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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: English Whisky

The Cotswolds Distillery: how a New Yorker captured the spirit of the Cotswolds

How did a New Yorker get into the spirit of the Cotswolds and create some of the finest English whisky around? Here’s the story of the Cotswolds Distillery. There are…

How did a New Yorker get into the spirit of the Cotswolds and create some of the finest English whisky around? Here’s the story of the Cotswolds Distillery.

There are some distilleries that have long, romantic histories, and others that started with passion after a ‘what if?’ conversation in a bar between old friends. Something of a red flag when it comes to distillery origins is the tale of a person leaving behind the corporate world to create whisky, making an unimpassioned stop on the way to create white spirits to balance the books and cash in on a thriving industry. Particularly when they try and fluff it up with some nonsense about heritage because their great uncle bumped into Johnnie Walker at Kilmarnock station or something.

The Cotswolds Distillery was founded by Dan Szor, a native New Yorker who spent 25 years in Europe, eight in London as an investment banker, before moving to the Cotswolds in 2011. A single malt lover, he was inspired to leave it all behind and make whisky, thinking his new idyllic English countryside home was the perfect place for it. While the whisky matured, he created a range of gin, as well as numerous other spirits that don’t have such commercially prohibitive ageing laws. Uh oh. The red flags are waving all over the place like it’s Chinese New Year. On paper, this doesn’t sound like a distillery that would fill us whisky-lovers with confidence.

And yet, Szor’s creation, The Cotswolds Distillery, is without doubt one of the leading lights of the English whisky boom. Its beautiful site receives nearly 100,000 visitors a year, who are treated to a host of excellent spirits, including a clearly lovingly-made selection of gin, and a superb early core range of whisky. Success has been so relentless that Jeremy Parsons, a 30-year industry veteran formerly at Diageo, has recently come on board as CEO, and a significant expansion is taking place at its site near Shipston-on-Stour. Plans include a whole new distillery that will make the Cotswolds Distillery the largest producer of English whisky with an eventual 500,000-litres of pure alcohol per year. 

The Cotswolds Distillery

Welcome to The Cotswolds Distillery!

Cotswolds from start to finish 

The whisky made here begins life as local barley, farmed just a few miles from the distillery. Right now they grow the Odyssey strain, but a switch to Concerto is on the way as it’s an advised grain for rotation. The only part of the process that doesn’t happen in the Cotswolds is that Warminster Maltings do the malting, but even then they’re only a short distance away in Wiltshire.

My host is Rob Patchett, global whisky ambassador at The Cotswolds Distillery, who tells me they haven’t experimented much with grain here because consistency of flavour is the priority. “As soon as you add anomalies you can compromise that. Experiments are great, but we’re all about establishing quality first”. There is, however, a barrel of rye whisky maturing in the warehouse, which a local brewery assisted with the mash, and distilled in both pot and column (the advantage of having a gin set up on-site).

This is one of many distilleries to have sought Dr. Jim Swan’s advice, and that’s seen in the creation of a clear wort when mashing. “It accentuates the fruit element in your mash. You let it rest for half an hour at the end of the cycle and the grain sifts to the bottom, which obviously reduces the grainy element and lets the fruit shine. We have clear perspex element in our pipe to monitor it,” Patchett explains. They use floor-malted barley which is fed with hot water recycled from the last run into a 0.5-tonne mash tun.

The Cotswolds Distillery

A new distillery is en route!

Fruit-forward

Fermentation runs for 90 hours in eight 2,500-litre, stainless steel washbacks, which are filled with two yeast strains: Anchor for efficiency and Fermentis to build esters. The first two days of fermentation are about yield, while the next two days are about letting those fatty acids and fruit compounds (where flavour lives), develop. This was one of Dr. Swan’s trademarks, loading the wash with esters to impart as much fruity complexity as possible early on in the process.

As I’m admiring the incredible tropical fruit note emanating from them, Patchett points out a knob of butter sitting atop the liquid. “We couldn’t afford switchers, the blades which stop the foaming element of fermentation, when we started. Jim Swan advised against any chemical compound that could knacker the copper in the still and, this is the beauty of working with someone whose been in the whisky industry for 50 years, said a nob of butter will have the same effect. Anybody whose made jam before will know this is true. The new distillery will have switchers, but I love that this doesn’t compromise the wash or distillation. It’s an old trick to combat a classic old school problem”.

There’s no temperature control here as the Cotswolds is very much a manual distillery. Everything is operated by hand through a network of valves, and the distillers here could now almost run the distillery blind. Walk past the washbacks and you’re greeted by a 2500-litre copper pot wash still called Proud Mary (love the Creedence reference, because she keeps on burning) and a 1600-litre spirit still, Janis (“thusly named because we take a little bit of her heart,” Patchett says). They’re made by Forsyths, who is also equipping the new distillery with its revolutionary pre-assembled kit. The cut points are very narrow here and the distillers will switch from foreshots to hearts (cut at a high 69%-76% ABV) after only a few minutes and similarly cut to feints quickly to preserve those fruity esters from fermentation and reduce the interaction of any heavier, rougher compounds.

The Cotswolds Distillery

Say hello to Daniel Szor! Image credit: Lorentz Gullachsen 

Szor, Swan, and other spirit masters

The pre-maturation part of the process was one that Szor was determined to get right, according to Patchett, who describes him as a “spirit fiend” with a love of fruit spirits like Grappa. “He really wanted to create a new make spirit that would stand up by itself. The first few runs we did, Jim Swan said was too feinty and that we should be inspired by the rolling fields and fruit orchards around us to create something light, bright fruity, and accessible style”. That’s the Cotswold’s distillery DNA, something you can see in its White Pheasant expression, which is new make bottled at the casking strength of 63.5% ABV. It’s delightful, full of raspberry chocolate, grape pulp, pear drops, banana foam sweets, digestives, and a little wet grass. I’d happily drink this neat (although I am a new make fiend myself), and it’s very encouraging that this is what is going into cask.

Speaking of which, that’s all happening in the Cotswolds now. The barrels used to be in Liverpool, but everything is moving within ten minutes of the distillery. That gives them full control of the production process, a surprisingly impactful temperate climate (the angle share is more greedy here than in Scotland), and the confidence to truly call this Cotswolds whisky.

Dr Swan hasn’t been the only spirit master to lend his expertise. “Whether it Emmanuel Camut assisting in apple brandy creation, Michael Delevante, Jamaican rum expert and former distillery manager at Wray & Nephew, or Harry Coburn, a former general manager of Bowmore, we want to learn from people who have been in the industry for a long time,” Patchett says. Dr Swan has been the most influential, however, and for maturation purposes, his little black book of cooperages saved the Cotswolds from going through the pain of sourcing casks from inconsistent sources. 

The Cotswolds Distillery

There’s all kinds of interesting casks here

Maturation marvels

Miguel Martin supplies the sherry casks. “He owns sawmills in America and Spain, a cooperage in Spain, a sherry bodega, a winery, and a sherry vinegar manufacturing process. He can control everything from the forest until the end. You can go to him and ask for an American oak hogshead seasoned with Oloroso and PX to create a cream sherry style and he’ll go, ‘ok’”, Patchett says excitedly. “Jim also got us in touch with a broker in Kentucky who gets really good bourbon casks, as well as Alter Ego to do all the ‘exotics’, like all the fortified wines, Sauternes, rum, Tequila, vermouth, sake, Islay quarter casks…” 

The three primary casks here, however, are ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and STR (shaved, toasted, re-charred) casks, the latter sourced from J Dias in Portugal. These are Dr Swan’s most recognisable signature, but are often derided by some in whisky circles for being seen as quick-fix casks that mask negative attributes rather than mature them. Patchett is not having that. “STR is best of all words. You’re taking American oak, which already has such a distinctive profile, you’re adding red wine which is removing bad tannins, then you’re taking out the red wine which has amino acid that can cause a sulphuric reaction, making it almost a virgin oak cask after you’ve shaved, that has five-to-six litres of red wine seasoning in the pores,” he explains.

“You’re then toasting to caramelise all the sugar from the American oak and the wine, then applying an alligator char to seal it all in, which also soaks out any remaining sulphur. When you think about all the elements: American oak, red wine, sugars, filtration, it’s a remarkable cask. And the colour can develop in about 18 months. Dan used to have a party trick of taking 4-year-old STR whisky and giving it to friends who would guess it’s 15-year-old Speyside whisky”.

Cotswolds whisky

Cotswolds whisky: one of the shining lights of the emerging English whisky category

Creating the Cotswolds character

Look across the core range and you’ll see these casks well represented, while the rarer styles are saved for special releases. Of all of them, I think my favourite is the classic Single Malt, all though the Sherry Cask runs it close. What’s really striking though is that, regardless if you’re tasting the Reserve Single Malt, the Peated Cask Single Malt, the Bourbon Cask Single Malt, or one of the Founder’s Choice expressions, you always know where you are. The Cotswolds distillery character runs through the range, typified not only by those new make notes I described earlier but by this beautiful oily, creamy texture that flavours and aromas like vanilla and chocolate glide across.

It’s a joyful thing that people are giving more and more of a damn about distillery character. Wood may still take the lion’s share of headlines in whisky, but people are becoming increasingly interested in what happens before a whisky goes into cask. It’s one of the reasons why unadulterated presentations (whiskies bottled with no chill-filtration or colouring, often at cask strength) are so prized. And it’s been a persistent plus for independent bottlings, which are often a window into distilleries whose whiskies usually end up in blends. A fine fate, but who are they? We can’t tell unless we can get a chance to taste that distillery character.

For a new distillery, this profile is gradually revealed, and of course, the goal is to create something so individual and remarkable you attain the lofty heights of Springbank status. There’s a pressure to maintain it, one the Cotswolds distillery will be wary of when building its new site, because when you tamper with the formula your reward will be the ire of the loyalists who have become attached to that certain character. Because the more you sample a great spirit with a defined profile, the more you create a connection with the producer. You see which casks accentuate or muddle the profile you love, you witness how it progresses with age, and how subtle adaptations in fermentation or barley strain alter things. It’s the kind of detailed, nerdy aspect that drives whisky geekery, a term we mean wholly positively here (because we’re big whisky geeks, obviously). 

It’s this above all else that makes The Cotswolds Distillery so compelling for me. As Patchett and I sat in a tasting room discussing the range, that texture and taste kept reintroducing itself. Then there’s the frankly bargain prices, and the clear love and transparency the whisky is made with. At one point, Patchett tells me about a “very nerdy conversation as I was having with our distiller Nick about thermal degradation versus acetate and acetone degradation of the spirit….” There wasn’t a question that went unanswered on my tour, a detail hidden, a press-release paraphrase in sight. There’s no doubt to me that Szor’s love of single malt was genuine, and what it’s led to is a spirit that dutifully represents his adopted home. 

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The future of English whisky

The English whisky scene has progressed at breathtaking speed since the first release of the modern era in 2010. There are now 33 producers with big ambitions, and a group…

The English whisky scene has progressed at breathtaking speed since the first release of the modern era in 2010. There are now 33 producers with big ambitions, and a group has just submitted plans for a regulatory framework to define English Whisky, as Lauren Eads finds out. 

For those with their nose to a barrel, English whisky isn’t anything new, but it’s only recently that the category has collectively gathered pace.

English whisky history

English whisky production can be traced back to the 1800s. In 1887 historian Alfred Barnard published the Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, which listed four English whisky distilleries (alongside 129 Scottish and 29 Irish). They were Bankhall and Vauxhall in Liverpool, the Bristol Distillery, and the Lea Valley Distillery in London. But when Lea Valley closed its doors in 1903, English whisky was put on ice for 100 years. The first signs of its revival emerged (slowly) in 2003 with the opening of the Hicks & Healey Distillery in Cornwall, though it didn’t release its first whisky until 2011. The honour of releasing England’s first whisky in 100 years went to St George’s Distillery in Norfolk, aka the English Whisky Company, in 2010, four years after opening. 

Almost twenty years on, there are now 33 distilleries in England making and laying down spirits, according to the Cooper King Distillery’s English whisky map. It’s still a burgeoning category, but it’s got big ambitions. “Until recently English whisky was little known outside dedicated followers of individual distilleries,” says Tagore Ramoutar, co-founder of The Oxford Artisan Distillery. “But as the number of distilleries has increased and awards awarded, this is changing. English whisky is becoming more visible and advocates are growing.”

AndrewNelstrop from The English Whisky Company

Andrew Nelstrop from The English Whisky Company

What’s next for English whisky?

Now that English whisky is back on its feet, a legal definition now looms. Currently, English whisky conforms to generic EU regulations for ‘whisky or whiskey’, which state that it must be matured for at least three years in wooden casks of 700 litres or less, bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV and can be neither sweetened nor flavoured, apart from plain caramel for colouring. It’s a simple framework that while useful isn’t geographically specific. The English Whisky Guild (EWG), formed in 2021, is hoping to change this, and has recently submitted an application to legally define a GI (geographical indication) for English whisky. “Currently there is nothing to stop whisky made elsewhere in the world being called English Whisky,” says Andrew Nelstrop, owner of The English Whisky Co. “Fifteen years ago this didn’t matter as we were only just starting out, but now there is a whole industry whose reputation is at risk, so it seems sensible to try and protect the reputation of our products by ensuring only those that make whisky in England can label it as such.”

The proposed GI

If granted it will formalise a standard for “English whisky”, with the aim of setting the ground rules on geographical production, raw materials and maturation. Currently, the EWG has 16 members (and so represents roughly half of English whisky distilleries), though a full list of members is yet to be made public. This will change once the group has held its first AGM at the end of April. For now, known members that have spoken publicly on the plans include the Copper Rivet Distillery, Oxford Artisan Distillery, English Whisky Company and Cotswold Distillery. Broadly, the EWG’s application proposes that any bottles labelled as “English whisky” must conform to the following regulations:

Be at least 40% ABV

– Be made using grain sourced from the UK with all production, including wort and new-make, taking place in England, as well as all ageing.

– Be matured in casks made from wood, not necessarily oak, for at least three years.

– English single malts must be batch distilled at least twice in a copper pot still.

The proposal is currently being reviewed by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), with the group expecting a response in the coming months. “The GI for English whisky does three things: it gives new producers a framework to help them shape their future production – should they wish to be part of the English Whisky category; it gives existing producers a level of confidence that there is a level playing field in standards and quality within the category,” explains Stephen Russell, founder of the Copper Rivet Distillery and one of four registered directors on the EWG board. It also gives consumers a clear idea of the quality standards of English whisky, which is never a bad thing.

Heritage rye used by the Oxford Artisan Distillery

Heritage rye used by the Oxford Artisan Distillery

How do these rules differ to other whisky producing regions?

Understandably, the rules focus on ensuring the provenance of raw materials and a whisky’s geographical production, providing a baseline for quality while retaining scope to innovate. “Having no real legacy in England, and having a shared vision to create an interesting, innovative and high quality category, producers brought aboard contributions which represent best practice and experiences from around the world,” says Russell, on how the EWG arrived at its first draft. The requirement to use oak barrels is not absolute, as it is with Scotch, and is in keeping with the rules of Irish and Japanese whisky. Oak barrels remain the gold standard and are widely used, but there is potential to experiment with alternatives, such as maple or cherry. A minimum ageing period of three years in cask matches Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskies. “The new rules are still in draft form, so a bit early to comment on the likely outcome of them, but whilst they obviously have to follow a format that is understood and recognised around the world (e.g a single malt – should be made at single distillery from malted barley) as an industry we have worked hard to ensure the draft rules allow for innovation whilst maintaining the reputation of English whisky,” adds Nelstrop.

Inside the Copper Rivet Distillery

Inside the Copper Rivet Distillery

What can you expect from an English whisky?

A lot of diversity. While some producers are pursuing single malt whisky using similar methods to Scotch – quite traditional single malt styles – there are others producing rye whisky, notably The Oxford Artisan Distillery. While earlier this year Copper Rivet unveiled its third Masthouse whisky – Grain Pot & Column Distilled – produced in both pot and column stills. “Unlike Scotch which is neatly grouped into regions and as a result creates a belief that all Speyside whiskies are similar, all Islay whiskies are similar – the English producers have avoided this as it is clear that each distillery has a unique house style of whisky,” says Nelstrop. “Yes we make whisky in the same way as other whisky makers but our stills are shaped differently, our yeast is different, our timings in production are different and probably most importantly our climate is different. All these differences make our products unique to our distillery and the resulting whiskies are world-class English single malts.”

Could 2022 be a breakthrough year for English whisky? There’s plenty of action afoot, and Russell is optimistic. “When we first started the project, people would ask why we were making whisky in England, as though it was a rather eccentric thing to do (which it was, I suppose). Now they’re seeing more and more of it, along with other new world whiskies, and the quality is very good and it tastes great – nobody asks that question anymore.”

Header image courtesy of the English Whisky Company, credit: Chris Taylor.

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The Nightcap: 4 March

English whisky looks to add some definition, Leo DiCaprio buys into Champagne, and the Queen has some very, very old Port released in her honour. It’s The Nightcap! We’re into…

English whisky looks to add some definition, Leo DiCaprio buys into Champagne, and the Queen has some very, very old Port released in her honour. It’s The Nightcap!

We’re into another month now as time marches on. Ha. Ha. Ha. Anyway, we don’t know about you, but we feel like there’s always something going on now with events starting to come back in a big way. And we’re not really sure how to juggle all of it. How did we ever make regular commitments before? A night in and some light reading is the antidote, so we’re going to indulge in another edition of The Nightcap. Which is what you’re doing right now too. Great minds.

There’s also that blog thing we do for you to enjoy, which this week was filled with love for That Boutique-y Gin Company on its fifth birthday (independent bottlers of gin – they grow up so fast), recommendations for St. Patrick’s Day, and cracking drinks like a rule-breaking brandy or the classic Vodka Martini. Elsewhere, Lauren was rumbling through British rum, Millie was getting some top tips on whisky and food pairing, and Joel Davidge from the Cocktail Service made his first appearance to talk NFTs.

Now, let’s get on with The Nightcap: 4 March edition!

The Nightcap: 4 March

The folks at Copper Rivet are one of the founders of the guild

English whisky distillers submit GI application

The process to legally define what can be called ‘English whisky‘ has taken a big step this week as the new English Whisky Guild has lodged an application for a geographical indication (GI). The body, formed by a lot of the industry’s most notable brands to represent the category, is aiming to ensure consistent, understandable standards for all current and prospective whisky distillers. The proposed rules take a lot of understandable inspiration from the likes of Scotch and Irish whiskey, but also some interesting new developments. For example, all raw materials (i.e. grains) must be of UK origin, while whisky must be matured in casks made from wood, but oak is not explicitly required. Although if you don’t use oak, it must be clearly stated on the product label. Additionally, English single malt will have to be batch distilled at least twice in a copper still, and straight-necked pots are allowed, while the drafted GI requires two batch distillations in a copper still and tolerates the presence of a column plate on top of a pot still, “as long as it’s not continuous distillation”. Fascinating stuff. EWG board member Stephen Russell of Copper Rivet Distillery summarises “there is a clear desire not to try to be ‘Scottish whisky south of the border”. Whether the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) responds in kind is something we’ll have to wait on, however, with the group expecting to know within the next six months.

The Nightcap: 4 March

Must have developed a taste for the stuff filming The Great Gatsby

Leonardo DiCaprio buys into Telmont Champagne 

Champagne Telmont is welcoming a bit of stardust into the fold this week as actor Leonardo DiCaprio has come on board as an investor in the company. It is a brand with a firmly sustainable approach to Champagne that is heavily focused on preserving its land and its biodiversity, as well as reducing its environmental footprint. By 2025 its entire vineyard will be 100% organic agriculture, for example. This clearly ticks the boxes for the Hollywood star, who’s a very outspoken supporter of tackling the causes and consequences of global warming. Initiatives Telmont employs are the likes of using 100% renewable electricity, 85% recycled glass, and renouncing the use of all herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. It’s this sort of action that makes DiCaprio “proud to be an investor,” according to the statement released by the brand. Champagne Telmont chairman Ludovic du Plessis adds that “Leonardo DiCaprio’s decision to become a shareholder sends Telmont a strong message of support that will encourage us as we carry out our ambitious plans. We share the same convictions and the same commitment to protecting the environment. The House has one foot in tradition and the other in modernity, but both firmly rooted in the terroir! We aim to act in the name of Mother Nature in everything we do.” 

The Nightcap: 4 March

Dima’s doing its bit

Industry shows support for Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted many within the drinks world to show support for Ukraine. We made our own statement this week as pressure on Russian brands has been rising, while the US government put sanctions on state-run liquor stores to stop selling Russian-made vodka. In London, a number of bars are removing all Russian-made alcohol from their venues, like Nightcap, the operator of London Cocktail Club, Adventure Bar Group and Barrio Bars, as well as Arc Inspirations, which operates the Banyan and Manahatta bar brands across the UK. Recently-opened Ukrainian bar Pinch is launching a cocktail fundraiser, pledging 15% of its profits to the Ukrainian armed forces, and Ukrainian vodka brand Dima’s has pledged to donate 100% of proceeds on its bottled cocktail range to Ukrainian relief charities. That’s all of the money (not just profit) of the drinks made by The Gibson’s Marian Beke and Nightjar’s Tony Pescatori. You can find out more about Pinch’s fundraising and see the full range of Dima’s cocktails by clicking the links on their names. For the latter, use the discount code SUPPORTUKRAINE.

The Nightcap: 4 March

You’re looking at a history maker, in more ways than one

Victoria Eady Butler makes master blender history

One of our most favourite people in the world has to be the master blender of Uncle Nearest, the wonderful Victoria Eady Butler. Not only is she absolutely tremendous fun, but she really knows how to put together a great batch of whiskey. Butler’s so good, in fact, she’s made remarkable history this week. She’s just become the first-ever back-to-back master blender of the year. The fifth-generation descendant of the man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, Nearest Green, now holds the title for Whisky Magazine’s 2021 and 2022 American Icons of Whisky Awards. She only took on the role in 2019, having spent the bulk of her career in the department of justice, and her meteoric rise suggests that distilling is in the bones of the Green family. “It is impossible for me to put into words how significant this is to me and my family,” said Eady Butler. “Less than five years ago, almost no one knew the name Nearest Green outside of my tiny hometown of Lynchburg. Now, he is well known as the best whiskey maker the world never knew, and the undisputed godfather of Tennessee whiskey. To be able to add my own legacy of whiskey-making next to his, well heck – ya’ll are going to make me cry. This is truly incredible.” Congratulations, Victoria. We’re absolutely made up for you.

The Nightcap: 4 March

Congratulations, Barry!

Laphroaig names new distillery manager

Early this year we reported that Laphroaig was losing John Campbell as a distillery manager, which felt like a big blow for the brand given his more than 25 years of service – but it would appear the Islay distillery has found the ideal replacement. Barry MacAffer is taking the position on a permanent basis, having obviously impressed while working as acting distillery manager recently after more than 10 years of being at the distillery. He joined Laphroaig in 2011, initially looking after the malt floors and warehousing of the distillery, and since then worked in the operation and production side of the whisky-distilling world. In 2016, he was appointed assistant distillery manager, so he really was a natural choice. “Barry MacAffer was the standout candidate to become Laphroaig’s distillery manager and is uniquely suited to carry forward the legacy of Laphroaig, and continue to build the future of our skilled and passionate distillery team,” says Francois Bazini, managing director, House of Scotch, gin and Irish brands, at Laphroaig owner Beam Suntory. “An Islay native, Barry has worked at the distillery for over a decade and spent the last five years working closely with his predecessor giving him a deep knowledge of our history, operations, partners and local community. We’re proud to have an Ileach in charge and are confident in the future of our iconic whisky.”

The Nightcap: 4 March

Let’s hope Her Maj has some cracking cheese to hand

Taylor’s releases very very old Port for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

Our very own Ian Buxton was just bemoaning the lack of special bottlings to commemorate the Queen’s platinum jubilee. Well, moan no more Ian, because Royal Warrant holders Taylor’s has just announced the release of a special aged tawny Port to celebrate 70 years on the throne. How old is this special Port? Adrian Bridge, Taylor’s head honcho, isn’t saying. But it is being dubbed ‘very very old’ so we reckon it contains some pretty venerable wines. He explained: “This exceptional Port is drawn from our extensive reserves of the finest wood-aged wines, which have been maturing in seasoned oak casks since the Queen succeeded to the throne, silently attesting to Her Majesty’s extraordinary reign as the longest-serving monarch in British history. We are delighted to celebrate such an exceptional commemoration with the launch of a unique Port wine.” Only 2,000 bottles have been filled and they’re going for £350 each. Having tried various Taylor’s old tawnies, we think this is likely to be worth every penny and as Bridge put it: “The perfect glass to raise a toast to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.”

The Nightcap: 4 March

Could the drinks selection at Stamford Bridge be about to change

Drinks entrepreneurs eyeing Chelsea FC

Chelsea football club Roman Abramovich made a big statement this week as he confirmed that he intends to sell up amid the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and sanctions being levelled against Russian oligarchs and banks. The billionaire who purchased the club in 2003, won’t have a hard time selling it appears, with a number of parties declaring their interest. And a few of them have a connection to the world of drinks, like Hansjorg Wyss, the Swiss billionaire who has a reported worth of £4.3 billion and owns the Halter Ranch winery in California, as well as Proper No. Twelve Irish whiskey co-founder and UFC world champion Connor McGregor. The latter tweeted that he was considering an approach, although how serious it would be is another matter, while Wyss revealed he had been approached by an intermediary with the opportunity to purchase the London-based football club. “Like all other oligarchs, he is also in a panic. Abramovich is trying to sell all his villas in England. He also wants to get rid of Chelsea quickly. I and three other people received an offer on Tuesday to buy Chelsea from Abramovich.” Perhaps Stamford Bridge will soon be stocking Halter Ranch “sustainably grown Bordeaux and Rhône-style wines” or Proper No. Twelve’s Irish whiskey?

And finally… cocktails with soup?!?!

When you hear that a brand wants to help you “shake up your usual cocktail experience”, it usually involves doing something that isn’t particularly revolutionary, like a pre-batched serve or a classic bar tool that’s been slightly tweaked. Campbell’s, however, has definitely given us reason to question everything. Yes, that’s Campbell’s as in the people who make soup. The brand has launched a bunch of recipes featuring broth. Mushroom Truffle Daiquiri, anyone? A Pho Mango Bourbon Sour, perhaps? What about a French Onion Martini? Ok, we made that last one up, but could you even tell? There’s even food pairings you can cook with the same broth. But what’s most surprising is that a) the soup brand launched all of this in November and we somehow missed it, and b) soup cocktails aren’t actually a new thing. Look it up and there’s references to blending the two going back years. Don’t get us wrong, we love soup and we really love cocktails, but marrying the two together? That Pho Sour is going to have to be really good to convince us.

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Revisiting The Oxford Artisan Distillery

We headed back to The Oxford Artisan Distillery to see how things had changed since it started releasing whisky, and the results of its unique approach to grains. There’s some…

We headed back to The Oxford Artisan Distillery to see how things had changed since it started releasing whisky, and the results of its unique approach to grains.

There’s some buzzwords you just can’t seem to escape when you’ve been writing about booze long enough: ‘craft’, ‘artisan’, ‘heritage’, ‘innovation’. None of these words are protected by any kind of legal definition, so any distillery can describe themselves as all of the above and there’s nothing we can do about it. Except roll our eyes and write damning articles. That’ll show ’em!

Anyway, these words have been on my mind this week because they’re the kind of terms that I’ve seen being used to describe the methods implemented at The Oxford Artisan Distillery. One of them is even in the name. And yet, it’s one of those rare places where they actually do have some meaning. Because there’s substance behind the slogan. 

At least that was the conclusion I was left with when I visited the folks over at Oxford’s first (legal) distillery recently. We’ve been before, but since then a lot has changed, from key personnel moving on to the first release of whisky, and the continued experimentation with all things grain. That’s why it was time to go back. And taste lots of booze, naturally.

The Oxford Artisan Distillery

John-Letts, head of grain sustainable development

A grain of truth

That booze begins life as a grain and, if you’ve read our previous post, then you’ll know the first thing to grab your attention is the distillery’s use of ancient heritage grains. They’re grown exclusively within 50 miles of Oxford, encouraging biodiversity and imbuing its spirit with a genuine sense of provenance. This is in large part down to John Letts of Heritage Harvest Ltd, who in 1994 discovered over 200 almost perfectly preserved examples of traditional wheat and rye varieties dating from the late mediaeval period (1375-1550 AD). Even more impressively, he also managed to create modern heritage populations that are reliable, adaptable, and produce quality grains.

This is the only distillery in the world to use ancient heritage grains to produce its full range of spirits. There are no commercially-grown, bought-in-bulk seeds here. It’s not economical, but these painstakingly sourced and revived strains of rye, wheat, and barely have a flavour that cannot be achieved from commercial grain, which master distiller Francisco Rosa describes as a signature maltiness with notes of toffee and chocolate. He’s also an agricultural nut (and the only guy allowed into the oldest botanical garden in Britain with his own pair of scissors) who is as proud of the distillery’s commitment to soil quality, land regeneration, community, and the environment as he is the flavour and terroir the unique grain supply provides.

The distillery uses more than just Letts’ grain strains, but also his farming methods. A leading authority in his field (haha), while his grain populations can be grown in standard rotational organic systems, he has developed an alternative method that triples output while also sequestering carbon, maximising biodiversity, and minimising the use of fossil fuels.

There’s a full breakdown here, but it’s all to do with harvesting in a way that requires low intervention, while ensuring grain can be grown in the same field year after year with no reduction in yield or quality. It essentially creates a permanent agro-ecosystem that requires no pesticides, chemical fertilisers or manuring, but delivers low levels of nitrogen and high genetic diversity within the crop, which is resilient and perform particularly well in drought. And with every bottle the distillery sells, more people become interested in his sustainable methods. A lot of farms are already adopting this kind of approach.

The Oxford Artisan Distillery

The 2,200-litre Nautilus. We’re pretty sure this is actually the robot villain from The Incredibles.

From super seeds to stunning stills

All this grain diversity means the distillery is capable of producing single malt, blends, rye whisky, and bourbon-style corn spirits. There’s even wheat whisky to follow, as last harvest the first crop of Einkorn and Emmer wheat was attained and whisky will follow in a few years. For the process of making whisky, so much of it is manual. From the distillation (all cut points are based on flavour) to the stirring of the mash, by hand (!) with big paddles. Long fermentations are favoured and take place in either stainless steel or Hungarian oak vats. For its gin and vodka, the distillery makes its own neutral grain spirit, a rare but admirable approach that demonstrates the need to own the process. Plus it happens in some of the coolest stills you’ll ever see. 

Nautilus and Nemo are real Oxford signatures, commissioned from scratch through a collaboration with Paul Pridham and South Devon Railway Engineering. Traditional casting methods were employed to create connecting rings for the body of the still and 1000 copper rivets hold it all together, while an original porthole salvaged from a ship decommissioned provides an antique diving helmet-atheistic to its brass door which provides access for cleaning and maintenance. 

The labour of love has created short stills with the versatility of having a bubble plate in the cap to increase reflux. A massive coil inside mirrors the job of a cooling jacket, leading to those lovely maillard reactions and encouraging more amino acids and complex sugars to create an array of flavour in a big, robust spirit, from the floral, fruity and herbal to toffee, chocolate, coffee, and some nuttiness. 

The 2,200-litre and 500-litre stills respectively are accompanied by two five-metre tall 40-plate copper distillation columns, meaning Rosa distils in pot and column stills in an approach that almost mirrors bourbon production. This had the advantage of giving him flexibility and creating spirit that matures quickly. Head of whisky Charlie Echlin explains: “We attain different styles of whisky through different ways of distilling. We always pot distil our mash. Afterwards, we may pot distil the low wines again or distil low wines through the columns with different reflux ratios. Crucially we don’t go above 92% in the columns at all times”. 

Maturation occurs in two locations – some on-site to monitor, while the majority goes to an underground facility in Liverpool. There’s an absolutely incredible range of casks varieties here, from virgin oak to ex-bourbon, ex-Port, more sherry varieties than you’d find in a drinks cabinet from the 1970s, and even experiments with British oak that are currently maturing. 

The Oxford Artisan Distillery

Master distiller Francisco Rosa

The spirit of Oxford

The range consists of interesting white spirits like the Rye Organic Dry Gin or its Botanic Garden Physic Gin (remember Rosa and his scissor privileges?), as well as experimental releases like its Pure Rye Spirit, a without-definition gateway dram that converts sceptics by being so belligerently brilliant. It’s a great example of the distillery’s house character and is full of nutty, chocolatey goodness as well as some rich fruitiness. But for today we’re going to focus on the whisky, as this is Master of Malt, after all.

To start, I tried the Heritage Corn Whisky, the first in a series called Grain Stories which celebrates the diversity of all those English-grown heritage grains. For this beauty, Letts collected samples of both ‘flint’ and ‘sweet’ corn seeds and cross-pollinated them to produce unique and genetically diverse seeds. Half of the grain was dry, but the other half germinated (malted) on the barn floor as it was being cleaned. Once harvested (by hand), the maize was flaked and crushed before being distilled as part of a mashbill consisting of 51% corn, 34% rye, 10% wheat and 5% malted barley. New American oak casks then housed the spirit until it was bottled at 50.4%. It’s got a delicate floral and herbal profile with notes of buttery biscuit, aniseed, raw almonds, and foam bananas, as well as vanilla and baking spice, and is unlike almost anything you’ll find at another English distillery.

Its main run of whisky has been the star of the show since its first release, however, and they’ve all been based on rye, which has become Oxford signature. Echlin says this is down to two reasons: one, rye’s biodiversity and its ability to cross-pollinate. “All heritage grains are genetically diverse and thus better suited to a changing climate. Rye, further to that, cross-pollinates and adapts with a changing climate and place, meaning it’s excellent for expressing terroir”. And reason number two? “Rye whisky is awesome – and we want to make Oxford Manhattans.” I’m sold.

Each batch has had its own distinct process. For example with Batch 4, the organic heritage grain was grown in sandy soils just seven miles from the distillery and harvested in the autumn of 2017. It was a diverse maslin grain harvest, including multiple ancient heritage rye strains, wheat strains, and even a few oats and a few thistles. This spirit was matured in six American oak casks with different origins, toasts, sizes (both 130L and 225L), from in different microclimates from several cooperages. All this led to an impressive young whisky that is beautifully complex and full of notes like sweet vanilla, toffee, and toasty sourdough smokiness.

The Oxford Artisan Distillery

Oxford is becoming one of the most interesting producers of rye whisky around

Substance in the slogans

All in all, touring The Oxford Artisan Distillery was a very rewarding experience. Its geeky, green approach is supported by a warm, inclusive staff who genuinely love and care about what they do. Echlin and Rosa answered every question on the tour, including tricky subjects like pricing, which they say is going to decrease in the future as the distillery continues to find its feet. Both also agree that there’s one other key ingredient that makes it all come together: Oxford.

Echlin tells the story of a distillery made from the collaboration of an original founder with a background in the music biz (Tom Nicholson, who isn’t involved day-to-day anymore) who saw the potential in making booze with these grains developed by a dedicated environmentalist from Canada (Letts), and a former master distiller from California (Cory Mason) who realised it would create unique whisky. All of them came together in Oxford to make something different, and now every step of the process occurs in Oxfordshire. There’s a reason why they don’t really go by the acronym TOAD anymore. It’s because you’re not saying where it all happens.

During one point of the tour, Echlin says to me that you’ll be asking why nobody is doing the same kind of intensive, thoughtful, and sustainable grain production. And he’s right. Especially as the early spirits being made are rich, distinctive, and diverse, but with a tell-tale distillery character of orchard fruit, hazelnut, toffee, and chocolate in every sip. 

Craft? Artisan? Heritage? Innovation? You bet. This distillery has managed to own every step of the process and make those words mean something. 

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Wire Works Whisky from White Peak is here!

White Peak is releasing its long-awaited single malt. To mark the occasion, we visited Derbyshire’s first full-scale craft distillery to capture on film the story behind Wire Works Whisky. Every…

White Peak is releasing its long-awaited single malt. To mark the occasion, we visited Derbyshire’s first full-scale craft distillery to capture on film the story behind Wire Works Whisky.

Every year there’s an array of first whisky releases that we look forward to. But some excite us more than most. Ever since the White Peak distillery was founded in 2016 by husband-and-wife team Max and Claire Vaughan, we’ve been patiently waiting for its inaugural single malt. Especially after we got to taste the delicious two-year-old malt spirit Boutique-y bottled up.

Now the wait is over. The Wire Works Whisky is here nearly four years after the team distilled their first batch of single malt whisky in spring 2018. Its signature flavour profile is the result of a process that occurs entirely on-site, from the mashing of both unpeated and peated malt (about 6ppm), to the slow four-day fermentation featuring live yeast from a local Derbyshire brewery, and the impact its unique Wire Works home has on maturation. It was bottled at 50.3% ABV with any additional colouring or filtration.

We were fortunate enough to get a chance to visit the Derbyshire to tell the distillery’s story, how it feels to launch your first whisky, and what the Wire Works tastes like. We hope you enjoy what we filmed, you can watch it all here or on our YouTube channel

You can now purchase Wire Works Whisky here.

Making English whisky at White Peak Distillery

Taking us on a tour around White Peak is Derbyshire boy and distillery manager Dave Symes, who shows us the full lifecycle of the Wire Works Whisky, which is mashed, fermented, distilled, and matured on-site. 

Launching your first whisky

With a life-long passion for whisky inherited from his father, Max Vaughan has dreamed of this moment for years. We catch up with him and co-founder Claire to hear why they set about making the Wire Works Whisky and what it’s like to realise an ambition.

The home of the Wire Works Whisky

In 2017 Max and Claire Vaughan created a fully operational distillery from scratch at the former Johnson & Nephew Wire Works, a pioneer in wire and cable products founded by industrialists in the 19th Century that operated for 120 years until its closure in the mid-1990s. This unique setting amongst the woodlands on the banks of the River Derwent is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It provides a source of inspiration for the founders and has a big impact on the whisky they make, as they explain here.

Tasting Wire Works Whisky

Wire Works Whisky is here and all that’s left to do is taste the results of all that hard work. Here to help are whisky ambassador Tom Lindsey and marketing manager Rosie Ferrer to walk us through what to expect from the nose, palate, and finish.

Wire Works Whisky

Look, it’s Wire Works Whisky!

We’d like to thank the guys at White Peak for having us. Just in case you missed it before, you can now purchase Wire Works Whisky here.

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Inside the East London Liquor Company

The East London Liquor Company only began distilling back in July 2014, but it’s already made quite the impression. We headed to the creator’s home to find out how it…

The East London Liquor Company only began distilling back in July 2014, but it’s already made quite the impression. We headed to the creator’s home to find out how it supported independent spirits in the capital, carved a space for itself in English whisky, and why it has only scratched the surface.

When Alex Wolpert left drama school in 2006 he began working behind bars in East London, eventually getting to the point where he was running a group of pubs for the family shareholders at Barworks. It was during this time that he noticed a gap in the market.

“I worked in the on-trade for years and was amazed by the lack of championing of spirit made by the underdog,” he explains. “There was so little from independent producers, in a city with the best bars in the world. I felt that the spirit space was empty and couldn’t understand why”. 

He went to his bosses with the idea for The East London Liquor Company and they backed it, today still lending support through a large portfolio of sites. With that investment and the money he got borrowing against his Hackney flat, in 2014 Alex set up The East London Liquor Company in the site of a disused glue factory warehouse he found while cycling by the waterways of East London. 

He then ordered two copper pot stills from Germany, assembled a small team, and got to work. In the first year, the team was producing 1,000 bottles of gin a month for local bars and restaurants. “We spent six months distilling gins in order to find the perfect recipe,” Wolpert says. “Everything we made was always thinking about how people will enjoy it, removing as many barriers from that moment as possible”. 

East London Liquor Company

Say hello to Alex Wolpert!

East London booze without boundaries

White spirits were the platform from which ELLC launched, but this was never simply a means to fund future whisky projects. The plan was always to have a range of booze, beginning with gin and vodka. This approach is exemplified by its gin selection, consisting of a classic juniper-forward expression that sells like hotcakes. There’s also Louder, a savoury, oily, and slightly saline gin that works great in a Negroni or a Dirty Martini, as well as Brighter Gin, the perfect base for a Gin Sour or Fizz with its bright, fresh, high-ABV character that lets Darjeeling and grapefruit notes shine. In 2020 the ELLC was even appointed to create the next generation of Royal Botanic Garden, Kew’s range of spirits.

Then there’s a selection of sourced rum made up of a vibrant, estery blend of spirits from three well-known Jamaican distilleries, and the sweet and tropical Rarer made with Demerara sugar cane. There’s even a range of canned cocktails, bolstered by the acquisition of Longflint Drinks Ltd. in 2020. “What we love about our canned serves is that you get a tactile understanding of what East London is about for a couple of quid. The cans aren’t just self-serving in that they generate more can sales, but they get people in contact with the brand who then realise how much we have to offer,” Wolpert says.

But, this is Master of Malt so we know what you’ll be most interested in is ELLC’s whisky. Things kicked off in 2018 with London’s first rye whisky in over a century. But this distillery is a hive of innovation. “For the first four years of us making whiskey we’ve been extremely experimental. What we worked we’ve bottled,” says Wolpert. “We’ve got an understanding now of what our London Rye and Single Malt are but along the way, there will be a lot of experimental products to show people what we’re about”.

East London Liquor Company

The East London Liquor Company

Making whisky ELLC style

What they’re about is difficult to define in one article. So let’s start from the beginning. The ELLC sources grains (barley, rye, wheat) from Crisp Malt in Great Ryburgh, Norfolk.  Fermentation is a long 96-120 hours in open-top stainless steel fermenters, with one to two days of acetic acid rest following to encourage diacetyl, a compound that encourages funky, tropical notes. 

Arnold Holstein made the 2000-litre wash still and 650-litre spirits still (as well as a 450-litre gin still), the latter being unique in that it’s a hybrid pot/column still. After distillation, the spirit is diluted down to 55-62% ABV and popped into a cask. Operating at a relaxed, Monday-Friday rota, the capacity sits around 30,000 LPA, tiny still in the grand scheme of things.

The new make is slightly heavy and funky with lots of rich chocolate and fruit, while master distiller and blender Andy Mooney creates a slightly cloudy wort to get those biscuity, bolder flavours. He makes use of both pot and column still, the latter providing lighter profiles to make sure he’s getting the whole spectrum of flavour. When I toured the distillery with Wolpert I also got a chance to pick Mooney’s brain, and frankly, I needed some kind of industrial crane to get everything out from him. 

East London Liquor Company

Andy Mooney, hard at work

A thoughtful, methodical and uber-geeky worker, Mooney breaks down the ELLC process in delightfully technical terms, for example: “We have a lot of control over fermentation to play around with different yeasts, like Saison (common in lambic or sour style beers). Where typical yeasts will eat maltose, fructose etc. these guys will eat everything including dextrins (larger sugar molecules) and that creates more acetic acid and diacetyl which leads to more esters, which develop awesome characteristics in the ageing process”. 

The whisky is matured off-site in a huge range of barrels, including new American and French oak, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, ex- wine, rye, bourbon, Cognac and vermouth. I tried samples of Hungarian oak-matured rye, the same whisky matured in Pomerol casks, and then London Rye initially aged in ex-Laphroaig casks before spending time in chestnut wood. They were all spectacular in their own regard, demonstrating the spirit of experimentation and a competency in utilising different styles. They would work as single releases, although I imagine Mooney could use them to great effect in blending.

He tends to bottle whisky at 46-49% ABV, as he feels this highlights a bit of every aspect of the spirit profile. “If you go lower it can be too sweet and lose bitterness, go too high and you can get too much cask influence. If you want to water it down yourself you can do that. There will be cask strength in the future in all likelihood, but we want to establish our style first. That’s also why nothing is chill-filtered,” Mooney explains. 

East London Liquor Company

The distillery is one of the leaders of the English whisky category

Single malt, rye and blend

As Mooney communicates the process with a distiller’s eye, Wolpert is consistently painting the bigger picture, describing the dual responsibility and opportunity an English whisky distillery has to make its own definitions. “What does it mean to make a London Rye? How do we make it specific to us? It’s open for us to make our own path,” he says. “I do get people saying ‘how do you make a single malt outside of Scotland?’, and if I had any hair I’d be tearing it out because we know that doesn’t matter. But we get to be at the forefront of the changing conversation”.

As we’ve covered the London Rye before, let’s talk single malt. It’s 100% malted barley (obviously) and was matured in a combination of bourbon and rye casks from Sonoma, red wines casks, STR casks and its own London Rye casks. The combination of casks was chosen because Mooney is somebody who is passionate about bringing as much to the spirit as possible, maximising the variety and clarity of flavour. “None of our whiskies are single cask for the reason, because we think it’s rare to get everything we want from just one cask. In the single malt, for example, the red wine cask lifts the fruity notes and adds some tannic bitterness,” Mooney explains.

As for the blend, this transatlantic collaboration was made by combining Sonoma whiskey and ELLC’s London Rye. “We used a high rye and wheat bourbon that was atypical of the classic styles you’d usually get, which allowed us to get a flavour profile we can’t create in the UK and what they couldn’t get in the US,” Wolpert says. “It’s what a blend should be all about, it’s greater the sum of its parts. Two entirely different processes coming together. It also shows we’re willing to stick our neck out and not take ourselves too seriously, and we’ve priced it at the same as the single malt to communicate that’s how vital we see blends. People have a narrow perception of blends so we have to work doubly hard to make sure people realise how special blends are and a real pinnacle of whisky production”.

East London Liquor Company

The future is very bright for this brand

A spirits brand for everyone

At present, ELLC distils, imports and serves a range of award-winning gins, whiskies, vodkas, rums and canned cocktails at a rate of 15,000 bottles a month to over 20 markets. For Wolpert, the ambition was to be a spirits brand for everyone, with sophisticated liquid but an accessible, transparent branding. “Andy left his recipe book out once with botanicals and weights etc. and someone on a tour said ‘what if I took a picture?’ I said ‘take one, it’s a huge compliment’. There’s so much smoke and mirror in this industry that it’s disarming for people. That’s why you can see the distillery from the bar. It’s a very different message to the educational process you get in a visitor centre, which we do provide, but we give customers a chance to chill out and have a couple so they feel looked after and engaged.”

The bar itself is not purely ELLC booze, it’s curated in such a way that the staff fill it with brands they respect, which speaks to the sense of community they feel within drinks and a confidence in their own product. Wolpert is very passionate about his local area, but also feels connected to world whisky as a category and a part of the growing English whisky scene. “We really relate to all the people who are interested in new ways of making and understanding whisky, as well as being interested in attracting new whisky drinkers. People get obsessed with the label and not the liquid, so we’re fighting against that and attempting to be at the centre of a conversation that understands what English, and London whisky is”. 

It’s a conversation I very much enjoyed having with Wolpert and Mooney, while witnessing first-hand the care and focus that goes into the process. It’s a distillery I’ve always had a lot of time for, with its exceptional value for money white spirits and comfortable bar setting. But the nerdy and curious approach to whisky is what gets me really excited. If Wolpert had this range of booze to hand back in his bartending days, he would never have needed to create The East London Liquor Company at all.

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New Arrival of the Week: TBWC Home Nations Series

Normally for this slot we highlight one product. This week, however, we’ve got a whole raft of exciting new whiskies (and some rum) from Britain and Ireland bottled exclusively for That…

Normally for this slot we highlight one product. This week, however, we’ve got a whole raft of exciting new whiskies (and some rum) from Britain and Ireland bottled exclusively for That Boutique-y Whisky Company. It’s TBWC Home Nations Series! 

It’s fair to say that there’s a lot of whisky talent in Britain and Ireland. Obviously Scotland and Ireland are world leaders, both vying for the position as the first place whisky (or whiskey) was made. Quick aside, why don’t the Scots, the Irish, and the Americans just sit down and just agree on a spelling for ‘whisky’ so we don’t have to use tortured constructions like whisk(e)y? This has gone on too long.

Anyway! It’s not just in the old countries, England and Wales now have serious strength in depth when it comes to whisky with the English Whisky Company in Norfolk turning 15 this year and Penderyn in the Brecon Beacons turning 21 in September. These pioneers have been joined by a legion of innovative distilleries making bold, distinctive whiskies.

British & Irish Lions, but with booze

So to celebrate all this talent, That Boutique-y Whisky Company is releasing the Home Nations Series. The idea of the ‘home nations’ is inspired by rugby where England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales put aside their rivalries to play together as the British & Irish Lions, usually with magnificent effect.

Lineup- Home Nations TBWC/ TBRC

The whiskies include a six year old Penderyn from Wales, a cask strength three year old from Scotland’s Nc’Nean Distillery, and a very special 29 year old Irish single malt from an undisclosed distillery (though you can probably guess which it is.)

Meanwhile, team England fields a 12 year old from the English Whisky Company in Norfolk, a 7 year old from Adnams in Suffolk, a 3 year old single grain from the Oxford Artisan Distillery, and a 3 year old from the Cotswolds Distillery. Meanwhile we have two nearly whiskies from Circumstance in Bristol and White Peak in Derbyshire

There’s rum too!

But that’s not all! The Home Nations series includes three rums: a 17 month rum from Ninefold in Scotland, an 18 month rum from Greensand from Kent ,and a 2 year old from J. Gow on Orkney! Plus a selection of rare single malt Scotch whiskies bottled exclusively for That Boutique-y Whisky Company – see the full range here.

I’ve pulled out three that I particularly liked below. These are largely single barrels and bottled at cask strength or high ABV. All come in 50cl bottles. Numbers are extremely limited so hurry, catch the home nations while you can.

Circumstance TBWC

Circumstance 40 Days Old Batch 1

Type: Wheat spirit

Cask types: Matured in a drum with charred English oak spindles

ABV: 59.8% 

We visited this distillery a couple of years ago and were amazed by the innovations going on with yeasts, fermentation times and, most of all, ageing. This shows how you can get masses of flavour into a young spirit without it tasting over-worked. Extremely clever.

Nose: Super sweet, chocolate digestives and ginger nuts. It’s like a party in the biscuit aisle at Sainsbury’s!

Palate: Sweet toffee and chocolate and then spicy. Really really spicy with black pepper, chilli and bitter minty notes – like Fernet Branca. Some massive spicy wood action happening here.  

Finish: Spices go on and on, seriously intense!

English Whisky Co B3

English Whisky Company 12 Year Old Batch 3

Type: Single malt

Cask: first-fill bourbon

ABV: 63.4%

Wow! This is a mighty dram. This English whisky pioneer just keeps getting better and better. Can you imagine how excited we are to try a 15, an 18 or even a 21 from this distillery?

Nose: Toffee, chocolate, dried fruit, vanilla and creamy cereal notes, water brings out sweeter notes and peachy fruit.

Palate: Big spice, wood tannin, dark chocolate, savoury, and bitter coffee with a full texture like chestnuts. Water brings out aromatic tobacco notes, and with time a distinct apricot taste emerges. 

Finish: Layered and very complex, that apricot note goes on for a good ten minutes.  

Penderyn TBWC

Penderyn 6 Year Old Batch 1

Type: Single malt

ABV: 50% 

Cask type: This is from a single STR red wine hogshead.

Distilled in Penderyn’s unique Faraday still – like a cross between a pot and a column (read more about it here). It’s been a while since I’ve had Penderyn, this bottling shows how beautiful it is at a higher strength. 

Nose: Sweet cereal notes with apples, caramel, butter and toffee.  

Palate: Creamy marzipan texture, there’s a gentle sweetness with baking spices like cinnamon and creamy patisserie notes with orchard fruit. Lovely balance, no water needed here.

Finish: Gentle sweetness and spice. 

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Return to the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery

We ventured north to the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery for the first time in four years to see how things changed and taste some of the county’s first whisky: Filey…

We ventured north to the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery for the first time in four years to see how things changed and taste some of the county’s first whisky: Filey Bay.

Yorkshire Tea, Tetley Tea, Tetley’s bitter, John Smith’s, Terry’s Chocolate Orange, Rowntree’s., Bassett’s, Henderson’s Relish, and the mighty Marks and Spencer, Yorkshire is the birthplace of some classic food and drinks brands. But there’s one thing God’s own country could never boast about: having its own whisky.

Until now. The Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery released its first whisky in 2020. Soon, Cooper King and Whittakers will also join the Yorkshire whisky revolution. But we can recall a time when the trailblazers were young hopefuls themselves.  In 2017, our very own Jake Mountain paid the distillery a visit and so now that there’s actual whisky to taste, we thought it was time for a revisit. 

Unusually, the Spirit of Yorkshire grows all its grain, ferments, distills, and barrel ages on the site, which includes the Wold Top Brewery (founded in 2003) and the 600-acre farm it lives on just a short drive from the distillery. There’s no vodka or gin in sight. This is an English whisky distillery that runs with a simple objective: we’re the first whisky of Yorkshire, so we bloody better get it right.

Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery

The Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery grows 100% of the barley it distills

Truly grain to glass

It all starts on the fields. Co-founder Tom Mellor has lived on the farm his whole life, while longtime friend and co-founder David Thompson’s area of expertise is crop science. Yorkshire may never have had much whisky to speak of, but it grows a healthy amount of barley. In fact, the Yorkshire Wolds is said to be the largest malting barley growing area in the UK. It seemed logical to grow their own raw material. 

Thompson explained the advantages of this approach: “We have complete control over our raw material: the variety of barley we use, the methods of cultivation. That puts us more in control than the majority of distillers. We have the ability and flexibility of experimenting. The strengths certainly outweigh the weaknesses. As Yorkshire’s first, we don’t have any preconceived ideas of what we should be doing. As a result, we can do what we want with our product as nothing is expected of us”. 

Mellor and Thompson use low-impact farming techniques making soil health and biodiversity a priority. The duo employ a technique called direct drilling, which means rather than discing (sic), ploughing, and then drilling the fields as per the ‘usual’ process, they drill a cover crop straight into the stubble left from the previous harvest. Every time you work the land you release carbon dioxide back into the air; but by keeping the soil undisturbed, that carbon stays in the ground. They’re also advocates of wind power, with two wind turbines providing all the electricity for the farm and brewery when spinning.

Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery

It’s an impressive stillhouse, boasting size and unique equipment

Distilling with a Yorkshire Twist

Malting, the sole part of the process that the Spirit of Yorkshire distillery doesn’t do on site, is handled by neighbours in Bridlington. Mashing and a long 75-95 hour fermentation takes place at the sister brewery, where intriguingly two strains of distiller’s yeasts are used instead of beer yeast. This was done on the advice of the late Dr. Jim Swan, and the process had the desired result, making a clear wort with fruity esters.

Distillation occurs in stills only dwarfed by the Lakes Distillery in England in terms of size, with a capacity to create 450,000 litres of pure alcohol per year. This isn’t a rinky-dink operation, these guys mean serious business. The stills were built by the always in-demand Forsyth’s, who couldn’t fit Mellor and Thompson in for two years. Was it worth the wait? “Definitely,” Thompson says. “The period of time that we spent looking for other suppliers confirmed that only Forsyth could produce the quality and shape for the consistency we wanted for high-quality production”. Whisky maker Joe Clark takes the cut by tasting it directly from the spirit safe.

The sizable stills aren’t the most exciting aspect of the Spirit of Yorkshire’s distillation process. No, that would be a four-plate copper rectifying still, or ‘The Yorkshire Twist’ as Clark dubbed it. It works by pulling a handle attached to the lyne arm before it feeds into the condenser, which moves the spirit into the column for some hardcore rectification. Spirit comes out of the standard pot still at 70% ABV, while the Yorkshire Twist sends out a hearty 87% ABV new make. This spirit is casked separately and its silky, light profile contrasts the pure pot still’s more full-bodied, unctuous new make. Both are delightfully fruity, supple, and distinctive.

Thompson says the inspiration behind the unique bit of kit was to create a point of difference and to explore the possibility of making a white spirit that the Spirit of Yorkshire could market before the whisky came of age. However, upon using the column, they realised the potential and benefit of creating two very distinct new make spirits. “This gave us flexibility within our product that was unique,” he explains. “As a result, no white spirit was sold as a product. We just concentrate on whisky”. 

Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery

Ex-bourbon allows the quality new-make to shine, but there are plenty of interesting cask choices here too

The Spirit of Yorkshire matured

When we last came here, the Spirit of Yorkshire had laid down over 300 casks. It’s now on 3,200 casks filled, with the new make going in at 63.5% ABV, diluted using water sourced directly from chalk aquifers.  This ensures that consistency in the water supply.

First fill ex-bourbon remain the predominant cask of choice. “The light and fruity character of our spirit lines up very well with the flavour of bourbon casks,” Thompson explains. “This forms the backbone of our wood policy. We then add layers of flavour through our finishing process using STR wine casks, Moscatel sherry butts, and peated casks. There are also full-term sherry butts and hogsheads which have produced some stunning single cask bottles. We will continue to experiment with the finishing process as new and exciting casks become available”. 

The STR casks are an obvious legacy of Dr. Jim Swan, and while the Spirit of Yorkshire has made plenty of its own strides, they are quick to praise his influence. “Having come into whisky-making with no experience it’s been a steep learning curve. From concept to the commission, Dr. Swan’s input was vital,” Thompson explains. “It’s certainly shaped our future. Losing him when we did, we’ve learned a lot on the job. So today, it’s a mixture of his influence and the results of what we’re doing from the advice he gave”.

Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery

Filey Bay whisky, the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery’s creation

Defining the Spirit of Yorkshire

One thing Jake  wasn’t able to see four years ago was the complete package. The whisky is called Filey Bay after the beautiful beach near the distillery. While the local gannets that gather on nearby cliffs were made the emblem of the brand. The labels are vibrant and fresh, while the packaging is informative without being too detailed, with neat illustrations outlining the process. The brand set out to make something fresh and different from the start, “not just copying preconceived ideas of what whisky should be,” as Thompson says. “Our design, we feel, encapsulates our ethos”.

Not having any history gives the Spirit of Yorkshire the freedom to define what Yorkshire, and indeed English, whisky is. At the moment, however, Thompson wants to keep things simple by saying there is only one philosophy that guides the distillery: quality.

“In both the ingredients and process, we’re all about making something quality that the majority of people can enjoy. Something for everyone,” he explains. “The world whisky scene, particularly the English whisky, is very exciting to be a part of. It is starting to be taken seriously around the world. As long as we maintain the quality of production, the future is very bright”.

Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery

A snapshot of the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery’s range

Tasting Filey Bay whisky

So, the big question remains: has the philosophy worked? Does the local barley, Yorkshire Twist and first-fill casks make a difference? Is this Filey Yay or Filay No-Way (sorry)? It’s a resounding yay, in my book. The ripe, fruity new-make shines in the samples I tasted (below). The cask influence is measured beautifully, bringing complementary flavours and complexity without stomping all over the distillery profile (orchard/stone fruits and baked goods). There’s some good body and texture too, with only the occasional flickers of raw alcohol immaturity. I think the Flagship, in particular, will be spectacular between 8-12 years old.

Just because you admire the process, it doesn’t mean you’ll admire the whisky it produces. But, delightfully Filey Bay measures up handsomely, and the pricing isn’t outrageous either. All in all, it was a very pleasant return to the Spirit of Yorkshire. The county might not have any whisky history, but it’s certainly got a very bright future. 

Filey Bay Flagship tasting note:

Nose: Light, sweet and creamy aromas of apricot yogurt, foam bananas, pear drops, and golden barley. Touches of citrus come orange peel, lemon sherbets with salted peanuts, fennel, and dried grass adding a savoury bite. Throughout there’s freshly baked notes of apple crumble with cinnamon, vanilla, and sourdough loaf. At points, it’s so fresh and vibrant there’s almost a cider or shandy quality to the nose.

Palate: The palate’s texture is a little oily but retains that creaminess from the nose with a well-balanced bounty of warming baking spice, orchard fruits, vanilla custard, and marzipan. Porridge with honey, peaches, caramel, and candied orange add depth with black pepper, and anise flicker beneath. 

Finish: Tails away for a while leaving a trail of baked good notes.

Filey Bay Peated tasting note:

Nose: Through grassy peat and woodsmoke comes the characteristic pear drops, lemon peel, and bakery notes (bread & butter pudding this time) with cacao powder, toasted almonds, vanilla, nutmeg, and some salty coastal elements in support.

Palate: Drier than the Flagship thanks to ashy smoke but still you and creamy enough to carry some nice body. Subtle earthy, damp peat is in the backdrop with Hobnob oatiness, vanilla custard, sweet anise, and golden syrup taking centre stage. Nectarines, cooked apples, and marmalade bring some fruitiness with peppery spice mingling underneath. 

Finish: Baking spice, faint whispers of smoke, and honey remain.

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New Arrival of the Week: The English – Heavily Smoked

A new week means a new arrival. Today we’re shining a spotlight on The English – Heavily Smoked which as its name suggests is a heavily smoked whisky from the…

A new week means a new arrival. Today we’re shining a spotlight on The English – Heavily Smoked which as its name suggests is a heavily smoked whisky from the English Whisky Company in Norfolk.

There’s always something going on at St. George’s Distillery in Norfolk, home of the English Whisky Company. Alongside the core range of single malts and interesting grain whiskies, the distillery produces regular limited editions.

In recent years, distiller David Fitt and the team have released triple-distilled whiskies, virgin oak single malts, and various single cask releases. There’s never a dull moment.

The English - Virgin Oak Cask

The St George’s Distillery in sunny Norfolk

English whisky, Scottish connection

This latest release, The English – Heavily Smoked 2010, is a nod to the distillery’s heritage as the first distiller was Iain Henderson from Laphroaig. A man who knows more than a little about peat and whisky.

There were more than a few eyebrows raised when Henderson took the job at St. George’s Distillery in 2006. At the time, the idea of English whisky seemed like a joke. But the founder, Norfolk farmer James Nelstrop, was determined. He’d always dreamed of making whisky and the raw materials were right on his doorstep in the form of seemingly endless fields of shimmering barley.

The family handily owned a building company as well as being farmers, so did all the work themselves. Work began in January 2006 and by December, the first barrels were filled. Then in 2009, St. George’s Distillery, later rebranded as the English Whisky Company to differentiate it from another St. George’s Distillery, released its first whisky. There were queues for miles to get hold of a bottle and the story made the international news.

Sadly, James Nelstrop died in 2014, but the distillery is safely in the hands of his son Andrew and his wife Katy, who looks after the marketing side of the business. 

Initially, the team stuck with a classic Scottish single malt blueprint. Not only did they have a Scottish distiller but all the stills came from Forsyths of Rothes. There’s a wash still of 2750 litres and a spirit of 1800. There’s plenty of reflux from the bulge above the base of the spirit still, and the shell and tube condensers.The aim was to produce a classic Lowland-style malt, light and fruity. 

David Fitt from The English Whisky Company (photographed by Tom Bunning)

Innovative releases

But under David Fitt, an ex-brewer who learned his art from Henderson, they have branched out with some innovative releases under The Norfolk label including a rye and malted barley whisky, and a malted/unmalted barley Irish single pot still-style whisky. Andrew is full of praise for his distiller: “David has extraordinary taste buds. He has a deep understanding of how different barleys behave. Look at what he does with different cereals in the Farmer’s which is made with crystal malt, oats, wheat and rye.” 

This latest limited edition, The English – Heavily Smoked, then, is something of a return to tradition. But if you’re expecting a Laphroaig-style smoky whisky, you will be in for a surprise. The barley might be heavily peated (to 65 PPM compared with Laphroaig’s 45 PPM) but the resulting spirit has the classic English Whisky Company fruitiness. Even with the peated spirit, the cut is taken early so that, as Fitt puts it, “you lose heavy iodine notes and just get bonfire. What’s the point of replicating Laphroaig?” It was distilled in 2010, aged largely in ex-bourbon casks, and bottled this year at 46% ABV. Only 1,776 bottles of this 11-year-old single malt have been filled.

In the days before Covid, St. George’s Distillery was one of Norfolk’s top tourist attractions, attracting over 80,000 visitors a year. There’s a great restaurant on site and a shop that stocks not only their whisky but probably the best selection from around the world in East Anglia. We’re delighted to hear that it’s once again open to visitors.

For those who won’t be visiting in the near future, you can take a video tour with Master of Malt or just pick up a bottle and experience the magic of English whisky. 

The English - Heavily Smoked

Tasting Note by The Chaps at Master of Malt

Nose: Meaty malt with hints of cured ham and vegetal peat. A little touch of yellow plum sweetness develops underneath.

Palate: Roasted barley, salted butter on toast, cinnamon, granola, bonfires, and flaked almonds.

Finish: Black pepper and red chilli flake, with a slow fade of caramel.

The English – Heavily Smoked 2010 is available from Master of Malt. Click here to buy. 

 

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Return to the Copper Rivet Distillery

There’s been so much going on at the Copper Rivet Distillery since we last visited in 2018: the release of a single malt, a column malt and the opening of…

There’s been so much going on at the Copper Rivet Distillery since we last visited in 2018: the release of a single malt, a column malt and the opening of a fancy new restaurant. But that’s not all! There’s a grain whisky coming soon too. We took a trip to Chatham to find out more.

Distilleries often come with spectacular views but on a sunny day, it’s hard to think of a better one than Chatham’s Copper Rivet Distillery and its surroundings. It’s housed in a beautifully restored Victorian Italianate pumping station on the River Medway with boats sailing by, and historic Rochester with its castle and cathedral across the way. 

If it was in Sydney or Porto, there would be hoards of Instagrammers trying to get the perfect shot but because it’s in a rundown bit of Kent, nobody bats an eyelid. 

We visited back in 2018 but since then the team has released two single malts whiskies, a column and a pot still, and opened a restaurant overlooking the river. Plus there were rumours of an exciting new whisky which might be released in time for Christmas. How could we resist another invitation?

Copper Rivet Distillery

They built some beautiful things did the Victorians

Steeped in alcohol 

As distiller Abhi Banik was on holiday we were shown around by his number two, Aaron Fayose, a former engineering student from the University of Greenwich, and Bob Russell from the family who founded the distillery.

The Russell family have been, as Bob put it, “steeped in alcohol since the 1980s.” The business began with a wine bar in Rainham progressed to a group of off-licenses, and then supplying boozy gift packs to supermarkets and department stores.

But they always wanted to create their very own drinks brand. Eventually, after much searching, they found the perfect site for a distillery, the old pumping station in Chatham Dockyard. They needed a building with a high roof as they had to have space for a column to make their own neutral alcohol – something very rare among gin distillers. 

They bought the derelict building in Chatham dockyards in 2015. It was first used to pump water in and out of dry docks, the giant cast iron pump is still in place, and then later as a training venue for the sailors. The town’s economy had for 400 years been built around the ships, and it suffered greatly when the Royal Navy pulled out in 1984.

Much of the dockyard’s infrastructure was left to decay. There was no gas, electricity or water when they were allowed in the pump house in November 2015, and according to Russell, what is now the car park was a quagmire. They managed to get it operational by October 2016, ready for the official opening by Princess Anne in December 2017. It is named the Copper Rivet Distillery as a tribute to the town’s rich shipbuilding heritage. 

The Banik still

Photo of a man taking a photo, with Banik still in the background

The Banik still

The Russell family, Bob and his sons Stephen and Matthew, put their dream in the hands of Abhishek Banik, a young Indian distiller who graduated from and was teaching at Heriot Watt in Edinburgh.

He designed the entire set-up from scratch and it was built using local engineering works. According to Russell, there’s still a lot of skills around from when Chatham was the dockyard to the Navy. 

At Copper Rivet, there’s a single pot still, a 40 plate column still and a very special gin still which recently received a patent. Called a Banik still after its inventor, it can macerate heavier botanicals and infuse lighter botanicals at the same time, while protecting the more delicate ones from the heat source.

Bananas all the way

One entering the still room, the first thing I could smell was a distinct banana note from the wort. It’s a flavour that carries through into Copper Rivet’s final products. 

The gin, vodka and grain whisky are all made from a mixture of 40% wheat, 25% malted barley, 25% barley 10% rye. All the grain comes from one farm on the nearby Isle of Sheppey.

On our last visit, Banik told us that at the mashing stage, the aim is to create a clear wort for a fruitier new make. This is then fermented slowly, over the course of about seven days, using two different yeast strains. In order to make sure it happens slowly, Banik uses about half the normal amount of yeast.

This multi-grain wash then goes through a pot still followed by the column where it comes off as neutral alcohol at 96% ABV. I say neutral but when you taste the spirit diluted in the form of Vela Vodka, there’s no shortage of flavour: that banana note, a creamy mouthfeel and a hit of rye on the finish. Bring on the Baltic snacks! No wonder it won double gold in the San Francisco Spirits Competition.

You can taste the sheer quality of the spirit in Dockyard Gin, a beautifully balanced citrus-led classic dry gin. We also tried a strawberry gin, made by macerating Kentish strawberries in Dockyard for around 10 days – and that’s it. No flavours or colouring. With its subtle yet pronounced taste of fresh strawberries, I can imagine it would work wonders bolstering a Pimm’s and lemonade.

Masthouse whiskies

The two Masthouse whiskies with Bob Russell in the background

Whisky business

Most excitingly, since our last visit, Copper Rivet has released two Masthouse single malt whiskies, a pot still and a column. Both are made from Isle of Sheppey barley, malted at Muntons in East Anglia. The Russell family has issued something called the Invicta charter, a set of rules for how whisky should be made and labelled. 

The main points are that grains have to come from within 50 miles of the distillery, all operations after malting but including fermentation must take place under one roof and it includes a system for labelling whisky that is clear to the consumer stating the grains and type of still used.

The same slow-fermented malted barley wash is the basis for both single malts. Following distillation in a column or pot, they are aged predominantly in ex-bourbon casks with some virgin American oak. The ageing is interesting, with all casks spending one year in the distillery where it gets very hot in the summer, up to 40 degrees Celsius, but goes down to 6 degrees in the winter. So not dissimilar to bourbon ageing. They then send the casks to a temperature-controlled bonded warehouse in Liverpool. So far they have filled around 600 barrels.

Bob Russell told me that an unnamed Scots distiller had said that the three-year-old Masthouse malts had the maturity and balance of eight-year-old Scotch whiskies. 

Tasting Masthouse whiskies

This focus on quality and precision every step of the way has really paid off. You can read what I thought of the pot still malt here in detail. To summarise, I’d say it was about the best young single malt I’ve ever tried: fruity, harmonious, packed with flavour but not overworked, the use of oak is just perfect. Banik has avoided the two pitfalls of young malts: trying to get too much flavour in from different cask types and making the resulting whisky rather hard work, or just creating something pleasant but a bit bland.

Both are bottled at 45% ABV (there is also a cask strength pot still which I didn’t try) but the column tastes noticeably different. There’s less oak on the nose with oaty cereal, spicy rye and lots of fruit such as peaches, and oranges. When you taste it, the body is lighter, you don’t get the rich mouthfeel and it is a little spirity. Perhaps not as harmonious as the pot still but then flavours of toffee and caramel come in at the end, with a long lingering sweet finish. It’ll make a great Highball. 

Coming soon…

Finally, Fayose had a treat for us, a cask sample of the forthcoming single grain whisky. This comes off the column at a lower ABV than the neutral grain, Russell said around 80%, before going into cask. There’s that banana note on the nose, custard, baking spices and tropical fruit with no raw spirit notes. Then in the mouth, it’s spice city with chilli, black pepper and a feel like popping candy on the finish. Masses of character –  this will be a killer mixing whisky. I think bartenders will love it.

Russell also mentioned, tantalisingly, Banik has been over to Jerez to source some sherry casks from a small producer. Nothing has been filled yet but the thought of a sherry cask Masthouse is extremely exciting. I’d love to see a blended whisky when they have enough casks filled. Wouldn’t that be great?

Skate wing at Copper Rivet Distillery

Skate wing at Copper Rivet Distillery, with THAT view behind

Appreciating that view

Following the tasting, Russell took us through to the terrace overlooking the river. During the lockdown, the team turned this part of the distillery into a restaurant and tapas bar called the Pumproom. The original cast iron pump is still there, in the wine store. They’ve hired chef Will Freeman who makes full use of Kent’s great produce. Bob Russell is a big seafood fan.

I had some beautifully-seared scallops served with cured trout, followed by a minute steak with chips. All around, people were enjoying the food, drinks and that incredible view. Chatham becoming a tourist destination? Why not?

The Copper Rivet is available from Master of Malt.

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