Cry for England and St George
PUBLISHED: 09:19 03 March 2015 | UPDATED: 09:19 03 March 2015
Martin Chambers goes native in search of some Sassenach spirit
As a Scot I always thought that English whisky was an oxymoron. Whisky was something lovingly concocted by the Sassenachs’ creative Celtic cousins, or else taken across the Atlantic by our emigrés and bastardised into bourbon for the American melting pot.
Then, during a spell working in Thetford I noticed the brown tourism road signs along the A1066 in the Waveney Valley directing me towards St George’s Distillery. I assumed at first it must be distilling gin and tonic, Pimms, or even warm beer, but curiosity had unfettered the feline in me and I set out to investigate.
The distillery is home to The English Whisky Co and sits in a grove of cricket bat willows running down to the gently flowing River Thet at Roudham, over the border in Norfolk.
It was designed and built by the Nelstrop family to produce fine English malt whisky and started distilling its first spirit in October 2006. The distillery was a life ambition of farmer James Nelstrop, who on his 60th birthday decided to go ahead with the venture. Sadly, James died last year and his son Andrew took up the reins as managing director of the company.
Andrew and his father decided to put to use the finest East Anglian barley, much of which they grew, and the purest, cleanest water in the Breckland aquifer beneath their land to create single malt whisky.
The distillery was built in the quickest of time, from plans drawn up in October 2005, to the first whisky a year later. The reason for the rush?
“There was another one being built, the Lakes Distillery up in the Lake District,” says Andrew, “and they had ordered their stills ahead of us. The race was on to be England’s first whisky distillery. As it turned out they hadn’t done anything. We needn’t have rushed so much, but it was so important to be first, to get the name.
“This was never going to be that big. It was destined to be a micro distillery, but at the time there were rules about the minimum size of a distillery. Spirits had to be minimum 1,800 litres. That rule has slackened off, but it did mean that instead of building a tiny thing that made whisky for the neighbouring three pubs, we end up building this.”
The beautiful building they constructed now hosts 40,000 visitors a year, making it a top tourist attraction in the region.
But, as Andrew explains, putting up the building in haste was not the problem.
“There is no risk in buildings, they can be used for other things, but buying the equipment itself was an enormous risk. At some distilleries, no matter how brilliant the staff are, the equipment will only produce a grade of spirit that is only fit for blending, whereas others can produce a wonderful spirit that is good enough to be single malt. But you don’t know until you turn it on, then you’re down three quarters of a million pounds on a gamble.
“But we were very fortunate for two reasons. The distillery, when we finally got it going, produced a wonderful spirit, and we had managed to employ a chap called Iain Henderson, ex-head of Laphroaig.
“He came down here to set us up and train David our head distiller now. He was head for about 18 months. I think the difference was that had we done it ourselves it would have taken us six months or more of fiddling − there are 147 manual valves − trying to find the sweet spot, whereas with Iain three days later we were producing. He lent credibility to the exercise, rather than it just being farmers.”
The Laphroaig distiller was not the only Celtic connection. The company bought their stills from Forsyth’s of Forres in the Scottish Highlands, the Rolls Royce of distillery makers, as Andrew says.
“They built and installed everything − the stills, the tuns, the pipework, the floors. They kitted out the place over six weeks, 26 staying the while. ”
St George’s makes the equivalent of 150,000 bottles a year. “We are aiming to sell about 50-60,000 a year,” says Andrew, “leaving 100,000 bottles a year to get older and older. We have a lot more evaporation than you boys up north because it is so much hotter, but soon production will be more in line with sales, as we cannot afford to open a warehouse every 18 months.”
The whisky is stored in bourbon casks bought whole from Jim Beam, and the warehouse has a trial section where different casks, like sherry ones, are tested.
This Scotsman has been talked round. With top quality malted barley, and pure, cold water, why not apply science to create a heavenly drink?
But how good is it, and is there not a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to the troublesome neighbours?
“What we will never know,” says Andrew, “is what happens when Mrs Smith wanders into Tesco, buys a bottle and takes it home to open for friends, and what those comments are and whether they are saying ‘I’d rather have a Scotch’. But then would they, or would they rather have an Irish? Jamieson is one of the biggest selling whiskies anywhere. Bourbon is huge and Japan is big.
“If we can get people to taste it, we’re fine. If someone just looks at the shelf and thinks I’m not drinking that I only want Scotch, well, they will only ever drink Scotch and they won’t just miss out on ours but on some amazing whiskies from all over the world.”