Scotland! Name a Scottish drink. This is a question to which there is obviously only one correct answer: Irn-Bru. Whisky would probably be only a very distant second. Thankfully, we have a bit more variety south of the wall. I am pretty certain that if I went about the streets asking strangers to name a renowned English beverage, I would get a whole host of answers, including tea, gin, real ale and cider. I might also hear a few cries of Pimm’s, and possibly even some votes for sparkling wine, but I am not sure I would hear mention of whisky. I am curious as to why that would be, given that we live in an age of instant information, and that English whisky is not exactly a novelty at this point; St. George’s distillery is reaching its teens, and several others have reached legal maturity over the last couple of years, with still more to follow. The English are also nothing if not patriotic, and they do love a tipple, as well as any excuse to compete with the neighbouring home nations. It feels as though there should be a perfect storm here, with English whisky championed by masses of consumers and the hospitality industry alike.
Amongst those who are passionately geeky about whisky, there does seem to have been a lot of growing noise, but I am not sure how much of that noise is getting out into the wider whisky drinking community. Until the beginning of last year, I had no notion that English whisky existed; it took me joining a club of likeminded enthusiasts to come across my first. I remember opening up the Bimber re-charred release amongst friends who struggled to grasp that it was English, let alone that I actually cycled just a few miles along the canal to pick it up from a distillery right off the Westway. These are not casual drinkers either, but they are definitely not as into whisky as obsessive enthusiasts. Perhaps those of us who end up diving deep into the whisky world forget how insular that world can be, or perhaps the majority of whisky drinkers have become Scotch-conditioned, if you will, and blinkered to the growing variety. This is not a criticism in the slightest, and jokes about Irn-Bru aside, we have been completely spoiled for the longest time by the incredible whiskies produced in Scotland. It is hard to look elsewhere!
The other issue, of course, is that while production may no longer be in its infancy, the scale of releases, and thus exposure, remains quite low. Watching the vultures, or should I say eagles, descend on Selfridges in July, it is no wonder. The most enthusiastic group in the whiskyverse is also often the greediest, so the majority of what little is produced is often snapped up quickly, with almost nothing left to filter out into the wider community. As a wonderful idea to champion a local London whisky, I am sure that Selfridges was relishing the prospect of showcasing something a little unusual to their many and varied shoppers. I even heard tell that they were anticipating still having stock at Christmas. Little did they realise that shelves would be ransacked in under two hours, with heaps of abuse to follow from those who missed out. Even so, with ever-increasing output and new distilleries joining the fray, it can only be a matter of time before English whisky starts to garner recognition outside of these innermost circles, even if it means reeling us in one by one through word of mouth.
That first interaction with English whisky last year, although not to my taste, certainly sparked a growing curiosity, and a bit of a rollercoaster ride has ensued since on the Bimber front. The time has come, however, to uncover a little more of the English whisky scene. As fate, or COVID-19, would have it, my first distillery visit this year ended up being to the Cotswolds Distillery, carefully planned halfway into a big rambling walk during a long weekend there. All tours were booked up; however, we tasted our way through the entire range and soaked it all up with a quick snack in the recently opened cafe before merrily heading on our way. I can certainly recommend the trip if you have not been, and we very much enjoyed the vast majority of what they are producing—whiskies, gins and all. Meanwhile, on the virtual side of things, after chatting for a while with an English whisky enthusiast on social media, a sample swap ensued. Through this exchange, I ended up with this fantastic vertical from the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery, which is the enthusiast’s local distillery, as it turns out. You can see some of his impressive collection on Instagram @whiskyside, and credit also goes to this gentleman for his wonderful picture here of a Filey Bay overlooking the actual Filey Bay. In addition, there are some crossover reviews here on MALT if you would like to compare notes, as well as a distillery visit from Adam which has all the information for which you one could possibly hope.
Maturing Malt Distillery Projects 004 – review
Combining pot and column distilled spirits, matured in bourbon, sherry and red wine casks. Bottled at 46% strength and retailed at £39.95 for 70cl.
Colour: Ripening wheat.
On the nose: Apple juice from concentrate, crisp white wine, barley sugar, sugar covered almonds. Then just bales and bales of apples! A hint of golden sultanas and lemon peel. Fresh-cut grass. With water, musty grape skins, chalk, and more lemon emerge.
In the mouth: Rich and oily. Apple skins, apple juice, ripe pears, sultanas. Gentle pepper heat and cinnamon. A touch of clove oil. Long finish with lingering spices, a touch of lemon zest, toasted almonds and walnut liqueur. I prefer this without water. It is slightly thinner and sharper, with the white wine notes from the nose coming through to dominate.
Maturing Malt Distillery Projects 005 – review
100% pot distilled spirit matured in a first fill 220L STR cask that formerly held Rioja wine for five years. The cask was filled in October 2016 and the spirit bottled in June 2019 at 46% strength. Retailed at £39.95 for 50cl.
Colour: Ripe wheat with a copper tinge.
On the nose: Very floral to begin with. Fresh red berries: red currants, raspberries, strawberries. Stone fruits, too, with peach and apricot. Lots of cinnamon, sandalwood and marzipan. Orange peel. No change with water.
In the mouth: Reasonable mouthfeel. Orange zest, raspberries and icing sugar. Apples, walnuts and cinnamon breakthrough. Very long finish with lingering apples, walnuts, black pepper and raspberries. With water it is slightly less sweet, but also spicier and drier.
Filey Bay First Release – review
A mixture of pot and column distilled spirits, matured predominantly in bourbon casks, with a small proportion of sherry casks. A vatting of 16 casks produced 6000 bottles at 46% strength. Retailed at £55 for 70cl.
Colour: Raw pine.
On the nose: Gorgeous. Baked apples, soft brown sugar, sultanas, cinnamon. Raw dough, chalk and lots of lemon zest. Ground almonds. Lavender. Some hints of heavier dried fruits in the background, like sniffing an empty Sun-Maid box. With water, the dough, chalk and lemon really come to the fore. Marzipan also.
In the mouth: Not oily, but still a decent mouthfeel. Raisins, apples, dough and cinnamon. The makings of apple pie. Dates, figs and cloves. Orange oil leading into a medium-short finish with just a touch of black pepper heat, burnt toast and bitter marmalade. Definitely on the thin side with water, and the flavours become muted.
Filey Bay Second Release – review
A mixture of pot and column distilled spirits, matured predominantly in bourbon casks, with a single sherry cask. 6000 bottles were produced at 46% strength. Retails at Master of Malt for £50.95.
Colour: Raw pine.
On the nose: Lovely balance, sweeter and richer than the first release, but still crisp and fresh. Ripe pears and pear drops. Crisp apples, cinnamon and raisins. Tangy yoghurt gelato and sticky figgy pudding. Creamy fudge. Background chalk, fresh-cut grass and lemon zest. Barley sugar and almonds. Juicy spiced plums peeking through at the end. Sharper with more citrus and chalk when water is added. I prefer without.
In the mouth: Much oilier, the richest mouthfeel yet, and so very creamy! Bursting with ripe orchard fruits, apples and pears, with sweet raisins, dates and cinnamon following right behind. They’re all covered in single cream. Vanilla, toasted oak and a delicate spicy kick. The dates become concentrated, almost giving a caramel sweetness. Lemon zest cuts through before a really long and creamy finish of sweetened Greek yoghurt with gentle lingering baking spices. This is better without water, losing that balance in favour of sharpness.
Filey Bay Moscatel Finish – review
Matured in 200L bourbon casks before being finished in 250L Hogsheads that held Moscatel for ten years previously. 6000 bottles were produced, bottled at 46% strength. Retails for £58.95 via Master of Malt.
Colour: Golden glow.
On the nose: Artificially sweet, like walking past a LUSH. All I get is fizzy apple sweets and perfumed soap. With water, it is even more perfumey and soapy, if that is even possible.
In the mouth: It is oily, but my word, this is sweet. Artificial apple flavouring and aspartame. A welcome short finish with a hint of pepper and cinnamon before a cloying, sickly aftertaste. With water, it becomes quite thin and bitter, and yet that artificial cloying sweetness somehow lingers on.
This is absolutely not for me. I have a huge sweet tooth. I love a sherry bomb. I will demolish a pack of five jam doughnuts in one sitting and not feel like I’ve had too much sugar. 20mls of this is giving me a headache its so sweet.
The Maturing Malt 004 is probably the best not-quite-whisky whisky I have ever had. It is astonishingly good for its age. You will have seen from my previous comments on the subject that mouthfeel is a very important factor for me, and this has a cracking mouthfeel for something so young and diluted down to 46%. The nose and palate have a wonderful balance between sweetness and sharpness, while those beautifully intense apple notes would have me guessing at some kind of Calvados cask influence if I had tried this blind. Not an expert in the slightest, I would hazard a guess that this is due to the column stills. Quite a surprise, and an excellent way to kick things off.
Unlike the mixture of spirits and casks used for the fourth instalment of the maturing malt series, the fifth utilises only pot still spirit matured in a single STR wine barrique that previously held Rioja. This feels like a case where the magic of blending trumps the single cask format. My tasting notes read back rather appetisingly, however it is impossible not to compare this to its younger sibling. It is much more one dimensional in comparison, with a less rich mouthfeel to boot. The 50cl bottle means that this is also a pricier affair, and that has clinched its final position in the pecking order.
On to the first release, which reads very similarly to the composition of the first dram, minus the wine casks. The nose is fantastic; however, this does not quite translate to the same level of balance on the palate. All the same, it is a very pleasant whisky with a clear progression from the earlier iteration, just lacking that extra something to make it sing. Given the ludicrous prices being asked for first releases these days, tarted up and practically labelled ready to head straight to an auction house, this represents pretty good value, too!
The second release is my favourite of the bunch. The creaminess is amazing, both on the nose and palate, and in mouthfeel. Yoghurt gelato is also one of my favourite things in the world, and I was pleasantly whisked off to memories of Italian summers. The orchard fruits are still there, and as delicious as before, but the choice to add a single sherry cask was an inspired one. It really comes through and enhances the whole, without being heavy-handed or feeling like a token addition, either. This is a great example of blending and balance, with all the flavours and textures complementing each other to the fullest. One to enjoy and savour, teetering on the verge of an 8 for me.
Well, sadly, it could not all be smooth sailing. The Moscatel finish is not for me in any shape or form. As mentioned before, I adore sweets, but this is too much, even for me. The whisky is so headache-inducingly sweet that it is a struggle to drink. I think the problem is that it comes across as an artificially-engineered sweetness, rather than a naturally occurring one. The aftertaste is also quite unusual and unpleasant. It is a seriously challenging whisky for all the wrong reasons.
There is quite a spread here in terms of scores, but I am seriously impressed overall. The Moscatel is an outlier, without which you have several examples of skilful blending and quality whiskies, which represent pretty decent value in the current climate. If you are yet to try any English whisky, you will not do better for the price than the Filey Bay second release. Of the distilleries and releases I have tried so far, it is one of my new favourites. I look forward to seeing where their journey takes them, and a visit is definitely on the cards at some point. In the meantime, I shall have to continue my tour of England, and I think my next stop will probably be St. George’s.
We do have some handy commission links above for your convenience. Their existence never affects our judgement. 2nd photograph kindly provided by Spirit of Yorkshire.