Whisky galore! An English malt, please

On the edge of the Norfolk Fens, one man's dream is becominga delicious reality. As the clamour for fine spirits grows around the world, James Nelstrop is preparing to give Scotland's finest distilleries a run for their money. By Cahal Milmo and Jerome Taylor
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The Independent Online

The sweet smell of ground grist wafts over the surrounding peat marshland as a one-tonne copper still boils and distils mash into the unmistakable dark liquid that will eventually become whisky.

The first run of single malt, meanwhile, lies maturing in hundreds of specially imported Bourbon barrels from the United States watched over by Molly, Bert, Oscar and Zeb, the distillery's four Labrador dogs.

At first glance nothing in this particular distillery looks out of the ordinary. But to the factory's founders and whisky connoisseurs worldwide what lies in those casks is not just whisky; it is history in the making.

For this is not just another new distillery to add to Scotland or Ireland's already thriving industries. This is the English Whisky Company, the latest attempt to try and cash in on the unprecedented clamour for fine whisky worldwide and, also, the first company to produce an English malt whisky in more than 100 years.

To traditionalists the idea of asking barman for "an English" in the same way that millions of tipplers request "a Scotch" might sound preposterous, but if a retired Norfolk grain farmer and water engineer gets his way, that is precisely what Britain's discerning whisky lovers will be demanding by the end of next year.

Based in a £1m, purpose-built barn on the edge of the Norfolk Fens, the first whisky distillery to operate in England for more than a century has opened for business with a vow to produce a single malt that will rival some of the most revered brands being made north of the border.

James Nelstrop, 62, an arable farmer and entrepreneur who has set up the St George's Distillery with his son, Andrew, had long harboured an ambition to revive the ancient English art of producing spirit from malted barley, which until the late 19th century thrived in locations ranging from Liverpool and Bristol to London's East End.

The last working malt whisky distillery was based at the Lea Valley in Stratford, east London, and closed in the 1880s.

The English Whisky Company, based near Thetford on land with its own well and adjacent to a peat bog to provide two of the key ingredients for a fine malt, already has the equivalent of 250,000 bottles of whisky maturing in American Bourbon barrels in a bond warehouse ready for release in December 2009 and aims to sell about 100,000 bottles a year by the time of the London Olympics in 2012.

For Mr Nelstrop, a lifelong whisky connoisseur, challenging Scotland's domination of the fine whisky market was a challenge he had wanted to pursue for years. "The idea of producing English whisky is something I have been nurturing for 20 years," he said. "The Scotch industry have been able to claim that they were the only major producers of whisky in Britain and now we are in a position to bring a unique product to the market. By the time of the Olympics we intend to be one of the serious players in the single malt market."

If the end product is good enough and the right marketing techniques are employed, that global whisky market is a veritable gold mine for manufacturers. Worldwide demand for top-end single malts and cheaper blended whiskies has never been higher, particularly in Asia, where China and India's ever-expanding middle classes can barely get their hands on imported whisky fast enough.

Last year Scotch whisky sales worldwide reached £2.5bn, the industry's highest global sales in more than 10 years and the equivalent of a quarter of all the UK's food and drink exports.

And most analysts believe manufacturers have only just begun to tap into the vast number of new potential customers in Asia. According to the latest figures from the Scotch Whisky Association, Scotland currently exports half a million cases of whisky to India each year, a fraction of the 100million cases of locally produced whisky. Whisky sales to China, meanwhile, have increased by up to 80 per cent every year for the past five years alone.

But far from being a distant outpost of the large-scale distillers based in the Highlands and the Scottish islands, the Norfolk operation is in reality closer to source materials for whisky than its putative rivals.

Much of the barley needed by the Scotch industry to produce malt – the sprouted grain that has been dried over a furnace to produce the distinct flavour of whisky – comes from East Anglia anyway and has to be transported to the Scottish distilleries by road or rail. St George's Distillery is buying its malt from a producer in Fakenham, some 35 miles away from it based in the Norfolk village of Roundham, and produces two styles of whisky: a "peated" version with the smoky flavour associated with some Scottish island whiskies and an unpeated type with a more subtle, perfumed nose.

Mr Nelstrop said: "Norfolk is in fact ideal for making whisky. It is a prime barley-growing area and has a very strong tradition in brewing high-quality beers as well as good sources of underground water. It is a very local and very English product."

The talk among whisky aficionados is that the early results are highly promising, not least because the warmer climate of Roundham, near Thetford, compared to Islay or Speyside, means the whisky matures more quickly than a Scotch. According to Mr Nelstrom, that means a six-year-old whisky from St George's Distillery will be comparable with a 10-year-old Scotch.

The company, which must wait for three years before it can sell its product as whisky under European Union rules, is maturing most of its single malt in bourbon barrels imported from the makers of Jim Beam, but it is also storing its product in casks previously used for making sherry as well as sauternes and moscatel dessert wines.

The resulting rave reviews for the sweet, almost toffee-like malt is in no small part due to Iain Henderson, a 72-year-old former merchant seaman, who is the secret ingredient in the English Whisky Company's early success. A master distiller with a CV including Glenlivet and Laphroaig that reads like a roll call of the elite of single malts, Mr Henderson was persuaded to come out of retirement to produce the company's first whiskies and is in no doubt as to the potential for the English brand. He said: "I have to confess that this whisky will be every bit as good as the established Scotch whiskies and I think it will catch on."

Others are not so sure. Ian Bankier, the chairman of the Whisky Shop, the largest specialist retailer in Britain, said: "Nobody is going to catch up with Scotland. It is too dominant in everybody's consciousness because of its history and evolution."

Unsurprisingly, Mr Nelstrom would beg to differ, pointing out that he has already received orders for the pure spirit produced by his distillery from customers in Scandinavia and Japan.

He said: "This was supposed to be a retirement project, but it has turned into a seven-days-a-week retirement project. I can't complain though, there is something very rewarding about watching a product like this mature and improve."

The tipple loved around the world

Japan

Since the late 19th century, Japan had been a major importer of Scotch whisky but when Masataka Taketsuru, an organic chemistry student at the University of Glasgow, returned to his homeland with a Scottish bride in 1923 he vowed to create Japan's first whisky distillery. Masataka had served apprenticeships at nearby distilleries, learning from craftsmen and training as a blender. By 1934 he had established Nikka Whisky, in the hills above Yoichi on Hokkaido. Japan now boasts 10 distilleries, including the most well-known, Suntory, producing single malts that many say match Scotch and Irish competitors.

Pakistan

Since 1977 (under the country's partly sharia- inspired laws) only tourists, non-Muslims and alcoholics are allowed to drink alcohol. But it hasn't stopped the Muree Brewery in Rawalpindi from producing 660,000 gallons of beer and 110,000 gallons of whisky including the Muslim world's first 20-year-old malt whisky. Founded in 1860, the Parsee-owned distillery has somehow survived the Islamicisation of Pakistan.

Wales

Since 2000, the small Penderyn Distillery, in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons, has been producing the country's only Welsh whisky at a rate of one barrel a day but has won critical acclaim for its whiskies. Because of the minute yield, however, exports are strictly limited. Wales's first foray in to the whisky market in the 1990s failed when it was sued by the Scottish Whisky Association for falsely marketing a blend of Scotch whiskies as an indigenous Welsh grain.

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