Norfolk Whisky-English Single Malt: Whisky Master Iain Henderson at England's St. George's Distillery

The first legal English distillery in a hundred years opened its doors in November 2006. What will its whisky be like? This article discusses the distillery and how its whisky will probably taste.

In November 2006, the first English whisky distillery in almost a century became operational in Norfolk. Why? Frankly, why not? Whisky is going through a huge upsurge in popularity at the moment, particularly in Russia, China and India. Anyone who has tasted whiskies from South Africa, Japan and Sweden will know that very high quality whiskies are being made outside Scotland and Ireland. Wales has recently opened its first legal distillery (Penderyn) and is producing excellent whisky. It was only natural that England would follow suit.

Norfolk’s Natural Resources

By law, whisky can only be made from water, malted barley and yeast, although its taste is also heavily influenced by the casks in which it is stored. So, find an appropriate water supply, good barley and yeast and some good casks and there is no reason why good whisky can be produced anywhere in the world. With a strong brewing tradition, Norfolk has a good supply of high quality underground water and probably the best barley in the UK. In fact, Norfolk barley is used in many well-known Scottish whiskies.

The Distillery

The new distillery is known as the St George’s distillery, and is situated near East Harling. It is the brainchild of James and Andrew Nelstrop, who enlisted the help of whisky master Iain Henderson to set up the distillery. Henderson is a vastly experienced distiller, having worked previously at three of the greatest Scottish distilleries: Glenlivet, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig. St George’s will use local Barley and will draw water from its own well. As with many whisky distilleries, it will use Bourbon barrels for its standard expressions, but will also use other casks previously used for Port, Sauterne, Burgundy and Madeira. Unfortunately, for a spirit to be called whisky, it has to spend at least three years in the cask so it is not possible to purchase any until November 2009 at the very earliest (2010 for its peated whisky), should they decide to release it that early.

The Whisky

But what will St George’s whisky be like? Ordinarily, one would have to wait until 2009 to find out, but the early signs are very promising. When a new distillery is set up, it is usual that after initial runs there is an amount of tweaking necessary to various parts of the process to ensure a quality spirit. However, at St George’s, under the expert eye of Henderson and his successor, ex-brewer David Fitt, such was the quality of the process and the resulting spirit on its initial run, that minimal tweaking was required. The shape of the stills determines that it will be a light spirit, more in the Speyside style than a Highland or Island. The unpeated work in progress gave definite toffee and vanilla hints and smelled not dissimilar to a Glenlivet. No peated whisky was available to taste but distilleries like BenRiach have shown that it isn’t just the Hebridean islands that can produce quality peated whisky.

Three year old single malts are generally far too underdeveloped and consequently poorly-received by the industry, but if St George’s decides to release one it does have the advantage of being situated in a milder climate where the whisky will mature more quickly than in Scotland. However, it will only when its older expressions are released that this distillery can be truly judged, but the early signs are extremely promising.

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