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English Whisky - How the dragon awoke

By Dominic Roskrow

I live a few miles from the first English whisky for more than 100 years and have already had several marvellous moments there. Shortly before the first whisky was released, this is what i wrote: “I’ve either done something brilliant or something very stupid. I was contacted by Gordon Ramsay’s F Word to supply some English whisky to be tasted on a programme before Christmas. I have no idea who’s tasting it or what they’re going to do with it.

“What if they spit it out in disgust? It could either go really well and be brilliant for us, or it could be a disaster. We just don’t know.”

The words of St George’s Distillery managing director Andrew Nelstrop are as good a reflection as any of the atmosphere at the distillery.

For more than 100 years England hasn’t legally sold whisky but as the all-important three year mark approaches – it’ll be reached in early December – there’s a palpable sense of excitement, a certain degree of confidence and just a dash of apprehension. The collective term is, I think, cautiously optimistic.

It says much about the confidence levels that Nelstrop allowed any spirit to such an irreverent programme without having any control over its fate. The apprehension comes from the fact that the world of whisky, particularly in the North, are watching and waiting. It’s one thing for the Welsh, the Scandinavians and the Indians to make malt, but something else again when it’s the English. Hell, the Norfolk distillery even has St George slaying a dragon on its logo and label.

But there lies the answer to Nelstrop’s dilemma about Gordon Ramsay & Co. If they spit his whisky out, he should accuse them of Scottish prejudice and invite the public to decide for themselves. For the truth be told, not only is there absolutely nothing to worry about on the taste front, but this whisky is going to be very, very good – amazingly so given that the first batches bottled will be just three years old. It ought to be. Founder James Nelstrop didn’t cut corners when he set out with Andrew on this project. In less than four years the distillery has gone from planning permission for the distillery to bottling whisky, and along the way it has bought the very best equipment and used top quality oak. Its distiller for the first year was the legendary Iain Henderson, and in current distillery manager David Flynn it has a man with impressive brewing skills and a good nose for spirits. And then there’s the climate. The East of England is considerably warmer than Scotland, particularly in the last couple of years, so much so that pretty much everyone has been surprised by the rapid rate of maturation.

Indeed, we’re in to unchartered territory here. St George’s talks about laying down whisky for older expressions, and Nelstrop says he is doing spread sheets for 2054. It may well be, though, very old whisky won’t be an option.

“Some of the spirit we put in quarter casks we realised after just a few months wasn’t going to make it because too much was coming off the wood so we had to re-cask them,” says Nelstrop. “We want to do a 12, 18 and 25 year old in the future, but who knows if the wood won’t be too much even at 15 years?” What is particularly impressive about the maturing spirit is how on the one hand there is huge diversity between the spirits from different casks but on the other, some distinctive distillery characteristics link them together.

We taste from two casks that will form part of the initial batch. One is a zippy mix of fizzy fruits, like mixing up lemon, orange and raspberry flavoured sherbets and adding them to alcohol; the other, distilled in the same way and in the same week, is creamier, with vanilla and toffee notes. Both whiskies are made without using any peated barley and yet there is a delightful peppery finish.

They’re both impressive, but just the tip of an English whisky iceberg. Only a few hundred bottles will be released initially and they’re already bought. But from spring St George’s will really start firing. Unsurprisingly given Iain Henderson’s involvement there will be peated versions released in May, though interestingly the 18 month old samples, both a lightly and heavily peated version, have distinctively smoky tastes but the peat doesn’t feature much at all on the nose.. And then there are the special casks ,of which there are several, including a delightful Madeira, with stewed blackcurrant and Christmas dates, sweet pear and a bewitching chocolate mint Zero flavour. You get the feeling there has been a lot of thinking out of the box at St George’s, and a genuine attempt to do something new and different. It’s a good policy and it extends to the distillery itself. For instance, St George’s has a warehouse system where the barrels are all easily accessible and aren’t moved. They are filled and emptied in situ.

There are some oddball aspects to the place, too. Because they haven’t built a second warehouse yet and they have run out of space, they’re storing some maturing casks in prefab buildings. Before I leave Nelstrop takes me to one prefab being used as a storeroom, jam-packed with Jim Beam barrels waiting to be filled. He invites me to squeeze in between them and then shuts the door. Immediately my nostrils fill with the most delightful mix of vanilla and caramel notes which you can almost suck out of the air. Talk about Beam me up, Nelly.

Spend a couple of hours at St George’s and you can see why they’re confident. Everything’s on track and going to plan, “and we know we’ve got some damn fine whisky on the way here,” concludes Nelstrop.

Too right he has. You can’t help but feel nothing will stand in St George’s way. Not even a dragon like Gordon Ramsay.