Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A visit to St George’s Distillery

I first found out about St George’s Distillery at the end of 2011 while reading some articles on the excellent whisky social network website Connosr.  It is the closest distillery to my home and at 77 miles door to door seemed like the perfect candidate for being my first. After finding out a little more about the distillery I contacted them over the Christmas holidays to see if they were running any tasting tours over New Year. Unfortunately they weren’t, so I planned to make my visit to them in March when I hoped the weather would be more settled.

I have read that England used to have a handful of whisky distilleries, and four were listed in the book ‘The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom’ by Alfred Barnard published in 1887;

·         Vauxhall Distillery in Liverpool, founded in 1781 and closed very early in the 20th century.
·         Bank Hall, another Liverpudlian distillery, produced grain and malt whisky.
·         Bristol Distillery founded in the 17th century, and
·         Lea Valley was located in Stratford, London, produced both grain and malt whisky founded in the late 19th century and appears to have closed by 1910

Therefore the founding of St George's Distillery is the first to be operational for around one hundred years. 

The Distillery entrance
So on the first weekend of March we drove to Norfolk to visit St George’s Distillery. The distillery was easy to find located just off the A11 just to the East of Thetford, and very well sign posted. We arrived a around 11:25am and I was expecting to have to wait until the midday tour commenced but we were immediately welcomed by David Cott, one of the tour guides, Judy, who manages the visitor centre, and Joy who volunteered to take us on our own personal tour to save us waiting around.

We were whisked up the grand staircase into the conference room and served coffee while we watched a short video about the distillery and a brief insight into how whisky is made. Joy then explained a little about the history of the distillery and how it all came about. We were shown two variants of the barley that was used, and could easily tell the peated one. All of their malted barley comes from Crisps of Fakenham, just 40 miles away, their yeast from AB Mouri in Hull and water is pumped from under their feet from the Breckland aquifer.

The English Whisky Company was founded by the Nelstrop family, in Roudham in Norfolk. Andrew is Managing Director, but the audacious plan was dreamt up as a retirement plan by his father James, a grain farmer.

On turning 60, James did not wish to retire but to do something different, tied into farming. With his son Andrew they decided to investigate a subject close to James’s heart – whisky production, which had stopped in England over 100 years ago. Some of the best barley is grown in Norfolk and the Breckland water is superb. Several concepts were considered, a great deal of research was done in Scotland, Ireland and Wales and in October 2005 a planning application was submitted with approval granted on 10th January 2006.

Although the initial idea was for a micro distillery, customs and excise wouldn’t consider anything smaller than 1800 litre stills. So, in a field they owned down by the River Thet, the footings were dug and the building work began with Andrew at the helm as main contractor.

They managed to persuade Iain Henderson, a distiller of some note from Laphroaig, out of retirement and to help get them going. Iain has since retired again, but before he did, he spent 4 months training David Fitt, a brewer from Greene King to take over. David is now distillery manager and is also responsible for making a superb whisky spirit.

The distillery was opened by HRH Prince Charles and produced its first 'run' on 12th December 2006 and by the end of the month had filled their first 29 barrels

In August 2007 the distillery was opened to the public with a visitor centre, a fantastic whisky shop and tours commenced.

From the conference room we were led straight into the immaculate still room. We were shown the copper topped Mash Tun, the three stainless steel Washbacks as well as the all important copper ‘pot’ stills. The distillery was not working on the Saturday we visited but the middle Washback was filled with a two day old wash that would be distilled on the following Monday.
Joy explained the distillation process and showed us the wash and spirit stills, as well as the all important spirit safe along with a little of the history of its existence. Although I had already done my homework on whisky making it was still fascinating and my wife found it all very interesting.

The Still room with the Mash Tun in the foreground, the wash still to the left and spirit still to the right

From the still room we were led underneath to where the water is pumped into the Mash Tun. The water comes from a 50m deep bore hole on the property (you will notice a small wooden shed on the front lawn – this covers the bore hole). The position of the bore hole to the Breckland aquifer was found using water diviners.

We then moved onto where barrels are filled. All barrels are American Oak bourbon casks and come from Jim Beam. It was here we were invited to try the new make spirit. My wife declined, but I wasn't going to miss this opportunity. It really was an amazing experience to taste this raw malt spirit, straight from the still.

nearly 2000 casks maturing
The whisky is batch made by hand with no computers, matured in fine casks, bottled on site using their own water, is natural coloured, non chill-filtered and all bottled at a respectable 46% abv as standard. (unless cask strength, of course)

Since the original distillations back in 2006, nearly 2000 casks have been filled which are all maturing in their on site warehouses. The distillery creates unpeated and peated whisky, as well as having a rolling program of cask trials.

Tasting Treats

At the end of the tour we got a chance to taste the fruits of their labour, and were presented with a small tot of each of their current core expressions, all three year old malts. We started with Chapter 6 and moved on to Chapter 9 and finished with Chapter 11. My wife, not being a whisky drinker, did try the Chapter 6 and although liked the nose passed her samples onto me.

We then tried some of the other products they have introduced; their Blackberry Liqueur, Norfolk Cream, made with English malt spirit and cream, Norfolk Nog, made with English malt spirit, cream and honey and St. George's Pedro Ximenez sherry, a sherry fortified with English malt spirit, which were also enjoyed.

They have an impressive collection of whisky from around the world in their shop, but I definitely wanted to buy a distillery bottling and eventually decided to start with a Chapter 6, knowing that I will be going back in the not to distant future to get something else. We also picked up a bottle of Norfolk Cream for my wife and her friends, as an alternative to the Irish cream they occasionally enjoy.

We had a great day out at the St George’s Distillery and thoroughly recommend a visit. The tour took lasted around an hour and was very good value at £5.00 each. I’m already planning another visit as I want to see the distillery in operation. If my numbers come up on the lottery I might even start my own!

The core expressions, Chapters 6, 9, 11 and cask strength 11 

Release’s to date:

Chapter 1:         New Make Spirit, straight from the stills with a little water added bringing to 46%
Chapter 2:         New make Spirit again, but from the peated malt
Chapter 3:         18 month single malt spirit, bottled at 46%
Chapter 4:         18 month single malt spirit, peated, bottled at 46%
Chapter 5:         The first English Single Malt Whisky, a limited Edition 3 Year Old bottling (now sold out)
Chapter 6:         Classic Single Malt Whisky, matured solely in ex-bourbon casks, bottled at 46%
Chapter 7:         Rum Cask Single Malt Whisky, spending the last 6 months in rum casks, bottled at 46%
Chapter 8:         The first Peated English Single Malt Whisky, a limited Edition 3 Year Old bottling (now sold out)
Chapter 9:         Peated Single Malt Whisky, matured solely in ex-bourbon casks, bottled at 46%
Chapter 10:       Sherry Cask Single Malt Whisky, bottled at 46%
Chapter 11:       Heavily Peated Single Malt Whisky, matured solely in ex-bourbon casks, available at 46% and cask Strength introduced in July 2011

In addition two special bottlings have been released:

Founders Private Cellar. A limited edition drawn from a single cask and bottled at cask strength in a decanter presented in a wood case

Royal Wedding Commemorative Whisky, a limited editions created for the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

Contact details:
St. George's Distillery
Harling Road, Roudham
Norfolk NR16 2QW
T: 01953 717939


Robert said...

Hi Dave,

Great review and history of St Georges, I had been going to suggest you pay them a visit if you hadn't already.

They were the first distillery I visited (been twice now) back in late 2010 I think.

What I loved about their tour was the no nonsense approach to the production of the spirit. They neatly cut through a lot of the romantic mythology around the process and gave me a great start on my whisky journey.

I've made a bit of a mid life crisis hobby out of visiting distilleries since then. What I learned at St Georges has stood me in good stead for asking awkward questions lol.

Best of all at St Georges is their little whisky shop, some real gems to be had there. One day I'll go back and stay over for one of their tasting sessions.

10/10 for the reviews!

Dave said...

Thanks for your kind words Robert, yes they have a great whisky selection in their shop, but I have a great local wine merchants that stocks 90+ malts, and it's just 10 minutes away. I will be going back to St George's, and will do the tasting tour too but they're booked up till June now. I'm planning to visit Aucchentoshan in June, they have their open day on 16th.

Robert said...

I almost visited Aucchentoshan as I was working in the area just before Christmas. However I was diverted to Glengoyne distillery instead on the advice of a Malt mad friend of mine from Port Glasgow.

I'll make my mind up for myself eventually but I did find Glengoyne to be one of the better distillery tours I have done so far. If my time had been my own I would have visited both on the same day but I had to move on.
I want to see the triple distillation at Aucchentoshan just for the novelty of it, I may beat you there it all depends on where my job takes me.

At last count I have notched up 16 tours in about as many months and it would be fair to say that they do start to become a bit repetitive. Especially when they take you through an explanation of malting etc. But I have learnt a lot about why malts taste the way they do, I can fairly well predict the flavour of the malt just from the shape of the stills now. I have been lucky in that most of my visits have been outside of the usual tourist times. Very often the tour has consisted of just me and the tour guide, wonderful opportunities to talk about the whisky and leave the scripted tour behind. Showing some enthusiasm and interest in a dram has often got that special rare bottle unlocked for me to try out (so long as I don't tell anyone (wink))

Very envious of you re your local wine merchant 90+! Mind you my wife would probably leave me due to neglect if I had such a place only 10 mins away.

Next week I am going to try very hard to visit Penderyn distillery. I have a very messed up schedule assigned to me that includes a survey in Swansea but includes sites in Devon and North London. If I manage to re order them to make some kind of sense I'll let you know what I think of Penderyn.

PS don't you wish you could bottle the smell from the still room at St Georges?

PPS St Georges are also the only distillery I have visited so far that allow you to taste the new spirit.