Whisky has long been associated with Scotland, its rugged landscapes, and centuries-old distilling traditions. However, in recent years, there has been a remarkable renaissance of whisky production in both England and Wales. This shift has been driven by a combination of factors, including changing consumer tastes, but mostly by the relentless pursuit of quality by English and Welsh whisky distilleries.
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The revival of English whisky
Historically, England had a rich whisky-making tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. However, the English whisky industry faced challenging times in the 19th century, particularly due to increased taxation and competition from Scottish whisky. By the early 20th century, the number of distilleries dwindled, and English whisky seemed destined for obscurity.
It wasn’t until the late 20th century that the English whisky industry experienced a resurgence. The English Whisky Co became the torchbearer of this revival in 2006 when they built the St George’s Distillery in Norfolk. Pioneered by the late James Nelstrop, St. George’s Distillery marked the first legal distillation of English whisky in over a century. It was a symbolic moment that heralded the beginning of a new era.
James’ son Andrew Nelstrop, who runs the company says: “The early work we have done has been to open doors and set the scene for the sale of English whisky. When we started there were no ‘English whisky’ shelves in whisky stores, and no ‘English whisky’ categories on online retail sites. This has changed and we now are fully recognised as a national producer of whiskies.”
Distilleries have since emerged all over England, from The Lakes Distillery in the picturesque Lake District to the East London Liquor Company in the bustling capital. They have incorporated diverse production techniques, including the use of locally sourced grains, innovative ageing methods, and unique cask finishes. This emphasis on creativity and craftsmanship has propelled English whisky into the global spotlight.
Did you know?
English whisky is produced according to different regulations to Scotch. It can be made with any cereal, distilled in any type of still, and matured in any variety of cask, leaving English makers free to experiment and innovate.
Welsh whisky's rise to prominence
Similar to English whisky, the Welsh whisky industry has an intriguing history of growth. In the early 20th century, the last distillery in Wales, the Frongoch Distillery, ceased its operations, leaving the country without a whisky producer. For nearly a century, Wales lacked a whisky-making tradition, but that all changed with the establishment of Penderyn Distilleryin 2000.
Located in the scenic Brecon Beacons, Penderyn breathed new life into Welsh whisky production. Commited to producing a premium single malt whisky, they embraced innovative techniques, such as using a unique Faraday still, which allowed for precise control over the distillation process.
However CEO Stephen Davies, says marketing was a struggle at first. “If you cast your mind back 15 years, the idea of a Welsh whisky was slightly jarring and at odds with where whisky came from,” he says. “People didn’t take it seriously.” But, the team’s dedication to excellence paid off, and Penderyn Whisky soon gained recognition and accolades worldwide.
Did you know?
Welsh single malt whisky is the first spirit in the UK to be awarded geographical indication status since Brexit. Just like its Irish and Scottish counterparts, it is now legally protected against imitators.
English & Welsh whisky's place in the world
The growth of the English and Welsh whisky industries has been nothing short of extraordinary. New distilleries have emerged across the regions, and existing ones have expanded their capacities to meet the surging demand for their products. There are now (as of July 2023) 49 whisky distilleries in England and six, soon to be seven, in Wales.
Traditionally thought to be the preserve of Scotland, Ireland and Kentucky, whisky is now made all over the world. Distilleries in Japan and Australia have brought legitimacy and respectability to the world whisky category. And as consumer tastes have evolved and people sought more diverse and authentic whisky experiences, English and Welsh whiskies have found an enthusiastic audience both domestically and internationally.
It would be natural to assume that Scottish whisky producers might look unfavourably upon the growth of a whisky industry elsewhere in the UK. However far from positioning themselves as rivals, the Scottish industry has actually supported the development of whisky distilleries in England and Wales.
Dhavall Gandhi, whisky consultant and former Master Blender of the Lakes Distillery says the regions are deeply intertwined: “I started my career at The Macallan, and our founder and chief operating officer, Paul Currie, helped establish the Isle of Arran Distillery. Our chairman, Dr Allan Rutherford, also came from Diageo. We all cut our teeth in the Scotch whisky industry and even at Lakes, we share ideas and take advice from Scotch whisky producers. There’s a constant dialogue.”
The same is true in Wales. “We’ve had nothing but help from the Scotch whisky industry,” says Stephen Davies of Penderyn. “One of the great highlights of my time at Penderyn, and one of the highlights of my entire career, was getting to work with the great Jim Swan. He was the man who really created the house style for Penderyn.”
A legendary figure across the world whisky industry, Scottish scientist and single malt expert, the late Dr Jim Swan, also provided guidance to English distilleries including the Cotswolds Distillery and the London Distillery Company.
The future of English & Welsh whisky
As we look to the future, the prospects for the English and Welsh whisky industries appear incredibly promising. The increasing interest in artisanal and small-batch spirits made from locally-sourced ingredients, coupled with the dedication of distillers to continually experiment and innovate, ensures that the growth trajectory is set to continue.
As they carve their niche in the global whisky market, it’s an exciting time for whisky lovers to explore the diverse and distinctive flavours that these regions have to offer. So, whether you’re savouring a peaty English dram or a smooth Welsh single malt, raise your glass to the remarkable journey of English and Welsh whisky – a journey that is far from over!