I have many great whisky memories, but one of the very best is from Whisky Live a few years back, when would-be English whisky maker Andrew Nelstrop turned up at the event and released a hand grenade in to the Scottish-dominated room.
Running your own distillery is no doubt the dream of many, and whisky’s history is littered with the corpses of failed distillery projects and ill conceived whisky marketing plans. At the time that farmers James and Andrew Nelstrop were talking up their new project, the dream of a Shetland distillery was crumbling to the ground, and long plans for a Cumbrian distillery in the North West of England had been going on forever. Nice website, lots of hot air, no whisky spirit.
whisky’s history is littered with the corpses of failed distillery projects
So the Nelstrops and their dreams of English whisky were indulged by their Scottish peers but not taken very seriously. That’s until Andrew quietly announced that he had appointed a master distiller and his charge was going to start work that Autumn. His name: Iain Henderson.
You’d struggle to think of many more heavyweight appointments – and the news sent shockwaves through Whisky Live. From that moment St George’s never looked back. Henderson did indeed take up the helm, the distillery was built by the Autumn and running spirit by November. We’re still waiting for Cumbria.
In my view St George’s has only made one mistake, and that was as a by-product of its own thoroughness in not cutting corners or skimping on quality. The plan had been to run spirit for a short time before Christmas, to shut down until February to iron out any problems and to start from February on a full time basis. But the spirit run was so good in November – the first time Henderson said he had worked at a distillery which ran right first time – that the distillery was able to cask the November run.
But the problem came three years later when the first whisky was available. It was launched with great fanfare and on the back of a mountain of television, radio and newspaper coverage - and ran out in the first morning, leaving hundreds of disgruntled customers in the run up to Christmas.
When the spirit came back on line in February… well who wants yesterday’s news? So not only did the distillery fail to capitalise on all the publicity it got, but it pissed off a lot of English folk keen to post a bottle of good ol’ English to their friends north of the border as a two fingered Hogmanay gift.
Since then the whisky’s been getting better and better. Each new expression bears a Chapter number, though it’s not as easy as one, two three. Chapter one to five applied to new make and works in progress releases, and the first two official bottlings were an unpeated and a peated expression called Chapter 6 and Chapter 9 respectively. The most recent releases are Chapter 11, at 46% and at cask strength.
And it’s these four that were entered in to the Masters – and stole the show. Chapter 11 is particularly special because it’s the first bottling which Iain Henderson’s replacement David Fitt has had an input in to, tweaking Henderson’s original recipe.
The heavy peat works well in a young whisky anyway, but add to that a rich spirit and a hint of the red liquorice and hickory that is a Laphroaig characteristic and it makes for a serious malt.
St George’s is just hitting its stride. Its warehouses contain an assortment of cask types and casks from several different drinks sources and there’s plenty of experimentation to come. Maturation in Eastern England is faster than in Scotland, too.
It makes for fascinating whisky delivered with a confident English swagger. We can’t wait to see what they do next.
Random Irrelevant Fact
English whisky isn’t new though most spirit matured in England tended to travel to Scotland to go in to blends. In his classic 19th century whisky book Alfred Barnard mentions several English distilleries. The last one is said to have been where the new Olympic Stadium is. But expect more English whisky in the future. The Cornish partnership between Healey’s Cyder Farm and St Austell brewery has bottled its first whisky, and at seven years it’s the oldest English whisky ever. Suffolk brewer Adnam’s is also now making whisky though it is a couple of years way from the minimum maturation age.