“Are you a sponge or a stone? Do you like to experience all facets of life, or do you shut yourself off from new experience?”
With whisky distilleries opening right around the world, you must quite reasonably ask yourself questions such as this. We live in an age where a wide variety of excellent whiskies are being made outside of the traditional and well-established whisky producing counties, and if you’re not open to them, you’re missing out. In England, for example, the latest English whisky distillery to come on stream is The Lakes Distillery near Cockermouth.
Last week Toby, Rob and I therefore travelled up to Cumbria to taste the new make! That and to get out of it for a while. Get into the countryside. Rejuvenate.
We checked in with the office quickly before heading across to the distillery.
“No, I’m not in London, Penrith. Pen-rith!”
Having avoided getting stuck in any beastly mud and oomska, we arrived at the distillery in time for late luncheon (i.e. by 3 o’clock) and having been directed knowingly to the bar, just about resisted ordering a round of “three large Lakes Gins, three pints of cider, ice in the cider.” Moments later we would be warmly welcomed by The Lakes Distillery Business Development Manager Katie Read.
“My boys, my boys.”
I, Brian the driver (veritable font of local knowledge), our Spirits Buyer Toby and Marketing Manager Rob on arrival.
Coming on stream in December, The Lakes Distillery will be producing a lightly peated, sort-of-Highland-style single malt whisky. The malt comes from Yorkshire and is peated at 20ppm, although they’re planning to run a more heavily peated batch each year too and are also looking into the possibility of getting local farmers to grow barley for them (provenance is important at The Lakes – as evidenced by their gin botanicals).
They’re currently filling (at 63.4% abv) into ex-Oloroso casks and ex-Jim Beam bourbon casks, but they also plan to take advantage of the fact that they’re not located in Scotland. This means they have the freedom to experiment with chestnut, maple, cherry, walnut, birch and acacia wood for single cask releases in the future, as well as with additional staves inside casks (à la Compass Box a few years back before the SWA interceded).
Some Instagrammed casks full of maturing spirit.
The driving force behind the project is Managing Director Paul Currie, who co-founded Arran back in the early ’90s with his father. Alan Rutherford, formerly whisky production director at Diageo, is also on board and will oversee production (Alan’s also involved with Compass Box, Wemyss and most recently Torabhaig). The Master Distiller, meanwhile, is Chris Anderson – out of retirement and bringing around half a century of experience from Dewar’s distilleries as well as Lagavulin and Caol Ila (although not a smile for us!). It’s something of a dream team.
The whole distillery sits in one room.
The shiny new distillery-in-a-room (planning permission on this 1850s farm within a national park doesn’t allow them to construct any new buildings) was pleasingly covered in labels and arrows when we visited showing what every pipe did and in which direction! They have a brand new MUSK semi-lauter mash tun (we were told the mashing process takes around 6 hours, a clear wort is produced) and 4 stainless steel MUSK washbacks (fermentation time of 86 to 92 hours at around 18°C, charged to 5,200 litres of a 6,000 litre capacity) with glass port holes. Special attention is afforded to the brew at The Lakes, and they’ve installed some of the smartest kit available.
The custom designed McMillan stills are steam heated and also have glass port holes (which is very cool). The 5,500 litre wash still’s name is Susan after investor Nigel Mills’ wife (Nigel’s the owner of The Trout Hotel, where we were staying), whilst the 3,600 litre spirit still’s name is Rachel after Paul’s wife. They’re the largest whisky stills in England and give the whisky distillery a capacity of around 240,000 litres per year. A smaller still (1,500 litres) is located in the back corner, used for The Lakes Gin and Vodka, and that’s been named Chemmy after The Lakes Gin Ambassador and Great Britain Winter Olympian Chemmy Alcott (yes, she was in that ice dancey thing on telly too).
Rachel & Chemmy
An interesting feature at The Lakes Distillery is that the descending lyne arms leading from the stills can send spirit vapours into two different shell and tube condensers, one of which is made of stainless steel, the other made of copper. With less copper contact, the stainless steel condenser will produce a heavier, more sulphury spirit. They choose which is to be used for each run, and depending on how the resulting spirits mature (and therefore quantities of each desired), they’ll be able to use each condenser accordingly in future. It’s a feature seen on six of the fourteen stills at Diageo’s high-tech Roseisle distillery founded in 2009, but nowhere else as far as I know. (Dailuaine operated both steel and copper condensers for a period but not with the same flexibility.) You get the impression that The Lakes Distillery have really made the most of being a brand new distillery each step of the way.
Expanded condenser options.
The water source is something Paul and Katie are especially proud of too. Coming from the River Derwent, which lies just 150 metres away from the distillery, the water’s soft and has an impressive natural turbidity (measure of clarity) of just 0.6 out of 100. (For the avoidance of doubt, that scale runs from entirely clear at 0 to oomska at 100.) As well as being perfect for their needs, the location by the shore of Lake Bassenthwaite, sat opposite Skiddaw, is fairly easy on the eye too!
It’s quite incredible how far they’ve come in a single calendar year. Just compare the realised vision of the distillery in the video above to the one Paul was trying to paint in this video before work started. Add to that the opening of a smart visitor centre, tasting area and tour experience as well as a bar and high quality Bistro (Chef Consultant is Terry Laybourne, the first chap to bring a Michelin star to North East England) at the same time that the first spirit ran, and you have a seriously impressive proposition. Plus, you know, it’s in the Lake District, which is ace. Speaking of that bistro though, we enjoyed a fantastic dinner there with Paul before we left.
The Chemmy (a Lakes Gin Martini with grapefruit garnish)
being made at the aptly named Bistro at the Distillery
After the finest wines available to humanity (including a very nice Castellani Campomaggio Chianti Classico Riserva – not quite the finest of the century, but very delicious), it was time for the first Lakes Malt new make ever tasted by folk not directly involved with the project…
In 2017 it may find its way into one of these…
(The lucky quatrefoil in the centre of the bottle, a symbol taken from the original farm buildings, will probably change colour for various Lakes Malt releases, we’re told.)
Tasting Note for The Lakes Malt New Make:
Nose: Plenty of character here, it practically jumps out the glass at you. Sweet fermenting malt ice cream with dried barley sprinkles. Cream soda nougat. Imagine a tuck shop in the middle of a working distillery. But there’s meatiness and body here too as well as hints of some golden fruitiness to come.
Palate: Creamy cereal, but sharpness too, and some sulphur (no bad thing here).
Finish: Cereal fades to reveal subtle black liquorice and that lingering soft water mouthfeel.
Overall: This, we think, was probably run through the steel condensers. It’s big, and bodes very well indeed for the future. We can’t wait to keep you updated with how it develops!
“We are not drunks… Miss Blennerhassit” (or should that be Bassenthwaite?)
It should be mentioned, of course, that The Lakes do already sell a whisky. Whilst obviously not distilled by them, their British Isles blend, The ONE, is really rather good indeed. Made with whiskies from Scotland, Wales, England, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, we were more than happy to revisit it during our tour. Reminiscent of something like Compass Box Great King Street, we thought, there’s also some Bushmills honey and yoghurt on the nose and that lick of smoke on the palate we remembered. Dangerously drinkable stuff.
An understandably proud Katie sitting in The Boardroom private dining area (with its views of maturing malt spirit in the background).
All too soon it was time for us to get back to our home for the night. The sky was beginning to bruise. We therefore said our thank yous and goodbyes before heading off for a night at The Trout. Brian the driver assures us it was a holiday haunt of Bing Crosby, and remains a favourite with Ian Botham to this day. Reaching the hotel bar we found the aforementioned guests afforded pride of place on the wall alongside Matt Busby, Brian Johnston (who famously commentated on Botham) and those chaps off of Time Team. Most of these had been drawn to this area of Cumbria for the fishing, but in the future we’re sure many will be making the trip for the whisky also.
“Time please gents.”
We were going to have to work quickly. “A trio of quadruple whiskies and another trio of pints please.”
Jake (the poacher)