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Discover English whisky

Modern English whisky celebrated its 15th birthday in style this year when The English Single Malt picked up Best Single Malt at the World Whisky Awards in March making headlines all over the country. When the English Whisky Company released its first single malt in 2009, I don’t think anyone, not least founder James Nelstrop, could have predicted that his business would be beating the Scots at their own game. Sadly, he died in 2014 but he did live to see his dream become an acclaimed and most importantly profitable business. It’s now run by his son Andrew and his wife Katy.

Andrew Nelstrop from The English Whisky Company

From tiny acorns

Today, there are now something like 50 producers in England making whisky though not all of them have products to sell yet. These range from outfits like the Cotswolds Distillery which can produce around 500,000 litres of alcohol a year, to tiny producers making a few barrels a year. Most of the larger outfits are in the English Whisky Guild which has 24 members. 

There’s huge diversity in output too from people making Scottish-style single malts like the Cotswolds, The Lakes, or The English Distillery to rye whiskies from the Oxford Artisan Distillery and mixed mashbills from Circumstance in Bristol. There are even some cross-border blends, like Bankhall British Malts, mixing English, Welsh and Scottish, and The Lakes’ The One.

Here comes the money

Money is moving into the category. In 2022 Distell, the venture capital arm of Diageo, took a stake in the Oxford Artisan Distillery – and has big plans for the future which we’re not allowed to talk about until May. Then last year, Berry Bros & Rudd took a 10% stake in the Cotswolds Distillery, and even more dramatically Nyetimber, the English wine pioneer, has made a £71 million bid for The Lakes distillery. It’s all go in English whisky!

Here at Master of Malt we saw our English whisky sales climb by over 160% between 2020 and 2022. But with all this excitement, it’s worth putting everything into perspective. There are something like 50,000 casks maturing in England compared to over 20 million in Scotland. 

This tiny size means that English whisky is agile and can differentiate itself in many ways from its big neighbour to the north as well as well-established industries in America, Canada, Japan and Ireland.

Heritage rye used by the Oxford Artisan Distillery

What makes English whisky distinctive?


Small production means that English producers can be very specific about sourcing grain, a luxury most producers north of the border don’t have. Most producers in England major on the provenance of their raw materials. For the Cotswolds Distillery this means malted barley from the local area. For The English Distillery it means that they make some, but not all, whisky from barley grown on their own farm in Norfolk, the rest comes from other local farmers. The Copper Rivet distillery in Kent uses barley and wheat from the nearby Isle of Sheppey. At the Oxford Artisan Distillery the team takes things even further, using sustainably farmed heritage strains of rye and corn (maize) to produce its whiskies. These are low yielding but high flavour varieties that aren’t seen in America anymore.


There’s a whole lot of interesting stuff going on in the fermentation department in English whisky. Because most distilleries aren’t geared up to maximum efficiency, as they are in Scotland, fermentation times tend to be longer resulting in more flavour. At the Circumstance distillery in Bristol they use a variety of yeasts including saison beer, Bavarian beer and mead yeasts. Fermentation times can be up to two weeks! For comparison, two days is more common in Scotland. Meanwhile at The Lakes, they use Scotch yeast, a French yeast, and a heritage yeast. It’s all about developing big flavours as early as possible in the process. 

The team at Circumstance in Bristol who left the English Whisky Guild


The lack of strict rules compared with those of the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) is a boon for English producers. Copper Rivet in Kent launched its Masthouse column malt a few years back, something that in Scotland would have to be labelled a single grain. The stills are all bespoke, designed by their distiller Abhishek Banik and manufactured by local artisans. Producers in England use pot stills, columns or a combination of both. These can be made from copper or stainless steel. Almost anything goes. 


English whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years to be sold as whisky in the EU and UK but it doesn’t necessarily have to be aged in oak. There are producers using chestnut and other woods. You are also allowed to have a wider variety of seasoning for the wood such as beer casks. Circumstance in Bristol has casks seasoned with tea and coffee. They also use oak spindles to get more flavour into the whisky – these would be illegal in Scotland. 

As with all new whisky countries, the influence of the late Jim Swan is great in England. He consulted for distilleries including the Cotswolds. His great innovation was shaved, toasted and recharred wine casks which get a lot of flavour into the spirit at a young age. 

England, especially southern England, is significantly warmer and drier than Scotland, especially Highland Scotland. This means the whisky matures faster. Andrew Nelstrop thinks that while the angel’s share in Scotland is 2%, it’s around 5% in Norfolk. 

Defining English whisky

Currently the producers in the English Whisky Guild are working towards a GI (geographical indication) for English whisky which is not without controversy. All of the above factors mean that while as yet there’s no definitive English style like say Islay single malt or bourbon, a whisky distilled and matured in England is unique. If you’re looking for artisan spirits with a distinct sense of place, then you should take a look at English whisky. 

Here are five to try:

Cotswolds Single Malt 

Made using barley grown in the Cotswolds, distilled in pot stills and aged in of ex-bourbon and STR (shaved, toasted and recharred) red wine casks for a rich, smooth flavour. 

The Lakes Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.7

Sherry heaven here from The Lakes. Every single malt release from this distillery gets better and better. 

Circumstance 3 Year Old 2019 (Master of Malt)

This is made with a malted barley, unmalted barley, malted rye and malted wheat mashbill and matured in a bourbon barrel for three years.

The Oxford Artisan Distillery Rye Whisky – The Tawny Pipe

This single cask expression of Oxford Rye whisky is made using heritage grains and matured in a tawny Port pipe.

Bankhall British Malts

A blend of English single malt from Bankhall with whisky from Scottish and Welsh distilleries, matured in a mixture of sherry, American virgin oak, ex-bourbon casks. 

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