A few years ago a group of friends visited Islay to learn all about whisky and asked why no one ever made whisky in Devon. That idea eventually turned into a brand. This is the story of Dartmoor Whisky Distillery.
If you’re interested in founding a distillery in England, there’s plenty of great places to choose from. But few areas tick quite as many boxes as Devon. While sandy beaches, medieval towns and national parks will appeal to tourists, whisky lovers will note the abundance of high-quality barley, pure spring water and a coastal climate perfect for maturation. Devon native Greg Miller realised all of this back in 2009. He and a group of friends had ventured to Islay to take part in an intensive distillation course at Bruichladdich. The experience made him realise his home county had everything needed to make great whisky. So he teamed up with partner Simon Crow to found the Dartmoor Whisky Distillery.
The first thing they needed was a still. The duo immediately hit a roadblock, however, after visiting Forsyths of Rothes in Scotland only to return with a sizable quote and a potential spot on a two-year waiting list. Old connections and happenstance provided the solution. A lifelong friendship established with a French exchange student as a child caused Miller’s love-affair with France, where he owns a house. While there in the summer of 2014 it occurred to him that there’s an awful lot of distillation going on in Cognac. He wondered if he could find a still down there.
As luck would have it, there was a tiny advert for one posted on a French agricultural website by Miguel D’Anjou, a third-generation Cognac master distiller. His still was built in 1966 and was in operation until 1994 when the family upgraded to two larger stills and it was mothballed. Miller and Crow were able to purchase and refurbish the still, even establishing a relationship with D’Anjou who ended up teaching the duo a lot about distillation.
Making Devonshire drams at Dartmoor Whisky Distillery
While Dartmoor Whisky Distillery is not the first or only whisky distillery to use a Cognac still, it’s certainly rare and there are some significant differences between it and a traditional whisky pot still. The shape of the head on the 1400-litre Alembic still is very bulbous, while the swan neck is very narrow. This creates a very high level of reflux. Crow explains: “Before the vapours get up the swan neck they fold back on themselves an awful lot. Then the swan neck is very narrow so it distils our spirit very slowly, probably about a quarter to a third the speed of a traditional whisky pot still. This creates an incredibly smooth, sweet new make”. Then there’s the central copper ‘wash warmer’ which sits between the still and the condenser. While the first charge of beer wash is distilling, this holds and preheats the next charge, both saving energy and doubling the time that the wash is in contact with copper.
Despite inspiration striking on Islay, it was never Miller and Crow’s intention to make peated whisky. Partly because the local barley traditionally wasn’t peated and Crow says the duo is determined that the whisky is a product of Dartmoor. All of its barley, 50 tonnes a year, is sourced from Preston Farm, which supplies a lot of Devonshire breweries too. The barley is malted at the legendary Warminster Maltings, then it goes to Dartmoor Brewery who make a 9% ABV beer wash. Post distillation that 9% ABV beer is a 70% ABV spirit which is reduced with water down to the barrel strength of 63% ABV. That’s pure Dartmoor spring water sourced from a 200-foot deep borehole up on the moor at Holne that’s been filtered over the course of two centuries through peat, granite and more.
The first releases are expressions matured in ex-bourbon, ex-Oloroso sherry and ex-Bordeaux red wine casks, which make up the bulk of Dartmoor Whisky Distillery’s wood programme. There are some Port and Madeira casks that are being used to finish some ex-bourbon expressions, however, and Miller’s love of smokier drams means some new make has been popped into ex-Laphroaig casks. The first 50 casks are stored underneath the distillery, but the majority are housed in a local warehouse to make the most of that Dartmoor climate. The plan was to vat whisky from the three primary casks together, but after master distiller Frank McCardy tasted each spirit after a year of ageing he advised Miller and Crow that each expression was too interesting and should stand on their own.
A beautiful building and a bright future
If you’re wondering, yes that it is the Frank McCardy of Springbank and Bushmills Distillery, who brought his 50+ years of experience to Dartmoor. An old friend of Miller and Crow, the Cognac still and integrity of the process was intriguing enough to McCardy to tempt him to lend expertise, despite being in semi-retirement. “We consult him on everything we are doing”, Crow says. With D’Anjou and McHardy guiding them, Miller and Crow currently handle the bulk of the distillation. This year they will be employing a distiller, however, who will have the pleasure of working out of one of England’s most scenic distilleries.
You’ll find Dartmoor Whisky Distillery in the Old Town Hall in Bovey Tracey. It became available when the council moved to a new building. “It would be easier to have a more logistical space with a big modern warehouse. But it’s such a beautiful building. It dates back to the 1860s and for us to be able to give that lovely historic building a new lease of life was great,” Crow says. The striking still sits on a stage while the rest of the hall is a visitors centre complete with a bar. A retail shop is now open and when tourism picks back up, you can bet the Dartmoor Distillery is handily placed to take advantage.
Crow tells us that a gin distilled in another old copper Cognac still, this one from 1890, with some local Dartmoor botanicals is on the way. But for now, we’re most interested in Dartmoor’s three core expressions and tasting them we found plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The Bourbon Cask is delicate, refined and balanced, with plenty of distillery character (sparkling orchard fruit, warm biscuit crumble and a honeyed element) and some solid cask integration. The Bordeaux Cask melds pleasantly with the new make and adds some intriguing elements. But the Sherry Cask is the standout dram so far. Those dense, sweet and rich Oloroso notes mask any immaturity and you can tell the quality of the cask itself is first-rate from how complex its flavours are. All three have had not enough time in their respective casks yet and demonstrate some raw spirit qualities (particularly in the Bourbon Cask). But it’s promising to taste a forming distillery character and to see another emerging producer resisting the urge to overload the oak in an effort to mask its youth.
There’s a lot of potential here. And thanks to the local barley, water, floor maltings, it’s whisky that’s Devon through and through. To grab yourself a bottle head to the Dartmoor Whisky Distillery page.
Tasting Dartmoor Whisky Distillery’s whisky
Nose: There’s a big malty backdrop (almost into beer/shandy territory) to this one which combined with some heat and raw touches reveal its youth. But it also showcases plenty of Dartmoor distillery character, green apples, Rich Tea biscuits and acacia honey in this case. Among those notes, you’ll find heaps of vanilla, as well as Scotch tablet, flour and a little black pepper. With time comes hints of milk chocolate, nectarines, orange blossom and white wine grapes. Then also a faint nutty quality as well as pencil shavings and a hint of strawberries and cream.
Palate: More of that biscuity, malty goodness at the core, alongside toffee, vanilla, baking spices and a little toasted oak as the cask presence makes itself more known. There’s also a little more of that citrus character from lemon zest. Also some dried grass, toasted almond and cacao powder. Throughout there are more honeycomb and crisp green apple flavours. Underneath there’s touches of marshmallow, melon, apricot yoghurt and cream soda to make themselves known.
Finish: A tad dry and carrying some peppery heat, but plenty of honey, fruit and a little gingerbread keeps things pleasant.
Nose: The wine cask makes itself known from the off with a mixed summer berry compote (blackcurrants, blueberries, raspberries, redcurrants, strawberries) at the forefront alongside tannic red apple skins, plum, clove and some stony minerality. Notes of Manuka honey, caramel shortbread and a hint of sweet tobacco then develop. With more time comes orange peel, crunchy brown sugar, black peppercorn and cinnamon. There’s also some dried earth, melted chocolate and red chilli heat. Throughout that raw new make threatens to derail things slightly but never gets a firm grip on the nose.
Palate: Kellogg’s Fruit and Fibre, drying wood tannins and red berries lead, with walnut oil, posh dark chocolate and apple chutney in support. Among hints of candied orange there’s crème caramel, gingernuts, black pepper and damsons. Touches of peppermint, tomato puree and flint are present in the backdrop.
Finish: Medium finish with soft nutmeg, red and black Wine Gums and cocoa powder.
Nose: Classic rich and nutty Oloroso goodness kicks things off with Corinth raisins, figs and stewed plums supported by sticky toffee, marmalade, manuka honey and walnut. There’s notes of damp earth, sherry-stained oak and tobacco leaves in the backdrop, as well as brown sugar, caramelised orchard fruit, stem ginger and brandy butter.
Palate: Through treacle, juicy dark fruits and some woody tannins there’s coconut, vanilla pod sweetness and thick caramel. Toasty cereals, sherried spice and the slightest menthol heat add depth. Underneath there’s dark honey, malt extract, rum and raisin ice cream and a little marzipan.
Finish: Some cinnamon and cacao powder keeps more summer berries company.