St George's in England is going from strength to strength and its 2011 heavily peated Chapter 11 at both strengths was outstanding. I caught up with distiller David Fitt.
The distillery's first release was only three years old and if it were a Scottish single malt it would be dismissed as too young. Why has it worked with English malt?
I suspect the first release worked because initially people bought it out of curiosity! However, we now have lots of repeat customers who really like it so we must be doing something right. In my opinion people also get too hung up on the age of whisky but to me, to a certain extent, age is irrelevant. When people enjoy whisky they enjoy it for the same reason as everybody else – flavour.
We want our whisky to be unique, not a copy of something else
If we like the taste it’s good, if we don’t like the taste we don’t like that particular whisky but it doesn’t mean the whisky is bad or the wrong age – it’s just not right for you. Age doesn’t mean better it means different but as I said before it will always come down to taste. Also, we do have a warmer climate here when compared to Scotland so the whisky will mature faster as heat accelerates the maturation process. Again, that’s another reason to be careful about age (for example try tasting a seven year old Amrut and you’ll see what I mean).
English whisky is made the same way as Scottish whisky. Do the ingredients used contribute to it being different?
Local barley is sourced as much as possible – we probably produce whisky with the same barley as everyone else as I believe lots of our local barley also goes to Scottish maltings as well as all over the world! Our water is much harder than that used in Scotland as the geography of the land is totally different – we draw from a borehole sunk into one of England’s largest chalk aquifers. Water is important but the way I think of it is that you need a good, clean, pure source of water and that’s what we have. We typically use Jim Beam bourbon casks but do have some 'specials' as well. We have red and white wine casks, madeira casks, as well as port and of course sherry.
The second release was peated and made by legendary Scottish Iain Henderson, who made whisky at Laphroiag. Are his fingerprints on the English peated release, and how does it differ?
Our peated whiskyChapter 9 I would describe as light if you like Ardbeg or Laphroaig but heavy-ish if you like Auchentoshan – it depends where your starting point is. I like heavy peat so for me it is at the bottom of my peatometer but if you don’t like peat it’s probably off the scale (heaven knows what those people would think of Laphroaig). Iain’s influence is on the whisky as he made it but I think it is very different from Laphroaig but see that as a good thing. We want our whisky to be unique, not a copy of something else – what would be the point of that ?
How were the two special releases which came out received?
Chapter was 7 a rum finish and Ch.10 a sherry matured. These have proved very popular with all distillery stock now sold out. The sherry is a bit heavy for my palate but both have matured really nicely.
At what age do you think English whisky will hit its peak?
It is a complete guess but I think between seven and 10 will be a good age – however part of the fun is not really knowing the answer to that question. We will keep a small amount of stock to mature possibly up to 25 years to give a range of whiskies but all that is in the future.
Much is made of Iain Henderson’s involvement at the distillery but you’ve been there some years now. I believe you 'tweaked' the recipe for Chapter 11. Is your influence showing through and are you taking the whisky in a different direction to some extent?
Iain was obviously very influential in setting up the distillery and the initial production – he made whisky here for about 10 months with me overlapping the last three of that. When we bottled in the early part of 2011 the whisky was “mine”. I did slightly alter the fermentation time and the way we mash, as well as a slight tweak on the cut
Is English whisky carving out a unique place in the world of whisky?
I do feel the distillery has its own style and we do get a lot of comments that the whisky does taste very different – this is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.
And do you have your own favourite styles and way of doing things?
I do like bourbon casks but have to say the rum is also really nice with our spirit. I wouldn’t mind messing about with a bit of new wood as well but we’ll have to see.
How would you summarise 2011?
It has been good. It saw the launch of our heavy peat whisky, Chapter 11. I also attempted my first marriage of casks, with the whisky to celebrate the Royal Wedding in April. Both whiskies seemed to be well received so I was pleased with that. Again. We have seen lots of tourists at the distillery so the word that we exist to the wider public outside the world of whisky.
How important was Chapter 11 to you personally, and do you worry about the fast you're raising the bar and making it tough on yourself to keep excelling going forward?
I would say that the fact that Chapter 11 was so well received was a really nice personal achievement but also an achievement for Steve, who works with me. We both work hard and long hours to ensure the quality of the whisky we produce. I don't think we are making it tough for ourselves going forward - inevitably we will one day make a whisky people don't like - I'm sure of it. Not because we want to, just because you can't please all the people all of the time and whisky is such a personal thing.
Please tell us about things you are working on
As you know we have a real mixture of casks in bond and I am keeping a very close eye on some of these. For example, instead of finishing whisky in wine casks we are actually carrying out the full maturation in these casks. The moscatel and sauternes casks are coming along very nicely!
And plans for 2012?
Now that would be telling!