If I walked down to the beach right now I’d be able to see the Isle of Wight - I am writing this from about as far away from Highland Park and Scapa in Orkney, my spiritual whisky home, as it is possible to be within the UK (as it stands today). On a round trip from Chichester I can explore the current state of UK whisky, so I’m holding my own whisky-led referendum on whether Scotland should stand alone in a whisky-centric UK?
Heading north-west my first stop to explore the new generation of English whiskies would be the Cotswold Distillery, still in preparation with the whisky but due to start selling the gin this month. They represent a new style of business, a concept shared with the Lakes Distillery and Adnams adventure into spirits in Southwold, Suffolk, whereby they intend to market both gin and whisky - and perhaps other spirits as well. Good business, as the gin is ready for market quickly giving income whilst the whisky matures, even if it is to be sold by style and not by age statement. Fellow writers have lauded the Cotswold set-up. I am a newby in the whisky world and have yet to visit, but I see this style of whisky business as a new generation: spreading the risk, keeping options open, multi-faceted. Will it work? We shall see, but with the right blending there is absolutely no reason why not, especially with its great ingredient provenance.
En route to the ferry for Ireland I should stop off in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons to visit Penderyn. The stylish blue bottle (or was it a blue box?) announced the first Welsh whisky to the world - well, the first legally distilled one - in 2004. I first tasted it whilst hosting a stand for Waitrose at The Royal Welsh Show - we were sampling Welsh cheeses partnered with Welsh beer - and whisky. I remember toffee and the smoothness of it still, and look forward to reacquainting myself with a whisky that has become quite mainstream within whisky selections in both supermarkets and specialist shops, despite changing its iconic bottle. Always eye-catchingly, stylishly packaged, Penderyn has established itself as a serious whisky. It is a long way from a triumph of presentation over content, a trap which some others have fallen straight into. Interestingly, Penderyn went into other spirits some 3 years after launching its whisky.
The ferry to Ireland would deliver me to Rosslare but I should head north immediately to Bushmills on the north coast and within the current UK, although I would make a mental note to return this way and visit the new Tullamore Dew visitor centre. I have visited Bushmills twice (once when it was open!) and my love affair with it started over a bowl of porridge! Norah Brown, ambassador of Ulster food, first made me porridge at the BBC Good Food show: Whites oats cooked slowly with water, topped with a crust of Demerara sugar, floating on a pool of single cream and laced with Black Bush. What heaven! We only have porridge à la Nora at home when there’s snow on the ground (which is not often in West Sussex). I remember describing it in a speech at a Farmhouse Breakfast Campaign event in Belfast with Dr Ian Paisley sitting right in front of me: what a towering presence that man was! I am certain that his lasting legacy will be one of being able to accept change.
I have always found Bushmills whiskies to be accessible, easy to drink, fresh and clean. That is not to decry their complexity, as they encompass many traditional whisky tastes but I think spice with them rather than smoke. I think fresh and softly, accessible ruggedness, rather like the astonishing Giant’s Causeway and the lush green fields surrounding the coastal distillery site. I also feel a tie as in 2014 our friends The 1975 headlined at the Bushmills Live! Festival. The band members were all presented with special bottles of whisky blended from selected casks to represent their individual ages. I hope to catch up with drummer George, the son of my flat-mate from a life-time ago, when he opens his bottle. Maybe I am too late already? Finding that out is on my to do list (date unassigned).
To enter into the debate over who has the heritage rights to porridge and whisky (Ireland or Scotland?) is as dangerous as sitting down with an Italian and a Chinese to discuss the origins of pasta! Scotland, however, has so many more distilleries, plus designated regions of origin for style and flavour profiles as well as marketing groups to promote whisky tourism and heritage. Yes, the multi-nationals are more than evident, and through them comes investment, the re-opening of many previously moth-balled distilleries but also a large degree of centralisation. But there are smaller groups too and some family ones, as well as a surprising number of micro-distilleries. These craft operations, some still on plan and yet to get out of the ground, are a new generation of whisky producers who are at the same stage that craft breweries and CAMRA where at 20 years ago. This is new thinking: about how to make whisky and manage distilleries sustainably, and about whisky and community, using as much locally grown cereal and labour as possible, and bringing tourism, and therefore revenue, to remote areas.
I am also struck by the number of women working in whisky in Scotland. I have met, made contact with or spoken to a very few and know that there are more. I have enjoyed a dram or two with a living Whisky Icon in Pat Retson, Brand Heritage Manager at Highland Park; somewhere out there is Rachel Barrie of Morrison Bowmore (I was so intrigued to find the blender of the elegant Auchentoshan range is a woman) and Annabelle Miekle, @thewhiskybelle have all been welcoming in person or on-line. Whisky is a generous drink and its ambassadors are generous too.
My journey back home brings me via the English Whisky Company in Norfolk. Built by a farming family on their grain-producing land, this distillery is mourning the loss of James Nelstrop, its founder, as I write. The first English distillery in over 100 years, the new stills disgorged the first spirit in 2006. I did not know of them until we visited last year. I rather expected to be embarrassed by the whisky but was very impressed. Preconceptions are seldom good. I apologise. I have the Chapter 9 which is peated, smokey and delicious. A friend described it as a ‘good old-fashioned whisky’: I think he meant traditional but so often those words are muddled and that is not good.
I am back home after my imaginary journey. I know that there is warmth and friendship in the whiskies of each of the countries of the current UK, but that Scotland has something special. Whisky is part of the colourful tapestry of the life of that nation. It is 25% of the UK’s total food and drink revenue: with beer, salmon, haggis, venison, potatoes, some farmhouse cheeses, oat cakes, ice cream, soft fruit and eggs that's a great basis for a vibrant food and drink industry. If I had the right to vote, I think I’d be saying YES.