When Rabbie Burns wrote his poem eulogising the virtues of whisky as the “soul o’plays and pranks” worthy of “a bardie’s gratfu’ thanks”, it is less than likely that he had in mind a spirit distilled in Perfidious Albion.
But, as the haggis is piped in and split asunder at countless Burns Suppers across Britain tonight, there is a growing possibility that aficionados of the great Scots bard will find themselves toasting his verse by raising a dram of English whisky.
The prospect of such an unthinkable heresy has been increased by a boom in sales of the single malt produced by the first whisky distillery to set up south of the border in 120 years and the arrival of competitors from Cornwall to Suffolk.
The English Whisky Company, which was founded in a Norfolk barn six years ago by an enterprising arable farmer and his son, is now producing 150,000 bottles a year of its award-winning single malt and will next month begin exports to the United States.
In a development that will have the more fervent Scotch lovers spluttering into their Islay malts, the East Anglian distillery last year sold 2,500 bottles north of the border and has supplied the signature booze for several Burns Nights in England.
The success of the company, which is also in negotiations to sell a new range to Britain’s supermarkets, has spawned an embryonic English whisky industry with Suffolk brewer Adnams due to launch its first single malt this November. The first whisky distillery in London in more than a century is due to open its doors in the coming weeks and a Cornish company launched its locally-produced whisky last year.
Andrew Nelstrop, who set up the English Whisky Company in Thetford with his father after his family spent 600 years in the farming business, said: “It is going very well and it is only a good thing that there are others starting to join in. People are undoubtedly catching on to the idea of English whisky.
“At the moment, if you walk into a whisky shop you have shelves dedicated to Scotch, Irish whiskey and American Bourbon. Everyone else around the world who makes whisky is on the “others” shelf. I would very much hope that soon there will be an “English” shelf.
“We believe we have a very good product. It is difficult to say how it differs from Scotch because even in Scotland every distillery produces a different whisky. What I do know is that we have water and malt every bit as good as that north of the border. After all, most of the malt used in Scotch comes from East Anglia.”
Production of English whisky - the term “Englotch” does not yet seem to have caught on - is as yet a drop in a very large Scottish whisky ocean.
While the English Whisky Company and its St George’s Distillery last year recorded a turnover of more than £1m, the Scotch industry is currently worth about £4bn per annum and produces some 700m litres of Burns’ “guild auld Scotch drink” a year.
But English producers are determined to make their presence felt.
Mr Nelstrop, who also organises St George’s Day suppers to toast England’s patron saint with whisky, has been lobbying the American authorities to change rules which allow Irish and Scottish whisky producers to mature their single malts in used casks such as sherry barrels but bans the practice for anyone else outside the United States.
Instead, the Norfolk company, which last year had 40,000 visitors to its site and exports to 12 countries, has produced a single malt matured in virgin oak barrels. It hopes to sell about 20,000 bottles a year in America - the biggest market for whisky exports.
Meanwhile, the Scotch industry yesterday betrayed little concern that it will be battling for Burns Night sales against the Sassenach upstarts.
Campbell Evans, of the Scotch Whisky Association, said : “At a time when many will be enjoying a glass of Scotch whisky for Burns Night, no doubt some will be intrigued that they will soon be able to try an English whisky on St George’s Day alongside the 107 Scotch whisky distilleries currently in operation.”