Ever since Hicks and Healeys re-established the tradition of English Whisky-making in 2003, founding an English distillery seems to have become increasingly fashionable. To date, around 24 English distilleries are operating, the majority having started production since 2010. The seemingly unstoppable growth of this sector of the spirits industry is impossible to ignore. Most of these distilleries have a link to the explosion in artisan gin, with the standard practice being to produce both. We can expect that the drive to produce interesting artisan gins will drive similarly innovative whisky releases.
With the rebirth of the English Whisky industry gathering speed, it was only a matter of time before someone in Yorkshire, self-described as “God’s Own Country”, noticed. With the county’s reputation for doing things “proper” on the line, it wasn’t long before a distillery was established, and not much longer before Yorkshire Single Malt Whisky was produced. Having only recently encountered the Filey Bay range of whiskies produced by Yorkshire’s first whisky distillery, the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery, I found an opportunity to visit. I was keen to discover if Yorkshire Single Malt Whisky was a regional marketing gimmick, or something distinct and interesting.
It’s no surprise that the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery describes its whisky as Yorkshire Single Malt rather than merely English Whisky. After all, Yorkshire sees itself as nearly a nation in its own right – it’s God’s Own Country, not county. However, this Yorkshire Single Malt Whisky is very much a local product. The barley and water come from one of the co-founders’ farms, a ten-minute tractor ride from the distillery, with the barley being malted just down the road in Bridlington. There may not be a current legal definition for Yorkshire Single Malt, but this surely earns the description.
Yorkshire Single Malt Whisky must start with Yorkshire barley. Tom Mellor, one of the distillery’s co-founders, was initially inspired to use the barley from his Wold Top Farm to create a beer, founding the Wold Top brewery in 2003. In 2011, he decided that founding a distillery was the next logical step, with the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery starting production in 2016. With the brewery already in place, it was simply a case of opening a stillhouse, with the brewery providing the wash that feeds the stills. This is transported by tractor from the farm to the distillery, apparently with only minor impact on the flow of traffic locally. When I visited the distillery, I was interested to find that the focus of the “Single Farm” credentials was directed towards the consistency of ingredients and ability to control environmental initiatives, with the idea of terroir quickly side-stepped.
Tom and his co-founder David Thompson seem to have quickly realised the freedom they have to create their own unique product, unencumbered by the strict rules enforced north of the border. It appears that local identity and this eagerness to innovate are key to the brand that the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery hopes to build. Breaking with tradition, by producing their wash on a separate site, seems to have been only the first step. An innovation with a far more significant potential impact sits beside the distillery’s two pot stills: an additional large copper rectifying column, more normally associated with gin, has been added. This has been plumbed in so that vapour can either travel from still or condenser or complete an additional loop through the column. This is used to distil around half of their spirit; the spirit produced using this column being matured separately from that which has only been through the two pot stills. The two liquids meet only when a batch is mixed for bottling. Another innovation is the use of two different yeast strains, added at different times and different temperatures. However, the exact details of this process are a closely guarded secret. This is followed by a long fermentation of 75 to 95 hours. With Tom and David having claimed the term “Yorkshire Single Malt Whisky” before anyone else, it follows that this is the only correct, or proper, process for those seeking to make Yorkshire Single Malt Whisky.
What about the visit itself? Anyone expecting a slick visitor experience with plenty of photo opportunities will be disappointed by the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery. With several steps taking place off-site, there are no vast mash tuns to stare into, nor a cavernous warehouse through which to walk. All there really is to see is the stillhouse, a small, unassuming building on a small, unassuming Yorkshire industrial estate. However, a visit is still worthwhile: the visitor will meet a small team who are passionate about their product. The tour is honest about how small-scale and artisanal production on this site is, with no attempts made to hide the clutter associated with making whisky on such a small site: boxes and boxes of yet to be filled bottles were stacked to one side of the stills, and a well-used stepladder sat by the spirit receiver, where it had been recently employed. All the staff I spoke to seemed excited about what the distillery is doing, and were more than happy to offer, and then discuss, samples of the Filey Bay whiskies not covered by the end-of-tour tasting. This was a far cry from the slick tourist-trail visitor experience: this was down to earth, honest, even… proper.
All this may leave you asking about the spirit itself. What is the result of using proper Yorkshire barley, proper Yorkshire water, and the proper Yorkshire Single Malt Process? The answer to this question will follow in Part two.
Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery, Humanby, Yorkshire, YO14 0PH.
Tours 7 days a week, lasting around an hour.
£15, including 3-sample tasting and a free glass. Drivers given bottled samples to try at home.
Visits recommended on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday, when distilling is in progress.