English whisky is on the march. New distilleries are cropping up the length and breadth of the country – from those with huge investments to smaller artisan producers doing things their own way – and they’re creating a buzz around the whisky drinking world.
Want to know what English whisky is all about, and why it’s causing such a stir in the whisky world? Then swot up with some knowledge below before discovering which whiskies are worthy of your attention.
Technically, English whisky is produced along similar lines to Scottish whisky, although the laws that govern its production are less strict. This allows for more flexibility within some of the methods used, including the ability to mature spirit in woods other than oak. However, a new Guild of English whisky makers has recently been established, so expect more defined rules on what can be labelled as an ‘English Whisky’ to follow.
Apart from technical considerations there are also environmental differences that are likely to affect the whisky production – the warmer climate of England’s Southern counties will cause whisky to age in a different way to those in the colder regions of Scotland.
And there’s also the mindset of English distillers to take into account – without the weight of history and tradition to carry, they’re able to tackle the whisky-making business with the freedom to explore the processes involved in their own way.
When anyone goes up against centuries of tradition – particularly in an industry that causes as much debate as whisky – there are bound to be naysayers who dismiss any newcomers at every opportunity. But English whisky isn’t aiming to out-do the Scots at their own game. Rather, the successful distilleries are trying to carve their own niche and, together, put English whisky on the map as a worthy product in its own right. One that is innovative, contemporary but, above all, of the highest possible quality.
Have a look through this list of English whiskies currently available and hopefully you’ll find at least a few that will convince you that England is one of the most exciting whisky producing nations around.
Best for an English sherry cask whisky
Tasting notes: Chocolate, raisins, burnt orange and sweet ginger
The Cotswold Distillery has been in business since 2014 and it’s now firmly established on the world whisky scene with some of the most consistently excellent whiskies you will find. Their Signature release offers great value at under £40, while for a step up in price you can enjoy the sweet, rich delights of their Sherry Cask whisky.
Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez sherries have been used to season some casks used to mature the whisky and they have given the spirit a full array of sherried oak flavours, from chocolate coated raisins and burnt orange to Christmas pudding spices and sweet, syrupy ginger. You’ll find few whisky fans who won’t appreciate this touch of Cotswolds’ class.
Best for an English whisky hidden gem
Tasting notes: Sweet vanilla and oak with light touches of fruit
While most new English distilleries have been releasing their whiskies to a fanfare of marketing noise, Dartmoor Distillery has been going about its business much more quietly, allowing the quality of their products to do all the talking.
Their initial launch featured a trio of releases, each using a different cask for maturation: ex-Oloroso Sherry, ex-Bourdeaux and, our favourite, ex-Bourbon. There’s a youthful vibrance to some of the flavours present, with plenty of oak and sweet vanilla that you expect from a bourbon cask. The whisky is very light in colour, and it’s light on the palate too, with some depth provided by some prune-like fruit and a drying oak finish. We think this Devon whisky is something of a hidden gem.
Best for a rye whisky
Tasting notes: Punchy spice with tangy fruits and toasty nuts
The popularity of rye whisky is on the rise and you can now find several English versions sitting alongside some of the more familiar American ryes at drinks retailers. Our favourite of the home grown crop is a product of the Oxford Artisan Distillery, who use heritage grains and release the whisky in small batches.
It’s not just rye that gets harvested for this whisky – the fields also contain wheat, oats and even thistle seeds, which all contribute to a spirit that has a mass of complexity. It’s loaded with the kind of spice and oak flavours that makes rye a punchier spirit than other whiskies, with fruity tangs, herby tingles and toasty, nutty flavours thrown in for good measure. Ryes usually make it into cocktails; we suggest you use another rye for mixing and enjoy this one on its own.
Best for an after dinner English whisky
Tasting notes Peach, orange and sweet spice
Towards the end of 2019, Yorkshire had its first whisky, courtesy of the Spirit of Yorkshire distillery. Their Flagship single malt is a fine whisky, using locally grown barley and aged in ex-bourbon casks. Alongside this whisky the distillery has also been experimenting with various cask finishes, including some that had previously contained the Spanish sweet wine Moscatel.
Some of those sweet, vinous characteristics have transferred to the whisky, and it would make a great choice as a whisky aperitif or after-dinner sipper if you want to provide something a little different for you guests. The sweetness has flavours of fresh, juicy fruits, including peaches, oranges and something a little more tropical tasting. Even the spicy notes have a sweetness to them, with ginger the most obvious among them, and it has a long finish, helped by a slightly oily, viscous feel in the mouth.
Best for peated whisky
Tasting notes: Smoky and spicy with a long finish
The English Whisky Co released its first whisky in 2009, which makes it something of an old timer in England’s whisky revival. Based in the St George’s Distillery, Norfolk, they use locally sourced ingredients to produce a wide range of small batch releases.
Among this range is a great choice of peated whiskies, including the readily available English Smokey. It has a good whack of peaty flavours (if you’re a peat nerd then you’ll want to know it comes in at 45ppm) that make it obviously smoky, but without totally overpowering all of the other flavours. Spicy oak notes of ginger and vanilla are also prominent and both the smoke and spice build to a long, lingering finish.
Best for a lightly peated English whisky
Tasting notes: Sweet desserts and a dry, lingering smoky aftertaste
The White Peaks distillery is based in the Derbyshire Peak District on the site of a former wire works, which is not only the inspiration behind the name of their small batch whisky releases but also the stunning glass bottles they come in.
Being small batch releases means there will be variations in each bottling, but the distillery has a clear house style which underpins each release. Among its key characteristics is an initial fruitiness that conjures various sweet desserts, from banoffee pie to cherry tarts, and a shaving of chocolate orange. They also introduce peated malt into the mix – just enough to allow for a hint of smoke on the aroma and a drier, gently lingering aftertaste.
Best for a blended malt whisky
Tasting notes: Fruit, ginger, pepper and tingly herbs
If you still have doubts that English whisky is big business, then try to get your hands on a new single malt release from London distillery Bimber – it has a habit of selling out quickly, despite some hefty price tags. To get a taste for their wares you’re better off tracking down their blended whisky, Apogee, which is sold at a fraction of the price.
To make this whisky, the Bimber team sources malt whisky from Scotland (with a minimum age of 12 years) and blends it before finishing it in casks that previously contained its own much sought after single malt.
There are fruit and ‘spice-forward’ flavours, such as ginger and pepper – which the team credits to those Bimber whisky casks – and you should also detect a range of other flavours from smoky charred oak to some fresh, tingly herbs. This is a very decent English blend, with more than a little help from the Scots.
Best English whisky for cocktails
Tasting notes: Cinnamon and vanilla spice with sweet coffee and black pepper
Adnams makes some of England’s most popular beers, having been in the brewing business for 150 years. More recently they have added distilling to their booze-making exploits, with gins, vodkas and a single malt whisky among its range. They also have a fantastic rye whisky, and if you’re looking to make a whisky cocktail with a kick then a bottle of this is just the ticket.
It has been matured in French oak for a minimum of five years and is full of the kind of peppery spices that give an extra punch of flavour to a Manhattan or Old Fashioned. A quick sniff is enough to prick up your senses, with a swirl of cinnamon and vanilla spices leading the way, while the flavour brings some boozy raisins, sweet coffee and black pepper to the cocktail party.
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