In England’s green and pleasant land, in its northern powerhouse and at its very southwest tip overlooking the Channel, whisky is flowing.  

However, it’s not Scotch that’s been lovingly matured for years in oak casks and stored in darkened warehouses overlooking heather-clad hillsides that drinkers are filling their glasses with.

Instead, the liquid gold – some so delicious that it’s been judged best in the world – is the product of a rising number of English whisky stills.

Having until relatively recently boasted precisely zero whisky distilleries, England is roaring ahead at a remarkable rate in a national effort to steal at least a tot from Scotch whisky’s overflowing barrel.

Proof comes from the English Whisky Guild, founded just two years ago when the idea of whisky distilleries south of border making much of an impact could have been written as the ramblings of someone who had over-indulged a little too much.

Back then, the world’s first in-person English Whisky Festival had just been held in a former custard factory in Birmingham involving around two dozen representatives from the sector, some of them whisky blenders and a handful of fledgling distilleries.

Inspired by a growing movement, the Guild formed and talk emerged of asking the UK Government for a ‘Geographical Indication’ for English whisky, a move that would confirm the product’s authenticity, production standards and origins, similar to Scotch whisky and Welsh lamb.

That may have seemed a touch premature at the time. But two years on, and although English whisky remains a drop in the whisky lake compared to Scotch, it is definitely on the rise.

Ad Gefrin Anglo-Saxon Museum and Distillery in Northumbria Ad Gefrin Anglo-Saxon Museum and Distillery in Northumberland (Image: Sally Ann Norman)

The Guild’s starting membership of 15 in 2022 has ballooned to 24. The newcomers are all whisky distilleries established in the past two years.

Having welcomed its first modern era whisky distillery in 2006, England now has an estimated 55 across the country, with more in the pipeline.

No wonder there are suggestions that it’s only a matter of time – that crucial ingredient in slow-paced world of whisky – before numbers soar even higher.

If that’s a sobering thought for Scotch producers, it turns out that English whisky is making its presence felt abroad too: it now sells in over 30 countries, including Japan, Canada, the USA and across Europe.

To rub salt into the wound, one English malt – a product of that first distillery, The English Whisky Co. - recently snatched the crown from Scotch and international rivals to be named World’s Best Single Malt at one awards ceremony.

Even more notable, it was the second time in just three years that an English distillery had taken the World Whiskies Awards crown.

According to the English Whisky Guild’s first annual review, which has just been published, England’s distilleries now stretch from Ad Gefrin Distillery in Northumberland, a combination of multi-million pounds museum showcasing the area’s Anglo-Saxon heritage and whisky producer, to Trevethan Distillery in Plymouth, a long-standing gin producer turning its attention to whisky.

In between, there are distilleries in bustling industrial cities. The Spirit of Manchester Distillery sits within Grade II listed arches underneath the Manchester Central Station and overlooked by gleaming skyscrapers; in North London, Bimber Distillery released its inaugural single malt in 2019, and the more recently established East London Liquor Company has opened in the East End.  

Distilleries are also emerging in rural settings: in Cumbria, the Lakes Distillery Co. Whiskymaker’s Reserve No 4 malt is also a World’s Best Single Malt winner.

Inside Northumberland whisky distillery, Ad GefrinInside Northumberland whisky distillery, Ad Gefrin (Image: Sally Ann Norman)

And in Derbyshire, the White Peak Distillery was launched in 2016 by a former PE teacher and her husband who, despite no track record in the drinks and spirits industry, wanted to make whisky in county where it had never been made before.

When they launched their first Wire Works Whisky in 2022, the online allocation sold out in less than ten minutes, while at the distillery doors, queues began to form from 8am.

“We received a call to say the main A6 was snarled up with people queuing in cars waiting to get on site,” recalls founder Claire Vaughn. 

“Overwhelmingly the nicest thing was chatting to customers and the shared sense of pride they had in what we were doing.”

In February, their work paid off when the distillery scooped two gold medals in the World Whiskies Awards.

Of course, English whisky has a long way to go to even come close to its northern rival. Scotch exports were worth £5.6bn last year, with 44 bottles of Scotch exported every second.

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In contrast, sales of English whisky in 2023 equates to 50,000 nine litre cases per year, with 40% sold outside the UK.

But, the EWG say the sector has potential to increase production capacity fivefold in the medium to long term as planned production capacity comes online.

English distilleries are also capturing a corner of the tourism market: there were over 250,000 visitors to English whisky distilleries in 2023.

Tácnbora blended whisky from Ad Gefrin distillery in NorthumberlandTácnbora blended whisky from Ad Gefrin distillery in Northumberland (Image: Gulp Photography)

Perhaps surprisingly for the likes of Islay’s distilleries – places of near pilgrimage for enthusiasts - in recent weeks, the Cotswold Distillery was named the most popular whisky distillery in the UK and Ireland by English-based The Cask Connoisseur’s 2024 Whisky Index.

Daniel Szor, a former Wall Street financier who loved malt whisky so much he poured his life savings into establishing the Cotswold Distillery, and the EWG’s current chairman, says even he didn’t anticipate the boom in the sector.

“As an early entrant to English whisky, I had no idea the English whisky category would witness the phenomenal growth it has seen over the past ten years.

“It now feels far more relevant than I could have ever expected for English whisky to get the recognition it merits.”

Morag Garden, former Head of Sustainability & Innovation at the Scotch Whisky Association and now CEO of the English Whisky Guild, agrees the English dram is very much on the rise.

“We are small just now but growing,” she says. 

“There’s growth both in the new distilleries that are coming through but also in the ones that are already established which are building their brands and thinking about expanding.

“They’re building up their stock and creating new brands.

The English Whisky Co. in Norfolk has recently won a top award for its malt whiskyThe  English Whisky Co. in Norfolk has recently won a top award for its malt whisky (Image: The English Whisky Co.)

“There’s a focus on not just single malt and barley, but also on using other cereals and limited cask editions: it’s really innovative.”

She’s not the only Scot to have a presence in the English whisky sector either.

Rothes-based Forsyths, famous for its whisky stills and distillation equipment, counts English distilleries among its customers. And some distilleries, such as the Cotswold Distillery, have lured key figures from the Scotch sector to help with their production.

“All the learning, knowledge and connections are really valuable,” she adds. “It’s a very open and collaborative sector, and there’s a lot of cross-pollination from Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland.”

Although the idea of English whisky sounds like an oxymoron, large distilleries once operated in London, Bristol and Liverpool, pouring out high quantities of the spirit.

One Bristol distillery specialised in sending its whisky to Scotland and Ireland to be blended.

However, production stalled in the late 19th century as drinking habits turned to gin.

In recent years, however, relaxed regulation on distilling and still sizes paved the way for a thriving craft gin sector and, more recently, whisky.

At the English Whisky Company distillery in Norfolk, Andrew Nelstrop, another original member of the EWG, is still celebrating after his sherry cask matured whisky scooped the title of the World’s Best Single Malt Whisky 2024 from right under the noses of Scotch rivals.

Said to evoke hints of rich dark fruits, almond and vanilla with hints of digestive biscuits, honey, figs and chocolate, it won over judges during blind tastings at the recent World Whiskies Awards.

Taking the top honours and beating off whiskies from international distilleries represents a huge seal of approval not just for his whisky but for the sector, he says.  

“It has been an amazing year – probably the best ever.

“To be voted best single malt whisky in the world, even against all our Scottish competitors - that’s a definitive win for us and is amazing for English whisky.

“Plus, the fact it was a blind tasting makes it even better.”

Andrew Nelstrop of the English Whisky Co.Andrew Nelstrop of the English Whisky Co. (Image: The English Whisky Co.)

His sherry cask unpeated single malt usually retails at around £60 but shoppers will struggle to get their hands on it – it’s sold out.

Meantime, others are arriving on the scene. “The sector is definitely growing,” he adds.

“But I think over the next 10 years we will see new people coming in, some might go out and some will hang on.

“Right now, there are 55 active distilleries in England – our membership is expected to double in the next three or four years: it’s growing that fast.”

There’s no need for Scotch producers to worry too much, however.

“We have 197 countries in the world,” he adds, “there’s enough room for everyone.”