English whisky has been around longer than you might think. Rewind 200 years and you’d have found a handful of distilleries dotted around the country happily producing whisky, but things ground to a halt with the closure of Lea Valley Distillery in 1903 – and it would be another 100 years before any whisky stills fired up again.
But English whisky has been part of the recent resurgence in craft spirits, and there are now more than a dozen English distilleries, all with their own take on fine whisky. And like their Scotch counterparts, English whisky is aged in all manner of interesting casks, such as IWSC Silver winner Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery’s Filey Bay, which spends time in Spanish Moscatel barrels, packing the whisky with apricot, cinnamon and pineapple notes.
For a fuller, smokier experience, try the Peated Cask Single Malt from Cotswolds Distillery. Founder and CEO Daniel Szor opened his distillery back in 2014 – two years beforehand, he was looking out of his farmhouse window at a neighbour’s field full of barley, and wondered why nobody was making whisky there. His efforts have paid off.
It’s true that English distillers are playing catch-up with their Irish and Scottish counterparts. And if you set up a business, you can’t afford to wait 10 years before making any money, so many English whisky newcomers have made their own gin and vodka, too, while their whisky is quietly maturing in the cellar. But the oldest English producers now have whiskies in double figures, and it won’t be long before we’ll see plenty of 15yo, 18yo, and even older English whiskies to try.
Here are the pick of English whiskies as judged in the IWSC’s 2020 spirits tasting.
Find out more about English whisky from Adnams head distiller John McCarthy:
Note: This article was first published on 23 April 2020 and then updated on 05 May 2021