I normally shy away from being English. I’ll write British on a form, I play up my mother’s North Wales heritage, and I moved to Scotland to increase my Celtic connections. Even with my pick-and-mix approach to things, there is one facet of being English that I’m happy to champion loudly: English whisky.
The English whisky scene has continued to grow despite what 2020 threw at it and everyone else. More new releases from the established producers, more first releases to be celebrated and more distilleries coming online with spirit for tasting arrived during this unprecedented time.
The success of the category culminated in October 2020 with the inaugural English Whisky Festival. Given the circumstances, it was an online affair, with six sessions spread across the two days. Fourteen distilleries were involved out of the twenty-four currently at some stage of production.
This was a great chance to taste some of the English whiskies/aging spirits that I had missed thus far, and the festival really shone during the “round table” discussions at the end of each session. The distillers, reps, owners and hosts really got to delve into diverse topics including the grassroots of English whisky, the importance of each stage of the production process, the form of different casks, and the future of the category.
The subject of “the category” was perhaps the most interesting topic. When discussing the future of English whisky, it was Matt McKay who suggested that success for English whisky would be its own shelf in a shop, on a website, in a bar, or wherever. And though I agree that this would represent a successful milestone, would it help the consumer?
In the same way that the regions of Scotch whisky have become blurred due to production no longer relying on local fuel sources, barley et al., an English distiller can pick whichever grain, whichever still and whichever cask in which to put the spirit. And they do! Some English whiskies then have as much similarity as an Ectomere and a Bunnahabhain. Geographically, they have plenty in common, but lumping them together to help the consumer doesn’t work.
Currently, there is no English equivalent of the Scotch Whisky Association, so beyond the magic “three years in wood” rule, English whisky has a blank slate. Even so, as more and more distillers bring their product to market, the possibility of some ground rules has arisen and was discussed during the festival. This obviously wasn’t a new topic; many alluded to private conversations between producers having already taken place.
So, what would the distilleries want on a Technical File for English Whisky? Some wished to remove the need for three years of maturation, with those present both for and against the idea. In general, no one felt there was a need to place limits, be that the wood type used for a cask or to create distinct separation for malt whisky and other grains.
This leads on to my main takeaway from the weekend: starting a distillery is expensive, time-consuming and has many hurdles to creating a product ready to sell. In this way, English whisky has been self-regulating. Whilst the liquids tasted had huge flavour differences, what speakers shared was a drive, a fascination, and a commitment to producing spirit the way they wanted to. The people who now lead the industry were whisky drinkers and fans before they were distillers and owners. They are making spirit to be consumed as is; there is no blending industry to prop up. From the tiny operation of Wharf Distillery, who presented their fairly divisive Fyr Drenc, to Lakes Distillery (the largest, with their finely-tuned Whisky Makers Reserve Batch 3), all the products clearly brought the producers pride.
Every representative that joined seemed happy for English whisky to continue in its current guise. I am, too. The variety is still increasing, and there are plenty of angles still yet to be explored. The makers are smart: they know they are in a niche market, and they need to appeal to the right people to become established. After seeing an interview on YouTube with Dan Suzor from the Cotswolds Distillery, I recall thinking that he was making whisky the way most enthusiasts would want to, as are others like him. The only difference between him and myself in this particular circumstance is that he has considerably deeper pockets.
Admittedly, every single English whisky/pre-whisky was not to my taste across the festival. Some still have to gain a few years’ maturity; others are simply not for me, but with the diversity of expressions on offer, this is no surprise. The old saying is that there is a whisky out there for everyone, and with the freedom to experiment, English whisky might have more of a chance to appeal to a wider range of drinkers.
Overall, the English Whisky Festival did well in showcasing the spread of distilleries and products, young and old and everything in between. Sadly, the final session on the Future of English Whisky produced a moment to mar proceedings. The future of English whisky, of whisky, of society in general, should be one that encourages diversity and allows equal opportunities for anyone. To hear Mike Hardingham of Ludlow Distillery state that “women don’t like whisky” was incredibly disappointing and insulting. Rightly, those who he had dismissed let him know in the comments, but the damage was done. Whisky will continue to struggle with diversity whilst people keep hold of their close-minded opinions. As long as Mike thinks that his product isn’t for women, I think it isn’t for me either.
Now we reach the point where my ramblings move smoothly into a review, but with so much variety, it was hard to choose. Whatever I picked, it would only be representative of the producer, not English whisky at large. As luck would have it, I had already sent a sample of one of the whiskies included in the festival to Dora, so we will end proceedings with The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD). (Sincere apologies to Dora that it has taken me so long to get this review together.) Oxford is known as purveyor of all things rye, so their anniversary edition shows just how unconventional English whisky can be: it is a rye spirit drink finished in a Sauternes cask. We’ll follow this up with a second drop, their Bechor rye. It is a whisky with all elements from Blighty, and its maturation takes place in English virgin oak casks.
The Oxford Artisan Distillery – Oxford Rye Anniversary Edition – 54.9% – £75.00
100% heritage rye grain, distilled in a column still set-up. Matured for around a year in virgin American oak then transferred into a Sauternes cask for another year.
On the nose: this is laden with rich and sweet flavours. A lot of toffee, both hard with penny chews and wrapped up in a sticky toffee pudding, even with the added richness of dates and sultanas. Still identifiable as rye with an herbal freshness that works well, perhaps surprisingly so, given the disparate flavours. It has an almost-creamy milk chocolate, and time allows the familiar baking spice notes to emerge: cinnamon again, though this time flanked by nutmeg. Characteristic TOAD notes of dusty nuttiness and orange peel are also present.
In the mouth: the texture is luxurious, with the flavours matching those promised by the nose. Really sweet, the cask and spirit work together to deliver a big boozy sticky toffee pudding with custard. With time, the cask influence slips a little, and the rye spirit flavours dominate as almonds, orange and nutmeg over rice pudding. The finish swaps back to favouring the cask, while toffee and stewed fruits last for awhile.
Something familiar and something different. The anniversary rye combines the base flavours of the TOAD spirit with lashings of pudding sweetness. As Dora finds, it might be too much for some, but it works well for me, particularly at cask strength. I prefer this to the lower ABV I have found in the other TOAD releases I have tasted.
Colour: new penny.
On the nose: On the nose, this is sweet, with caramels and rich toffee sauce. Buttery biscuits with dried fruit akin to ‘Fruit Shortcake’ immediately come to mind (for our overseas readers, you can find these in the biscuit aisle in many British supermarkets). Randomly, a certain savouriness and funk is present that I cannot quite place. Freshly made rum and raisin creamy fudge as well as flambéed Crêpes Suzette minus the citrus is also there. The alcohol burn is fully mixed with white pepper, which creates a spicy roundhouse kick. Distillery fumes of cooked cereals remind me of a hot and overflowing mash tun. Botanical hints of gin and toffee pennies make their appearance.
In the mouth: it is very sweet, following on from notes for the nose. There is a tinny and malty feeling on the tongue. The spicy rye is ever-present and becomes drying with a slight bitterness, alongside a dusty fruitiness and a fleeting acidity that never quite disappears or overpowers. More sweetness from icing sugars and sugar syrups come in and out from the rye spice. Citrus rinds and oils contribute to the bitterness that dries out the top of the tongue. Light white pepper and gin-like flavours pop out in the background amongst all of the other flavours. The finish is medium-lasting. It is very drying, but as the heat lingers, the dryness subsides. Dust covers the teeth like a fine powder; think of the yeasty dust on grapes before you wash them.
This is quite overpowering in flavour in both the nose and the mouth. It is extremely sweet and drying. I am not a huge fan of gin flavours, and this had them. I found it drinkable but not amazing. I would be very interested in trying this as a whisky in the future, but for now as it is, it tastes young and quite aggressive. The sweetness does mask it to some degree, but it is still not my favourite. I wanted to brush my teeth instantly, but for those who enjoy their dry white wines, this could be the one for you!
The Oxford Artisan Distillery – Bechor Rye – 40.1% – £27.00
“Bechor” means firstborn in Hebrew; this curious 20cl bottle of 2017 rye spirit, aged in virgin English oak casks, was made by an English cooper (the price is £94.50 scaled up). Whilst the idea was to release several slightly different batches with different cask treatments, things went slightly a-rye(!), and what we have in the bottle is a mix of the casks in varying (unknown) ratios.
On the nose: On the nose, this is cereal-heavy, like freshly-baked rye bread with a light, treacly sweetness. There are toffee notes, and the rye spice is muted. I get fruitiness from out-of-date freeze dried berries that have lost some of their vitality. White pepper is present with vanilla icing sugar mixed with hints of plastic or plasticine (as awful as this sounds, it is not entirely unpleasant). Toasted almonds and walnuts give a nice richness to the smell. A tinny and metallic note similar to sweet liquorice makes an appearance. Finally, custard comes out as it oxidises.
In the mouth: In the mouth, this is quite subtle; the sugariness is lost in aromas of toasted almonds, which give a slight burnt and bitter note as well as the nutty sweetness. There are hints of over-toasted spices such as black pepper and cardamom, giving the taste a slight astringency. Light chilli spice on the tongue with a pleasing and surprisingly viscous mouthfeel but not the feeling of oiliness. This is very light, and that metallic feeling from the nose translates to the mouth. As this oxidises, there is a note of bitter watery butter. The finish is sweet initially, then the burnt astringency that follows stays. It is medium-lasting with a brininess and a gentle heat that lingers.
Interesting not-quite-whisky again. The mouthfeel is enjoyable with the viscosity as it gives a soft and well-rounded chewiness. A plus is also that this is not overly spicy or sweet, and at 40%, I was quite impressed with the depth of flavour. However, the price is shocking. At £27 for 20cl, it’s quite over-priced, but I know this depends on the person. For me, it’s too high; must be my Chinese and Scottish heritage! I do believe when this comes of age as whisky, it will be pretty good and worth a dram every so often; it is definitely interesting and has good texture.
Colour: a long-lost pound coin.
On the nose: surprisingly soft, wafts of dill combined with classic rye baking spices including cinnamon a-plenty, as well as ground ginger and clove. Something akin to raw dough adds a slightly heavy funk and a hint of vanilla, but not on the scale of American oak. The spirit is youthful, but coming from rye, it offers more flavour than malt might at this stage. Charred oak comes too with a hint of wood smoke.
In the mouth: a thick texture, but again, a slow starter, which is not what I expected given the virgin oak. Plenty of dill comes through first, but the spices are rawer and less identifiable in terms of flavour; instead, they offer general heat and a subtle lick of cask before the spices leave your mouth with gentle heat.
Given how forceful virgin casks can be when used with both American spirits and Scotch, this was not what I expected at all. What’s more surprising is that this is the expression from TOAD that most obviously needs more time to develop. I don’t have anything to compare this too, really; the closest I’ve experienced is the Whisky Works King of Trees, which features Scottish oak in the cask make-up (both this and the TOAD whisky presumably made use of Quercus robur).
In a way, the Bechor rye sums up the English whisky scene in its current state: still in its infancy, lots of experimentation, always searching for novel and interesting flavours and utilising local ingredients. And yes, they cost more money, but I’d rather give my money to a distillery that can tell me the details of their production process from the grain to the glass than one who will wheel out another story about their founder from the 1800s just to sell another bottle.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, English whisky is continuing to grow as a force through an increasing output alongside producers singing from the same hymn sheet of provenance and dedication to flavour. When it comes to whisky, I think I’m happy to be under St. George’s cross with them.