The tradition of raising a dram has been given a whole new meaning in the United States, thanks to a 25 per cent import tariff imposed by the US government on Scottish and Irish single malt whiskies. With both established and new whisky brands from Scotland and Ireland (such as Glenfiddich and Bushmills) potentially feeling the pinch as prices rocket, it has left an interesting opportunity for the little-known single malt producers of England and Wales, who definitely see the situation as a glass half full.
Scotland and Ireland is famous for the production of single malt, yet this whisky style is not exclusive to these countries. A huge growth in single malt whisky production has been evident in the last decade across the world, from New Zealand to Norfolk, Taiwan to Tasmania. In England and Wales, a host of distillers are reviving a tradition that was largely lost in the 19th century.
In the 1800s, the appetite for English whisky was strong. Brewing and distilling historian Alfred Barnard noted in his famous 1887 book, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, 162 British distilleries, of which 129 were Scotch operations; the rest were scattered across England and Wales, as well as the island of Ireland. Today, the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2021 (the modern day equivalent of Barnard’s tome), lists 23 distillers producing single malt whisky spirit across England and Wales.
These producers are back again making high-quality, award-winning single malt, with an eye on the important American export market.
English and Welsh single malt is made in the same way as single malt Scotch, taking a base of 100 per cent malted barley from which a rudimentary beer is made and then distilled twice in copper pot stills; the resulting spirit must be matured for at least three years in casks before it can be legally sold as ‘whisky’.
With an ardent following, the Cotswold Distillery, based not too far from long-established brewer Hook Norton, launched its debut single malt in October 2017 to high acclaim, picking up Gold Medals at both the World Whiskies Awards and the International Wine and Spirits Competition. The distillery uses 100 per cent locally grown barley from the Cotswolds, which is traditionally floor-malted by hand at Warminster, Britain’s oldest working malting.
Across England, in Roudham, Norfolk, is St. George’s Distillery, home of the English Whisky Company. Founded in 2006 by father and son James and Andrew Nelstrop, they were the first English whisky distillery to open for 100 years. Producing both a smoky style, as would traditionally be made on the Scottish islands, and the more delicate, heathery style of whisky akin to those drinkers might associate with the Scottish Highlands, such is the appeal of their spirit that they welcome over 85,000 visitors to their distillery each year.
Wales is not left wanting for a drop of the water of life, either. Penderyn distillery was founded at the turn of the 21st century and 20 years later is still going strong, using a copper pot still developed by David Faraday, descendent of the ground-breaking Victorian scientist, Michael. The future business for the Welsh pioneers clearly looks rosy too, given that new ‘sister’ distillery sites have been secured in both Llandudno and Swansea.
With a burgeoning revival of English and Welsh single malt, then, it might not be long before the most famous names on the lips of American drinkers are not Scottish or Irish brands, but those from a little further south.
Five English and Welsh single malts to look out for
Cotswolds Sherry Cask Single Malt Whisky
(57.4%, £64.95, cotswoldsdistillery.com)
Using 100 per cent Cotswolds-grown barley, this single malt is a marriage of whiskies fully matured in oak casks seasoned with Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherries. It has rich, dark stone fruits, roasted almonds and a peppery oak spice.
Adnams Single Malt Whisky
(40%, £34.95, masterofmalt.com)
The famous brewer in Southwold has been producing spirits for over a decade now too, including an award-winning gin and both rye and single malt whiskies. The malt whisky uses locally grown East Anglian barley at its heart and is matured in French oak barrels, giving it a sweet honeyed note, with a distinctive dry finish.
The Lakes Single Malt Whisky
(54%, £65, lakesdistillery.com)
Carrying the name of one of England’s most popular tourist destinations is always likely to carry some cache with drinkers in the US and the distillery has been making whisky up near Bassenthwaite in the Lake District since 2014, under the watchful eye of former Macallan Scotch distiller, Dhavall Ghandi.
Penderyn Maderia Finish Single Malt
(46%, £37, Tesco)
American distillation history has a great deal of debt owed to the Welsh, given that it is said that the grandfather of one Jack Daniel hailed from Wales, before his family eventually emigrated to Tennessee. Similarly, the lineage of Evan Williams, a prominent bourbon distiller of the time, can be traced back to Pembrokeshire. Today, Penderyn has been steadily racking up awards for its progressively distilled yet traditionally flavoured single malt, which matures in a variety of casks such as port and madeira.
East London Liquor Co. Single Malt Whisky
(45.5%, £75, eastlondonliquorcompany.com)
Once a thriving hotbed of malt distillers at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the east end of London is perhaps better known as a hub of export than it is for whisky. However the East London Liquor Company, founded by Alex Wolpert back in 2014 has been quietly going about its business making hugely progressive whiskies and gins, including its first single malt back in 2019 and matured in a mixture of ex-bourbon and rye casks, giving distinctive dark chocolate and spice notes.