Kicked Into Touch – Whiskies from the Home Nations

With the Six Nations currently in full flow, it’s the perfect chance to take stock and take a look at the whisky industries in the rest of the Home Nations.

Ireland can lay claim to being the true home of whiskey in the British Isles, with the first recorded distillation taking place in 1405 – around 90 years before the Scots got involved. It was once the most popular whiskey in the world but suffered a decline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, due to American Prohibition, the Irish War of Independence and ensuing civil war.  As a result, the country was left with only two operating distilleries for a good chunk of the twentieth century.  The industry has turned a corner though and has been named the fastest growing spirit in the world every year since 1990.  The country currently boasts seven fully operational distilleries, with more due to come online this year and tens of millions of Euros being invested in new operations.

Along with its name (yes, the ‘e’ should be there), Irish whisky distinguishes itself from Scotch by being triple distilled and is very rarely peated. This gives it a smooth, light finish compared to the smokeyness of Scotch, which can be seen in two of the country’s most famous whiskies – Jameson and Bushmills.  However, distillers are increasingly willing to experiment – with Connemara producing a peated malt – so expect a raft of different expressions to enter the market over the coming years.

Up until the start of this century, whisky production in England had been absent for almost 100 years, since the Lea Valley Distillery closed in 1905.  Today, though, there are six distilleries stretching from Cornwall to the Lake District.  Although St. Austell Brewery and Healy Cyder Farm can lay claim to kick starting whisky production in England, Norfolk’s English Whisky Co. have really led the charge.  After starting production in 2006, the first release appeared in 2009, with a little help from Laphroig’s former manager Iain Henderson.  Since then, the distillery had released 11 ‘Chapters’, with Chapter 14 named European Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015.  Others are starting to get in on the act though, such as The Lakes Distillery (whose British blend I reviewed here) and the always interesting Adnams.

As with England and Ireland, whisky production in Wales started to decline in the late nineteenth century. However, in the year 2000, the first distillery in Wales for over one hundred years started production. Located in the Brecon Beacons, Penderyn Distillery remains the sole distillery in Wales, as well as lying claim to being one of the smallest in the world, with only one cask produced each day. The first whisky went on sale on 1 March 2004 – St. David’s Day – and since then, Penderyn has gone from strength to strength. The distillery’s house style is light and fresh, but the team are open to using an array of casks and varying levels of peat.  The slender bottles give the whisky a distinctive look, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for it.

And to finish off, we return home to Scotland. Scotch Whisky is still the world’s most popular, with over 100 distilleries helping to contribute over £4 billion to the Scottish economy. A number of new players are also popping up, with Kingsbarns Distillery, Eden Brewery and Annadale Distillery all entering the busy market, and a few others due to open in 2015.  However, there is a growing concern across the industry that Scotch Whisky is starting to lag behind those of the other Home Nations, as well as global competitors such as Japan and Australia.  Whisky producers in these countries are less constrained by the rules which are imposed on Scottish producers, and are therefore able to innovate further, reacting to the wishes and demands of the market.  The Scotch Whisky industry is sitting pretty right now, but unless it starts to react to the market, it could find itself paying the price.