English whisky comes of age

After three years maturing in charred white oak casks, the first English whisky in more than a century is finally ready to flow out to excited and curious drinkers around the world.

While Scotch is famous across the globe, there has not been a single whisky distillery south of the border with England in more than 100 years.

But at St. George's Distillery by the River Thet, nestled among the farms of Norfolk, eastern England, the first casks have come of age.

The English Whisky Company's first run of single malt spirit officially became whisky on November 27 as it passed the magical three-year mark, and will go on general sale from December 16.

"The biggest gamble comes the day you decide to do it," managing director Andrew Nelstrop, 37, told AFP.

"Before you've done a drop of spirit, you've written some big cheques. You have no idea before you start producing whether the distillery is going to make ordinary whisky or great whisky.

"The relief on everyone's faces when they first tasted it! It is absolutely lovely."

Landowning farmers Nelstrop and his father James, 63, are decided to take the plunge four years ago.

James's father grew malting barley and once mused on how strange it was to send it all the way to Scotland to be distilled.

Remembering that remark, James raised the idea of starting a local distillery in September 2005. Within a month, the plans were drawn up; they gained approval in January 2006, and distilling began that November.

"One of the reasons for this mad dash was once we'd decided to do it we read about another distillery opening up in England just south of the border - and they were ahead of us," Andrew Nelstrop said.

"There are no prizes for coming second, so we started distilling without any doors, windows, anything."

As it turned out, the other planned distillery never took off, leaving the Nelstrops as England's only whisky distillers.

The hastily-built St. George's, in the village of Roudham, was officially opened in March 2007 by Prince Charles, the heir to the throne.

The project has cost 2.5 million pounds (4.2 million dollars, 2.75 million euros) so far.

The barley is from the local East Anglia region, while the water comes from the Breckland aquifer, via a 160-foot (49-metre) borehole in the garden.

"It's crystal clear, it's beautiful," Nelstrop said.

The Nelstrops brought Iain Henderson, formerly the distillery manager at Scotland's famous Laphroaig whisky producer, out of retirement.

As there is nobody to blend whisky with in England, "if we'd have had ordinary whisky coming out, on day one, we'd have been finished," Nelstrop said.

Bringing in Henderson appears to have paid off, as both the plain and peated whiskies being produced have earned top reviews.

Expert Jim Murray, in his comprehensive "Whisky Bible 2010" book, called the distillery a "fabulous outpost" which is "likely to gain a name for exceptional quality".

Based on tastings of the maturing malt spirit, the peated and plain were both ranked as "brilliant", the third highest of 10 categories, above "very good to excellent whiskies definitely worth buying" and just below "superstar whiskies that give us all a reason to live".

When choosing a name, the Nelstrops decided to make a feature of their whisky's Englishness.

"Bizarrely, the one place that doesn't still see England as a great nation is England. But mention England anywhere abroad and people love all things English," Nelstrop said.

Outside Britain, the whisky is being shipped to Japan, Singapore, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium.

Nelstrop is hoping to market it in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Nordic countries in 2010, while starting to crack the northeastern United States.

The firm employs four full-time staff and six part-time guides. Around 35,000 people a year visit the distillery.

Matured in casks used by Jim Beam bourbon whiskey in Kentucky, between 150,000 and 200,000 bottles will be produced per year, while some of the 1,040 barrels produced so far will be stored to mature for up to 20 years.

They are currently being bottled by hand, with chairman James Nelstrop stapling the cardboard cases together as black Labrador Bert, the distillery dog, watches on.

A bottle of English whisky retails in Britain for around 35 pounds (58 dollars, 38.50 euros).

Nelstrop concedes the whole adventure has been great fun.

"There are not many jobs in the world where you have a perfectly valid excuse to have a glass of whisky for breakfast," he said.

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