Jim Murray thinks highly of English whisky. When this writer met him earlier this year, the world’s leading authority on whisky and the author of the eponymous – and highly influential -- Whisky Bible pointed whisky lovers in an unlikely direction: English drams. “Cotswolds, southern Yorkshire, Lake District…there are distilleries out there making some wonderful stuff,” he said. You can’t get a better guide than Murray when it comes to getting introduced to less explored whisky landscapes.
The last real whisky distillery in England closed in 1903, but over the last decade and a half, about 15 distilleries have sprung up all over the country. Each of these distilleries, most of which are boutique in nature, has different whisky-making philosophies. Some look up to Scotland, while others revel in pushing the envelope. Some also make gin and vodka, which does not require long periods of aging and hence, keep the money coming in.
Dhavall Gandhi is the chief whisky maker at The Lakes Distillery.
But first things first, what, exactly, is English whisky? A good person to answer that question is, incidentally, an Indian. Dhavall Gandhi is the chief whisky maker at The Lakes Distillery, in Cumbria. The Lakes was founded in 2011 by Paul Currie, whose father Harold set up the Isle of Arran distillery. Lakes makes single malt and blends, as well as gin and vodka, but it is worth noting that in July last year their first bottle of single malt, Genesis, sold for a record 7900 pounds at auction. Genesis is matured first in oloroso hogsheads, followed by American and European oak. It also spent time in orange wine casks from Spain before being bottled at cask strength. Meanwhile, here’s Gandhi on English whisky. “English whisky is still in its infancy, given that it’s been around for just about a decade or so. There are really no regulations as such. The Lakes sticks to the Scotch Whisky Regulations, but tweak it to reflect our philosophy. So, the canvas is pretty broad, and there’s this huge experimentation going on all around that is exciting,” says Gandhi.
Gandhi, 38, grew up in Valsad, near Mumbai, and joined Ernst & Young after completing his graduation in corporate finance in the US. The trajectory of his life changed, though, after a visit to a Scotch whisky distillery while attending a summer programme at the London School of Economics. “My father loves his whisky, so he asked me to visit a distillery, and I liked what I saw.”
A new life trajectory
At The Lakes, Gandhi has, among others, upped the time taken for fermentation to twice the industry average, but his real work is with wood and casks.
A couple of years after that trip Gandhi travelled to Kentucky on work, but made time to visit “every distillery there”. That was when he decided to pivot, so to speak. “I had just visited the Maker’s Mark distillery and was sitting outside when I decided that making whisky was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” says Gandhi. So, he informed his wife, signed up for an MSc in brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and after finishing his course, bagged a gig as a brewer at Heineken in the UK. But it was his next stint at The Macallan that was a lot more rewarding. “My time at The Macallan taught me a lot. Their attention to detail, their pioneering research into wood that is used for maturation…” His experience at the Speyside distillery may have been fulfilling, but, Macallan being a traditional brand, there was always a set template to follow. So, when Gandhi got an opportunity to chart out a route map for The Lakes in 2015, he took it up without much hesitation. And a lot of what he learnt at Macallan is put into practice at the English distillery – with a twist.
At The Lakes, Gandhi has, among others, upped the time taken for fermentation to twice the industry average, but his real work is with wood and casks. “I love working with wood, and it is integral when it comes to the flavour profile of our whiskies. I love working with sherry casks, including Pedro Ximenez, and even when it comes to bourbon, we experiment a lot, right from whether they are air-seasoned or kiln-dried to different toasting levels.” Gandhi’s fascination with sherry is reflected in a new malt series that was released by distillery in September this year. Whisky Maker Reserve No.1, says Gandhi, will pave the way for The Lakes’ future whiskies and represents the ‘house style’.
The NAS whisky, which has been bottled at a cask strength of 60.6 abv, has had long drawn out encounters with American, Spanish and French oak which have been seasoned with red wine and Pedro Ximenez sherry, and, irrespective of your loyalties and strongly held views regarding whisky, it does sound delightful.
Murali K Menon works on content strategy at HaymarketSAC. Read his columns