A trio from the East London Liquor Company

East London whiskies

“First”. It’s an alluring old word, isn’t it? Everyone wants to be first. First place. First Growth. First in line. First among equals. First man on the moon. First teddy bear at the picnic. After all, as received wisdom has it, you never forget your first. And as our friend Ricky Bobby has it, “if you ain’t first, you’re last”.

Frankly, where whisky is concerned, I’m feeling more than a little first-saturated. So many distilleries have started up in the last four or five years – a wonderful thing in and of itself, of course – that we’re starting to need a collective term for inaugural bottlings. My vote goes to “a flipper’s frot”.

And this time last year it was handbags out all round as the East London Liquor Company and the London Distillery Company engaged in every manner of lexical skulduggery to claim the apparently coveted prize of London’s First Whisky.

Personally, insofar as I can tell, the title “London’s First Whisky” carries all the qualitative significance of “Yemen’s First Dry Ski Slope”. It must have meant something to someone though, because The London Distilling Company, who technically hit the white ribbon first, valued the laurels at £251 a pop. The market disagreed somewhat, and bottles were still available on Master of Malt some months later.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of the LDC’s slow bottling line, the East London Liquor Company announced their rye to be “the first on London’s shelves” (which is, to be fair, a somewhat more pertinent accomplishment). They also trademarked London Rye(®) – a shrewd decision which I dare say warded off the legions of hawkers and costermongers sneaking about with clandestine bottles of hooky London whisky under their greatcoats.

Twelve months later the English whisky category continues to pump and whirr. The Lakes and Bimber have come online with their inaugural bottlings, Cotswolds has released a couple more, Spirit of Yorkshire seem to be on the cusp [note: since time of writing they’ve launched their inaugural – congratulations ladies and gents] and The Mermaid on the Isle of Wight have passed the three-year flag without pulling the trigger yet. One might almost have thought that the era of introduction was about to disappear in the rear-view.

But no! In a flourish of good news for soap opera actors and moped-straddling phone thieves, the ELLC’s latest press release is proud to announce the FIRST EVER EAST LONDON SINGLE MALT. Yes, everyone else straining for that gong can wring their hands in failure and despair. The “E” postcode area has been claimed. What’s more, the south’s got one, the north’s got one so now only the west is left for bagging. Though Bimber, in a fit of mean-spiritedness, have manged to site themselves in the north-west, thereby rather selfishly planting their flag in two primary points on the London compass.

Look, I’m sorry to snark and sneer. Really I am. Ish. But I just can’t help but think that ‘First East London Single Malt’ is a title of supreme indifference to even the most optimistic secondary marketeer. Of all the qualities this whisky may possess, its postcode of origin is bottom of my priority checklist. Frankly, even if it displayed an organoleptic stamp of place – to be clear, it doesn’t – I wouldn’t want to know. One shudders at how the terroir of East London might manifest itself.

Anyhow, onto the trio and what flavour-relevant titbits we can glean. The single malt is of indeterminate age (read – about three) and has been aged in casks that formerly held Kentucky bourbon and rye. Then there’s a rye whisky – apologies, a London Rye Whisky® – which appears to have been constructed on a basis of “how many on-trend, kneejerk whisky marketing buzzwords can we cram onto one label?” I count “rye”, “peat” “virgin oak” and “PX sherry”, which is pretty thorough going. For the record, it spent most of its life in ex-bourbon, but how boring does that sound?

Finally – and most intriguingly to this cynic – there’s a collaboration with Sonoma Distilling Company, a Californian distillery we’ve covered slightly in these pages, and which I hold in rather high regard, having scribbled up most of their range for the British Bourbon Society many moons ago. This whisky blends ELLC rye aged in “a variety of casks (including ex-gin …)” with Sonoma’s excellent bourbon.

Shall we take a look? Mark’s jumping in with tasting notes too, having recently thrown the verbal petrol bomb on twitter that “if you took the average quality of English whisky spirits vs an average of Scotch spirits, the young new world would easily outclass the old”. Let’s see.

East London whiskies

Adam’s Tasting Notes

ELLC Single Malt Bourbon and Rye Cask. 47% abv

Colour: White wine

On the nose: One for lovers of not-very-assertive casks, this. Also for lovers of not-very-assertive spirit. Grassy, reedy, slightly milky. It’s all a bit anodyne and meh. A bit of lemon rind here, a bit of vanilla sponge there. Slightly ho hum.

In the mouth: The prickling alcohol disguises a very sweet malt, but again we’re rather low on flavour. Mild honey, vanilla, waffles, shortbread. It’s a bit of a reserved, mumbling Englander this. Shuffles awkwardly about, umming and ahing and looking at its feet. Bitters towards the finish. I’m afraid I’m not a fan.

Score: 3/10

ELLC London Rye® cask-aged peated and PX. 47% abv

Colour: Old gold

On the nose: This is very spiritous. Young, raw esters, acetone medicine cupboard. A little wood polish, a smatter of smoky bacon crisp and the lightest flutter of raisin. Given the big, blowsy constituents it’s a touch reserved on intensity, this.

In the mouth: Egad! The palate tastes like something that toddlers drink by accident when the parents aren’t watching carefully. Pine resin, germoline and airfix glue. On second tasting, a little gloopy-sticky treacle, blackberry jam and figgy pudding, but still losing its arm-wrestle with the more fearful crannies of the school nurse’s toolkit. Nuanced this ain’t – the parts of its makeup are tussling so violently that I can’t tell where they begin and end, like a fistfight in a cartoon. Fades to lanolin, revealing the peat, but not quickly enough for my taste.

Score: 2/10

ELLC a collaborative blend with Sonoma. 45.5% abv

Colour: treacle

On the nose: I have long admired Adam Spiegel’s work, which means I can say with confidence that this nose is all about Sonoma. In fact I struggle to scent the presence of ELLC at all. Cracked black pepper, orange, cherries and marzipan in surprisingly fulsome song given the strength.

In the mouth: Again, it’s a very American palate – and a spicy one. More black pepper plus caramel, peanut brittle and more of that ripe citrus. Good texture and intensity for the proof. A little cereal flags that this is a youngling. I like this… mainly because I like Sonoma bourbon. The English element is rather sitting in the background, hoping someone will notice. As an Anglo-American partnership it’s a rather neat metaphor for the “special relationship” …

Score: 6/10

Adam’s Conclusions

For what it’s worth, I agree with Mark. The average quality of distillate being made south of the border wallops the average corners-cut, pile-it-high spirit washing over Scottish lyne-arms. It has to, because to most consumers “English whisky” sounds a bit like Monty Python’s “Aussie Burgundy” did back in the seventies. (Mind you, Australian wine’s not looking so funny these days, is it?)

Given what’s being produced at Cotswolds, Bimber and – despite what I often think of their posturing – The Lakes, I find this ELLC trio disappointing. None are even as good as their first rye, my bottle of which is now right down to the dregs. They all have a feel of being put together more for the press release than the tasting glass: “PX”, “London’s first”, “ex-peated casks”, “all rights reserved”.

Look: I understand the difficulty of standing out in an increasingly crowded market, particularly when you’re flogging bottles for £75 apiece, which is what these three cost. But the English distilleries that are most fêted by whisky’s online communicati are those whose liquid simply tastes best. Bimber’s inaugural release, Cotswolds Founder’s Choice: these aren’t whiskies distinguished by complicated, off-piste cask combinations or by racing to beat other distilleries past some unremarkable post. They’re just whiskies that taste really, really, good.

Here’s the bottom line: I have no doubt that good spirit is being made at the ELLC. But I don’t think this tintinnabulation of unnecessary bells and whistles is a very good way to prove it.

Mark’s Tasting Notes

ELLC Single Malt Bourbon and Rye Cask. 47% abv

Colour: pale gold

On the nose: honey and mead over some very grassy notes; haybarns, dusty farmyards. Summery. Hints of vanilla, with some honeysuckle. Parmaviolets. Possibly a trace of detergent, just a trace. Green apples. Becomes ever more floral with time. 

In the mouth: medium to light texture, with some pure vanilla and pleasing maltiness. Grassy, green apple, grapefruit, pineapple. Dusty, with a dollop of cream. Custard creams too. Some Horlicks. Green tea. It’s a very light, simple affair.

Score: 4/10

ELLC London Rye® cask-aged peated and PX. 47% abv

Colour: burnished gold. 

On the nose: most unusual; much more characterful than the single malt. An industrial note to this – a damp old warehouse, old cellars, mustiness, slightly brackish, which fades to reveal some dazzling sweetness that seems to penetrate a fog. 

In the mouth: well, I don’t know. There’s something not quite right at the heart of it all and it’s very hard to put my finger on it. That peat cask and the sweetness, and the inherent sweetness of a rye, seem to cause some slight dissonance. But, you do get used to it pretty quickly. Blackcurrants, hedgerow jelly, cranberry sauce with stem ginger, golden syrup, mead. Sloe gin! Mince pies. But over it all is this lingering, not exactly charred, not exactly smokey, but a character that, to my mind, does not work. Normally I say these things are down to a technicality (bad wood or spirit cut or whatever) but here it really is just my personal taste. I respect it, but I can’t like it. 

Score: 3/10

ELLC a collaborative blend with Sonoma. 45.5% abv

Colour: copper, new stills.

On the nose: wonderfully aromatic. Some classic rye on show here, some purely agricultural; grain porn in a glass. Toasted wholemeal, sourdough bread, with a spread of plum jam across it. Bright redcurrants, with some intense vanilla notes. Sure a little spice, some hints of ginger and nutmeg, but it’s not overly so. Dried oranges, fresh tobacco, wafting back to toast.

In the mouth: silky, slippery delight – which is to say a very pleasing mouthfeel. It feels less flavoursome than the nose promised, somehow; that toasted sourdough is there, but muted; the red fruits are there, but again muted. Cinnamon, oatcakes with butter, a few figs and sultanas, with morello cherries. But again, all a bit more muted than I was expecting, even if it is harmonious. 

Score: 6/10

Mark’s Conclusions

Though Adam and I tasted these separately, our tastes are aligned 99% of the time and today is no exception. Regarding the single malt, it’s okay. Just that. Clean, crisp, sure; but it’s lacking something, not just a distillery character but some idiosyncrasy, some intrigue, that time won’t really bring. In some ways it reminds me of very young Highland or Speyside distilleries whose spirit, more often than not, ends up in a blend; this isn’t to criticise, merely to observe.

The peated rye thing, well. I’m really not sure, as I have explained. There’s a dissonance that comes from trying too hard – as Adam explains – to stand out. In inadvertently it removes any harmony from the vatting. It isn’t coherent. Does this crazy cask stuff come from a lack of confidence in themselves? I do wonder sometimes: if the spirit is good, let it do the talking.

The Sonoma blend was fun, but it wasn’t pure ELLC so therefore very hard to come to a conclusion of East London Liquor just yet. I hope that these whiskies are not necessarily representative of the distillery – that they were rogue offerings, trying to make a statement instead of showing us a more authentic spirit.

Adam Wells

In addition to my weekly-ish articles on Malt I write about whisky for Distilled and cider for Graftwood and Full Juice Magazines. Somewhere amidst all that I've also done the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. I share my home with several hundred bottles, one geophysicist and a small fluffy whirlwind called Nutmeg. For miscellaneous drinks banality, find me on twitter at Twitter.com/DrinkScribbler

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *