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The Scottish influence on English whisky - from expert knowledge to still shapes

As more and more distilleries in England are releasing whisky, what influence has Scotland had in this resurgence of English whisky?

Published: February 27, 2022
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When you think of whisky, you probably think of Scotland. Home to over 130 distilleries, Scotch is one of the UK's biggest exports with its history stretching back hundreds of years.

While whisky has had its ups and downs, it hasn't ceased to be made in Scotland, and is currently in another boom with a host of new and ghost distilleries being opened at the same time as record breaking auction prices for old and rare drams.

The lost Scottish distilleries are not the only ones to reawaken, as England is also seeing a surge is whisky distilleries.

Like Scotland, our neighbours have a history of making whisky but unlike Scotland, the production of English single malt whisky stopped around 1905 when the Lea Valley distillery in Stratford was closed. It had been owned by the Distillers Company Limited, one of the forerunners of Diageo.

Now there are more than 30 English distilleries, slowly making a name of themselves and producing some seriously good and innovative drams.

Whisky writer and founder of OurWhisky, Becky Paskin is excited by the choice and techniques being used to make English whisky.

She said: "The English whisky scene is one of the most exciting on the planet just now.

"Distillers up and down the country, from the Isle of Wight to Durham, are making flavourful spirits using innovative techniques and ingredients sourced through collaborations with other businesses.

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"They're borrowing yeasts from neighbouring breweries, resting whisky in casks already used to mature their other spirits, and are even playing with locally-grown grains like rye and oats.

"What makes these distilleries so fascinating is that each is nurturing a style of whisky that's a reflection of its local environment and culture."

While the English whisky makers are busting forth with creativity and innovation, what influences and techniques are coming from Scotland?

Picture: Cotswold distillery

Deborah Carter, marketing director from the Cotswolds Distillery explained that they took guidance from well qualified Scottish whisky icons.

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She said: "When we started making whisky in 2014, we had help from a couple of Scottish whisky legends, Harry Cockburn and the late Dr Jim Swan.

"Between them they had close to 100 years of 'grain to glass' whisky production knowledge, which we were able to combine with best-in-class ingredients from the Cotswolds."

When asked about English whisky styles, Carter said: "Similar to whisky categories in other countries, English whisky is a diverse category with over 30 distilleries currently producing whisky.

"Consequently, there is a wide variety of inspirations and styles of whisky being made depending on factors such as the types of casks used and differing production methods.

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"Our house style here at the Cotswolds Distillery is immediately apparent when sampling our delicious rich and fruity new make spirit, which is a result of a long fermentation using multiple yeasts, a slow distillation process and high distillation cuts.

"Launched in 2017, our award-winning Cotswolds Signature Single Malt Whisky is matured in highly active shaved, toasted and re-charred (STR) ex-red wine casks and premium first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels, providing our signature full flavour."

Max Vaughan, co-founder, White Peak Distillery in Derbyshire recently released their first whisky: Wire Works Whisky, named after the former Wire Works building the Distillery is built within.

Claire and Max Vaughan

This whisky uses an English unpeated malt combined with peated Scottish malt for their core, lightly peated spirit.

He said: "This peated element is to add background flavour complexity. We are also making single malt whisky with local barley from Derbyshire and malt whisky using a varied mash bill that includes dark malt, chocolate malt and oats.

The stills at White Peak are inspired by certain ones on Islay, as Max explained: "Our founder owns a cask at Bruichladdich and there is a passing resemblance between the shape of the spirit still, but our still designs are our own based around the style of whisky we wanted to make. The copper pot stills were handmade to our design by McMillan Coppersmiths in Prestonpans."

Dr Jim Swan also gave his expertise to this distillery, "When we were in the discovery and research phase, we did speak to a number of contacts and experts within the Scotch industry, who were very generous with their time and advice," Max said.

"This included Dr Jim Swan who remotely helped our co-founder develop his first financial model to set out his business case.

"Through Jim we were introduced to the STR cask and that subsequently led us to experiment with different make ups of STR cask, and to explore how this variety influences our house style during maturation."

Vaughan also talked about being the first distillery to be established in the region, saying: "Growing up in Derbyshire the founders have a strong sense of place and provenance.

"As the first distillery to be established in this area (a region that is more renowned for its brewing heritage) it is important that our spirits celebrate and showcase the region of which we are proud to be a part.

"This is reflected in our equipment design and whisky-making process in a number of ways. Aside from our bespoke copper pot stills, mashing and fermentation are a key focus for flavour, including the use of spent brewer’s yeast for our long fermentations.

"We work closely with Thornbridge Brewery in Bakewell, from where we collect live yeast every week. We love the flavours this gives us and the link this provides to Derbyshire’s brewing heritage.

"Our whisky also spends its entire life-cycle at the Wire Works, everything is done on site and we enjoy enough space to have all our inventory mature on site to complete our Derbyshire provenance."

Andrew Nelstrop, owner of The English Whisky Co details how Scottish techniques and staff helped them launched their distillery in Norfolk.

english whisky

He said: “Our distilling equipment was designed, manufactured and installed by Forsyths of Scotland, who are regarded as the worlds finest Still makers.

"Our first distiller was Iain Henderson, who had previously run Laphroaig; he came to Norfolk to run our distillery initially and train his successor.

"Alongside this, our distillery is a traditional double pot still set up, very similar to those found in Scotland. It is designed to make the very finest whisky and to only make whisky.”

And, like other English distilleries, The English Whisky Co uses a mash bill with 100 per cent English malted barley.

Incorporating water from their Breckland Aquifier, the whisky is matured at the distillery in their own maturation warehouses – the resulting whisky matures differently to casks matured in Scotland due to England’s dryer and warmer climate.

As the English whisky sector continues to grow, Becky Paskin summed up the feeling of those inside the industry and whisky fans across the country, saying: "This is an unprecedented moment for English whisky; never in modern memory have we had so much choice."

Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind writes for The Scotsman on all things food and drink related as well as hosting Scran, The Scotsman's food and drink podcast.

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