The Rise of English Whisky
The Rise of English Whisky
Look at one of the spirit industry's fast growing categories
There’s a distinctive range of historical images that come to mind when we think of the origins of whisk(e)y: clear nectar flowing forth from bothies nestled deep in Highland glens; moonshiners running rickety stills in the foothills of Tennessee; distillery hands using copper tubing to appropriate their rightful share of spiritous produce.
Varied in transatlantic geography as these images are, what they all share in common is a defiance against restrictive societal structures - emerging from wild backcountries and rural shadows, the mythologies of whisk(e)y are undeniably conceived as wilful acts of rebellion.
Cut to the 21st Century: what sort of baggage follows whisk(e)y? Heritage-heavy behemoths operating out of nine-figure priced palatial estates? Enormous industry conglomerates that sound like ‘Beam-Suntory’ or ‘Diageo’? Grumpy old men deciding in their grumpy outdated ways what is drinkable and what isn’t?
The modern success story of whisk(e)y, with its billions in revenue, has, for better or for worse, become encumbered with the rigidity of structure that the mainstream necessitates. Structure isn’t always a bad thing: the work of trade bodies like the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), The Irish Whiskey Association, and The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, have all emerged in the past few decades to ensure that their countries’ respective styles of whisk(e)y retain their heritage.
A Scotch ain’t a Scotch if it isn’t oak-aged 3 years in Scotland, Pot Still Irish needs to include unmalted barley in the mash, Bourbon has to taste the char of new oak barrels. All of these rules work to preserve traditions that have been gradually developing over the course of centuries, and their existence is justified by arguments for cultural integrity and distinctiveness.
The fact remains, however, that the spirits that we know and love today have all emerged from organic, evolutionary processes, that cannot be seen as the final stage of development – whisky-making’s hazy past is one of experimenting, tinkering, and a messing around with form.
Modern whisky-making, as with many other sectors of the modern drinks industry, does have a good deal of experimentation: just take a glance at Compass Box’s innumerable and enduringly colourful expressions, the wonderful array of casks used by the folks over at Deanston, or the wacky world of the Ardbeg Committee.
What happens, though, when you decide that you don’t want to use oak? Or if you want to emphasise the character of the mash without dampening it through lengthy barrel-ageing? Basically, what happens when you want to break the rules, but also create a distinctive spirit that consumers can recognise?
English whisky is emerging as one of the spirit’s fast-growing subcategories, in terms of both global recognition and actual growth. The liquid itself has been hoovering up a stockpile of spirits awards, often attracting industry heavyweights (e.g. from the likes of Macallan) to run the production side of things; and, between 2019-2023, the volume of English whisky produced is expected to see a 189% growth, with the number of bottles sold forecasting a staggering increase of 418%. Such growth, however, brings with it an influx of problems, ranging from counterfeiters looking to exploit the category’s success, to creating a framework that positions English whisky as a distinctive category.
Enter: The English Whisky Guild. Launched just a few weeks ago, the EWG comprises of 15 founding distilleries, representing a total of 40 English producers. Much in the same way that the Scotch Whisky Association advocates for the legal protection of Scotch, the Guild are pushing for a Geographical Indication (GI), the proposal of which has been written up by director of the Oxford Artisan Distillery, Tagore Ramoutar.
In defining what exactly is necessary in terms of geography, raw material selection and processing, Ramoutar explains that the GI will work to ‘protect the future of English whisky, and also support the differentiation between different whiskies’. Essentially this means that someone looking to import in a bunch of dodgy liquid, label it in the UK and hawk it as ‘English Whisky’ will face a legal barricade; additionally, a framework can then be put in place so that global consumers can attain a clearer understanding of just what exactly ‘English whisky’ means (beyond being from, well, England).
The fifteen founding members of the English Whisky Guild
Going back to that original pickle though: how do we keep the historical sense of rebelliousness and rule-breaking in a category that inevitably has to include rules and regulations as part of its reality? A quick glance at the EWG’s ethos gives us a hint. Where the SWA’s principles emphasise regulatory capacities, growth and profit initiatives, the EWG’s vision has an air of freedom and experimentation, at the forefront of which is a commitment to showcase ‘remarkable diversity’, and ‘underscore the tireless pursuit of creativity, inclusivity and innovation’. While the desire to protect the legitimacy of the category is a primary goal of the Guild, this doesn’t appear to be at the detriment of an experimental mindset - and the proof of this experimentation is evident in the stuff that’s being produced.
Just south of London’s Victoria Park, the East London Liquor Company (ELLC) have been operating since 2014, slowly releasing iterations of their whisky using an approach that focuses on grain-to-glass provenance, unique mashbills, and some real out-there cask selection. Where SWA regulations necessitate the use of oak, ELLC have taken advantage of English flexibility and used wood like porous chestnut, while previous iterations of their Rye have foregone the American-mandated 51% rye mashbill, for a more biscuity flavour-profile, using 58% malted barley.
With the launch of their London Rye and Single Malt this summer, ELLC are encouraging consumers to ‘Drink Defiantly’, with the copy for their new Rye announcing an active desire to get rid of the ‘resistance to change and aversion to innovation’ that they see as de rigueur north of the border.
The world of whisky is ever-expanding, with the growth of many of its subcategories indicating that dram-drinkers are only getting thirstier, and in a world of such aggressive expansion, the Damoclean sword of corporatisation clearly hovers over even the freshest and newly-emerging of its subcategories.
By collectively working to expand the scope of what whisky can be while retaining its structural integrity as a spirits category, the English Whisky Guild and its members are showing us how creativity and structure can go hand-in-hand, allowing growth to coexist alongside the historical mythos of rebelliousness and renegades that continues to capture our collective drinking imagination.