit of Yorkshire will go down the arrogant, quick-buck path. Their Maturing Malt costs £39.95; given the quality, the scale of operations, and the prices other distilleries charge for their totally unaged gin, I don’t think that’s too bad. (It’s a third of the price that London’s Bimber charges for theirs.) Fingers crossed the whisky, once released, won’t be a big step up in price. Early in our tour Joe said, “there are distilleries who are more about the marketing – we try to be more about the whisky.” Obviously he didn’t name names, but I agree entirely with his former point. And, what’s more, I believe him on the latter.
Quick tastes from the casks towards the end: a thunderously extracted sample of column spirit from Oloroso; chewy with muscovado and smoked spice. Pot still from a bourbon cask; oleaginous, honeyed, fruity. And more column spirit from a former Fino cask; sizzling and darting with flecks of citrus, apple and pear. It’s different. It’s good.
Spirit of Yorkshire, it seems to me, is the cheerful meeting point of the functional and practical with the obsessive and the enthused. Good barley, good beer, good spirit; all done properly, interestingly, by people who give a damn. Going round with Joe I got the same sense of ambition, purpose and attention to detail that I felt when Zoë showed me around Cotswolds. Indeed I think Spirit of Yorkshire just might turn out to be the Cotswolds of the North. And I can’t praise an English distillery much more highly than that.
On to the Maturing Malts. Joining the two samples Ben gave me is the fourth and final bottling in the series, which I bought on my visit. Completionists will grind their teeth, as I don’t have any of the first bottling. And, because they’re not whisky yet, I haven’t given them scores.
Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery Projects 002 Maturing Malt
Colour: Pale gold
On the nose: High-toned. Spirity, yes, but esters are ripe and fruity. Lots of citrus; lemon and orange beside malty ginger biscuit. Sherbet. Acetone betrays youth, and I dare say the dominance of the column spirit.
In the mouth: Nice oily palate, but again the esters are feisty, prickly, lemony. Need a bit more time for the cask to whip them into shape. Fruits are sharp, but a red berry quality has slithered in. Beside that there’s a fresh maltiness. Wafers. Vanilla shortbread. Custard cream. Youth returns on the finish. The structure’s there; just needs development.
Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery Projects 003 Maturing Malt
On the nose: Instantly more depth and development of those ripely-fruited esters. Bananas; cooked so the sugars caramelise. Peach. Pear. Even a little milk chocolate. Soft aromas scored through by light – near-smoky – herbaceousness.
In the mouth: Goodness that’s a fat, unctuous mouthful of a palate. Sensationally oily. The chocolate and malts build; this is very satisfying, stick-to-your-teeth, upfront stuff for one so young. The spirit is the star; there’s no cask domination here. Cherry jam, pink wafer biscuits and banana custard. Sweet, but not cloying. Just a little young sharpness on the finish.
Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery Projects 004 Maturing Malt
Colour: Runny honey
On the nose: There’s still a little fruit, in pear and apple form, but this one is more about the sugars. Honey. Honeycomb. Delicate muscovado. Not as upfront as 003, but the aromas, given time, are more layered and complex. There’s a flutter of wet stone minerality that’s awfully alluring.
In the mouth: Not quite as viscous as 003, but more controlled and harmonious. Baked apple, sugary pastry. Almost apple strudel, but without the spices. Very moreish; very easy to drink. More flavour than many legal whiskies several times its age. The sugars and fruity esters persist nicely. Just the lightest pang of acetone on the finish.
They’re making a fine-boned, well-structured spirit in Yorkshire, and no mistake. Three fascinating – and very different – expressions, which nicely demonstrate the different capabilities and styles of which Spirit of Yorkshire’s setup is capable. The casks have been sympathetically chosen and blended; there’s nothing over-dominant. Given that almost all extraction happens in the first 200 days, it could have been easy for Joe to have just chucked crowd-pleasing wood-bombs out. But he hasn’t, and they’re all the better – and more interesting – for it.
It’s only 002 that doesn’t really take my fancy. It just needs more development. But as a demonstration of the difference the spirits make, it still hits the brief. As for the other two; if Spirit of Yorkshire’s inaugural whisky tastes along either of those lines, I’ll be more than happy. 004 just edges it, for me, but 003 more than hits the mark. You can pick up either on the distillery’s website.
But here’s a better idea: go to Hunmanby and pick a bottle up from the distillery itself. In fact, I insist. Never mind the posturing London distilleries; these are the upcoming English whiskymakers you really want to watch.
Thanks so much to Ben for the samples and introduction, and to Joe for taking the time to give us such a fascinating tour.