The whiskey war as the English fight over single malt market share
Golden barley ripples in the breeze and a short distance away, bespoke copper stills begin the gentle process of turning grain into brandy.
Distilled twice, the nectar, once properly matured, leaves its cask to deliver a drinkable, rich and fruity whisky. The distillery boss, who has spent all his savings on making it, compares it to a “breakfast whiskey” with layers of toast, creamy butter and fruity marmalade.
Inspired by the natural beauty on its doorstep, crafted using age-old skills, Dan Szor’s dram in the glass has the hallmarks of a fine scotch – if you ignore the fact that the heather-covered valleys, The nearest Highland lochs and peaks are several hundred miles away.
Originally from New York, the former Wall Street financier fell so deeply in love with single malt whiskey that he invested all his savings in setting up his own distillery – not in Scotland, but in the typical “chocolate box”. Cotswold English.
“The Cotswolds may not have the cliffs, high peaks or crashing waves that Scotland has, but they have their own beauty – they are quintessentially English,” he said. “I have a couple hundred whiskeys in my living room and I could reach for any bottle of Scotch whiskey I want, but I’m going to reach for mine because it’s delicious.”
As one of a new breed of English whiskey distillers, one would expect Mr Szor to say that. Still, there are clear signs that the English are coming.
Once made in large quantities at many distilleries, the production of English whiskey died out at the start of the 20th century when attention turned to gin.
However, the loosening of regulations which has opened the door to a thriving craft gin sector, as well as a growing number of “world whiskeys” from places as diverse as Australia, India and Sweden, ignited a new sector of English whisky.
While there wasn’t a single whiskey distillery in England just 20 years ago, there are now over 40 producing their own whisky. Smaller and freed from the constraints surrounding the production of Scottish single malt, English producers were given carte blanche to innovate.
And while Scottish marketing has relied heavily on images of heritage, rolling landscapes and slow-maturing dram, English whiskey makers are seizing the opportunity to project a more modern and vibrant image.
Now, after joining forces to launch their own trade association, the English Whiskey Guild, they are preparing to apply to the UK government for a ‘geographical indication’ for English whisky.
The move would grant their dram special status confirming authenticity, production standards and origin, similar to Scotch whiskey and Welsh lamb.
Mr Szor, who enlisted two Scots with a century of experience to develop his Cotswold single malt whiskies, believes modern consumers are looking for an experience different from images of rolling mist and Highland landscapes.
“Today, young consumers, millennials and trendsetters are looking for authenticity. It’s not so much heather and valleys – they want to know how things are done,” he said. “You can visit a distillery up north and see an individual operation, push a button and everything behind a glass wall.
“But we are old-fashioned, everything is manual. Our guys climb ladders, open steam valves by hand – they know exactly how many cranks it takes to turn the dial. People love what they see – it’s whiskey as it was made before everything was automated.
“I won’t make friends by saying that,” he continued, “but whiskey in Scotland is a bit of a victim of its own success. So many distilleries are part of a huge group driven by corporate budgets and deadlines. This does not necessarily translate into the best possible product.
“If I fly from Edinburgh to Paris, I don’t want to see the same duty free whiskey in Paris that I just saw in Edinburgh. People are looking for local and different things.
In Norfolk, where large quantities of barley are shipped to Japan to make whisky, Andrew Nelstrop’s English Whiskey Company (EWC) sells ‘The English 11-year-old Malt’ for just under £60 a bottle.
“If you want to look at heritage, my family has been farming and grinding grain since 1482 – further than the records for Scotch whisky,” he said.
“Legacy is a message that Scotch has been selling for a long time, but we also have a legacy. We all have a story to tell.”
Chairman of the English Whiskey Guild, he spearheads its mission to showcase and protect “the remarkable quality and diversity of the now numerous and unique whiskeys made in England”.
“English whiskey is synonymous with independence, innovation and creativity,” he added.
“Forming the Guild and submitting the IG Application supports these shared values while setting production standards that ensure any whiskey labeled as ‘English’ is of the highest quality.
“It also marks an important milestone in the long-term development and promotion of English whisky.”
He says England is less foreign to whiskey production than many think: Alfred Barnard’s inspection of distilleries across the UK in the late 1800s noted four whiskey distilleries in England which , even by modern standards, were massive.
Their closure led to a “brain drain” of experienced distillery workers to Scotland and Ireland, while rules and regulations completely killed the industry. “We were looking at whiskey making all over the world, in Japan, Sweden, America, France, Austria, Switzerland, everywhere but England and Wales,” he said.
When the rules regarding the size of stills were relaxed, Scotch whiskey experts headed south. In the Cotswolds, former Bowmore Distillery Manager Harry Cockburn and renowned whiskey consultant Dr Jim Swan helped launch Mr Szor’s Cotswold Distillery – Swan was also instrumental in the creation from Penderyn, one of the first Welsh whiskey distilleries.
In Norfolk, Iain Henderson, who worked at Laphroaig, joined the EWC’s quest to deliver the first English whiskey in over a century. “Our ingredients are the same as those used by Scottish distilleries,” he said. “Each distillery has differences in the speed of the run, how slowly they let the fermentation happen. Once in barrel and maturing, that’s where you see the differences.
“We have hard water, so our whiskey has quite a soft base note. But we can make peated and unpeated whiskey and put them in a mix of casks. At no time did we or any other English distillery We’re not trying to imitate Scotch whisky. We don’t see any point in that.”
However, English whiskey has a big downside: “In Scotland, the angels’ share is around 2%, ours is more like 5% or 6%. The volume of spirits produced by English distilleries is expected to increase by 189% between 2019 and 2023. Over the same period, the number of bottles sold is expected to increase by 418%.
Still, that’s not a big threat to Scotch: there are currently 138 Scotch whiskey distilleries across Scotland, with 44 bottles of Scotch whiskey exported every second to around 180 markets around the world, worth of £4.5 billion in 2021.
Scotch Whiskey Association director of strategy Graeme Littlejohn said: “The UK is home to world-class spirits producers, led by Scotch whisky, which accounts for 98% of UK-produced whiskey exports. . The booming whiskey industry in England is yet another sign that people around the world want to make, export and experience whisky, a trend that Scotch whiskey can also benefit from.