Tuesday, 25 August 2015

A Plethora of Pilgrims. 22nd August. St George's Distillery (The English Whisky co)

When I was at University the average birthday would see a Friday evening trip to Ocean, the local Student Club where traditionally, after several curious 'cocktails', the theme from Baywatch would be
played, accompanied by all the gents removing their shirts and waving them around their head for the duration of the song. Today is my birthday, and I am driving to East Anglia to tour my first English Whisky Distillery. There is talk of a pub lunch with my Uncle, Aunt and Cousin. This is it. At the age of 25 I am a Grown Up.

Certainly I am more grown up in age than the distillery that I am visiting. The first Distillery to be built in England in over a Century, St George's only began distilling in 2006, by which time I already had a more than passing interest in the product of its cousins North of the Border. Perhaps because of this, and probably also because I was a Scotch snob until midway through University, the English Whisky Company had passed rather under my radar. In fact it was only the night before the tour that I had my first of their expressions: the magnificent Chapter 16, which is peated, sherried, and the sort of Malt that deserves to be drunk to the strains of 'Jerusalem' with a montage of 2012 Olympic Winners and stills from Richard Attenborough films playing in the background.

It is also going to be a first for Rachel, my best friend Greeners (who will probably be a recurring character in this blog series!) and also my Uncle, Aunt and Cousin, who are all joining me. My Uncle Neville was hopefully not stung by my words concerning his and my father's whisky preferences in the Penderyn entry, and it is a real joy to have a good group of pilgrims gathered on this extraordinarily stunning day.

The Distillery was custom made for its purpose, and so as you would expect everything is incredibly pretty both inside and out, with gleaming white walls, immaculately kept lawns and an airy, spaceous interior. It also plays an incredibly straight bat so far as the competition is concerned; I have never seen a distillery shop with such an startling array of bottles from around the world. Scotland is very well represented, as is America and Ireland, and even more obscure bottles are available. Their range of the magnificent Indian distillery Amrut's whisky is particularly good, and I rather cheekily buy Greeners a bottle of the inimitable Amrut Fusion as his
birthday present for the week after next.

Our guide Joy leads us up the carpeted staircase to a large function room, where we are given a brief history of the distillery and the founding family, She has a wealth of stories and jokes which she presents fantastically personally considering the large size of the group, and it is lovely (and somewhat refreshing) to hear it from the guide, rather than an introductory video! It is clear that, whilst distinct in character from any Scotch Whisky, there is a real willingness to learn from the expertise of the Scots; all the copperwork was done in Scotland, the Scottish legal minimum maturation law is followed, and they even brought the legendary Iain Henderson, distiller at Laphroaig for so many years, out of retirement to helm their distilling for the first 9 months.

Production is small at St George's, with Stills, Mash Tun and Washbacks all in one room. Joy wasn't 100% certain, but she reckoned something in the region of 90,000 bottles were filled a year, which considering the range of whiskies and other spirit-based drinks they are spread out across is not large
at all. The equipment is also small by comparison with some Scottish distilleries, but again the room is not only fantastically picturesquely laid out, but has clearly been designed with tours in mind, as there is ample space at each presentation point, so nothing was lost or hidden to any of the visitors.

We had a slightly bizarre experience when we entered the cask house, as it was lit with ultraviolet light. Joy soon changed this to regular electric light citing the ultraviolet making her feel ill, but between the ultraviolet and all the booze in the air I at least got a couple of links to the heady days of student nightclub birthdays! The booze in the air is rather more prominent than in the distilleries I am used to: where Scottish distilleries lose 2% of their spirit a year to evaporation, in the sun-drenched tropics of East Anglia it's nearer 5%, which means that the spirit
matures and extracts rather more quickly, and that there is certainly a heady atmosphere in the cask house! It gets even headier when we are given a taste of the new make. St George's distil to 73%ABV, which is reduced to 68% before being put in casks. I am developing a rather worrying taste for eau-de-vie, and this stuff is some of the best I've smelt, with wonderfully rich fruit and barley.

We keep the sips small, because afterwards we leave the cask house, and after a brief peek at the bottling machinery we come to the business of the tastings! I was initially planning to knock off a facetious point or two for their use of small plastic shot-style glasses, rather than something more along the lines of a Glencairn until it became apparent that their reason was the sheer number of tastes that we were to be given. On your common or garden whisky tour I have come to expect one, perhaps two tastes for my ticket price; here we were given three tastes of whisky (Chapter 14, their unpeated flagship which won last year's European Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray's bible, Chapter 9, their lightly peated whisky and the more heavily peated Chapter 11) followed by tastes of the Sloe and Blackberry Liqueurs and a drop of their Pedro Ximenex/Whisky blend. I was very grateful to Rachel for driving! Technically the Chapter 14 that we had was not the European
Winner, as it was the 46%ABV rather than the cask strength, but it is serious, serious whisky, and my note is below.

English Whisky Co Chapter 14 - Vanilla, as so often pops up in a tasting note for bourbon matured, but never so creamy as this, like the filling of some luxurious biscuit! The outside of that biscuit is also here, with brilliant savoury barley, and a hint of tropical fruit. Perfect level of palate heat for me; the size and richness of the malt balancing the relative youth. More crunchy barley and slightly greener fruit on a finish dryer than the nose would have suggested. 46%ABV

We have already been treated brilliantly by this superb distillery, but when Joy discovers from Rachel that it is my birthday she offers me a free taste (in a proper Glencairn!) of another of their range. I choose the rum-matured Chapter 7, and don't regret it. It is another stunning expression, and completely different to the three tastes that have preceded it. I have commented before about distilleries bottling wide arrays of different styles of expressions, and often you find the occasional mistake or experiment gone awry. So I can't think of a much bigger compliment to pay St

George's than to say that for the average calibre of its output set against the sheer diversity of its range I have not come across a distillery doing better. Whatever your taste they will have something for you, and I guarantee it will be of the highest calibre. I have a few more English distilleries to visit, but the yardstick has been set staggeringly high.

Neville buys a bottle of the Chapter 11, along with some of the PX and liqueur, and after Rachel has taken a group photo we leave for our pub lunch before Rachel drives me and Greeners back home. During the car journey we put on the Baywatch theme tune and Greeners and I wave our shirts around our heads. Because grown up is all very well, but there are some traditions that matter.


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