My family had come to stay last weekend so I was juggling ‘work’ duties with spending some time with them which is never an easy thing. Burns’ dinners on the Friday and Sunday evenings at Blackfriars in Newcastle were punctuated by entertaining and the usual family hijinks over the weekend.
Training up and down on both the Friday and Sunday evening to Newcastle helped but I was still pretty knackered come the Monday morning, but my journeying had only started…
I had volunteered to drive my 92 year-old Granny back to Ulverston in the South Lakes in Cumbria on the basis that I could also go and visit the newly opened Lakes Distillery near Cockermouth. A quick email to Katie at the distillery to ensure they had time to see me saw an equally quick reply confirming the appointment. So 3 hours later, once my Granny was safely ensconced in her cosy little flat, I set about the drive north to the distillery.
Now, before I describe my visit to the Lakes Distillery – and indeed the two other distilleries I visited – I must tell you that I am dreadful cynic. For some of you that will come as a surprise, for others I fear not. Years of life have taught me one thing – doubt everything. It is a burden and not one I carry easily. I’ve tried everything to shake it, but I don’t think I can change now. Therefore, when I set out on this journey, I had to manacle and isolate this side of me in order that I might – dare I say it – enjoy myself.
You see, like everyone else, I have read and heard about the new crop of distilleries that seem to be spreading like wildfire all over the UK and Ireland. Sure whisky is on a high – existing distilleries and distillers are expanding and increasing capacity with startling regularity – but is there room for new, small, independently-owned distilleries? How can individuals or even small companies possibly be well organised (not to mention funded) enough in order to compete in an industry dominated by a handful of giant corporations? If they do gain the significant investment they need, what do they hope to achieve in this fragile marketplace? How can they possibly survive a notoriously precarious occupation? You can see my concerns.
However, within seconds of arriving at the car park of the Lakes Distillery, after one of the most beautiful drives I’ve undertaken, my doubts started to melt. Why; had I never seen a car park before? Yes, but check out the view from this car park…
My heart warmed as I made my way down the steps and across the road to the distillery. I stepped into the cosy but slick shop/reception area and was greeted by the famous North-West english warm welcome. I had expected to meet and be shown around by the aforementioned Katie but although she was indeed on hand, it was Paul Currie, the distillery’s founder and MD who took me by the hand.
It soon became clear that, aside from being a ‘serious’ venture, there was already a real sense of ‘triumph over adversity’ given the project was first conceived back in 2010. After finding the perfect site, only 100 metres or so from its water source – the River Derwent – planning approval was received in late 2011. Due to the location, within the Lake District National Park, the company was committed to using only the existing buildings of the old farm buildings with no new structures permitted. This has meant that the outward appearance of the distillery is that of an old farm with only the signing and new windows really giving any hint of this being a shiny new project.
Walking past the enticing smells coming from the cafe and restaurant, I was ushered straight into the heart of the distillery after a quick education-by-video (on one of the flashiest curve-screened TVs I’ve ever seen) on the water source and its journey from Sprinkling Tarn around Scafell Pike. This plays almost like a roller-coaster ride as it is filmed from a helicopter so I would definitely recommend you don’t sample any drams before this!
Too the distillery itself…
I don’t know exactly what I expected when I walked in to the ‘distillery house’ but it is teaming with new equipment – mash tun and wash backs from brewery specialist ‘Musk’ and distilling equipment from McMillan’s. Complete distilleries in one ‘room’ are nothing new, a la Kilchoman, but they are still fascinating and endearing. You may notice that the photos suggest a distillery not in operation. You would be right – they started in November 2014 for preliminary testing and ceased at Christmas time. They are planning to recommence with full production at the end of January/beginning of Feb 2015.
I won’t detail the distillation method here – suffice it to say that they are ‘doing it’ the old-fashioned and ‘right’ way. The spirit itself will be unpeated (with an option to peat occasionally) and will be filled into a mixture of fresh american oak casks, ex-Bourbon barrels and hogsheads and ex-Sherry butts.
What is interesting is that they will be doing quite a bit of experimental work when it comes to cask management. Paul told me that along with work with ‘floating staves’ and chats with John Glaser (of Compass Box fame), they would also be experimenting with maturation in other types of wood altogether, such as Acacia, Birch, Chestnut and Maple. This is made possible by the fact that not being a Scottish distillery, The Lakes (along with the other English distilleries) is not constrained by some of the more draconian SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) rules. These will be very much the exception and will be ‘one-offs’ but should make for at least interesting tasting!
For the minute the distillery has three liquid products for sale. There is a vodka and a gin, both of which will be produced at the distillery when full production recommences. The whisky product they sell and market is known as ‘The One’. The idea behind this is a blended malt whisky that contains whisky from every whisky producing country in the British Isles. It has already won a silver medal at IWSC and has been met with favourable reviews, so worth seeking out.
They are also offering a ‘Founder’s Club’ membership which includes a bottle every year for the first ten years production and other benefits to the first 2975 people to sign up.
So how are they going to survive? What’s the outlook?
Well, in my opinion, it will be a combination of factors. First of all a new, ‘craft’ distillery needs to be a destination, with facilities for visitors other than the distillery itself. Tick. I had a great coffee and I saw the menu in the restaurant which was almost full of customers.
Secondly it needs to be in a location where tourists flock and is easy to get to. Tick. It’s in the Lake District. Nuff said.
Thirdly it needs product from the word go. Tick. See above.
Fourthly, it needs to put itself out there with support and patronage from the local community and wider local area. Tick.
Fifthly, it needs to become nationally recognised in order to draw in people and customers from further afield. Half a tick. They’re getting there and are taking steps to ensure they are in the minds of those looking for something different.
In summary then, I left the place as I entered it – smiling. I believe Paul and the distillery team have the right attitude and location to make it.
They may have actually helped alter a cynics attitude. We will watch with interest.