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The first English Whisky Festival is happening: what you need to know

We speak to the founder of the first festival dedicated to English whisky.

The first English Whisky Festival is happening: what you need to know
Marc Chacksfield
29 September 2020

The first dedicated English Whisky Festival has been revealed and will be taking place virtually this October.

We are all about whisky at ShortList, having sampled our way through the some fantastic whisky - single malt and otherwise - as well as the best bourbon and best Irish Whiskey. But English whisky (apart from Cotswolds Single Malt which is in our best whisky list) to our shame, has been something that has eluded us so far.

And that is what is makes the English Whisky Festival so enticing. The event, which is being put on by the English Whisky Society, is in celebration of all things English whisky, a category that has boomed over the last few years thanks to the rather recent proliferation of distillers, from just one in 2006 to around 25 now.

Given Covid-19 is still scuppering live plans the world over, this will be a virtual festival - but that doesn't mean that you can't get in on the action. There will be 30 samples from 14 English distilleries during the festival and those who sign up will get their very own whisky tasting kits (5 x 25ml samples, as well as some snacks).

Taking place over the 16-17 October, the festival promises to be an event "exclusively celebrating English Whisky and the distilleries behind the liquid" and has a programme that includes panel discussions (with a number of UK distilleries), quizzes and more.

To get more of an understanding about English whisky and the event we chatted to organiser and English Whisky Society founder Richard Foster.

The first English Whisky Festival is happening: what you need to know

ShortList: Why have you decided to do festival dedicated to English whisky?

Richard Foster: I started running Whisky tasting events at Ignition Brewery (a not-for-profit taproom creating meaningful employment for staff with learning disabilities) when I moved to Sydenham two years ago. It was basically a volunteering opportunity to help them raise their profile whilst enjoying sharing and learning about Whisky in the process. I ran themed nights and during the Six Nations I came across English Whisky, but there was no central hub or resource as a go-to place to learn more about the category (only each distillery's own website). So the idea was born.

I ran a tasting for 50 people on St. George's Day earlier this year (online) and due to the success of that, decided to put on the first ever English Whisky Festival (under some duress from guests at the first tasting).

ShortList: How you think the festival will work in these strange times?

RF: Online whisky tastings have really taken off over the past six months. Many people will never get to visit most distilleries so it's actually been a great opportunity for the most innovative distilleries to reach a new audience and share their products with a wider audience. For a niche category, like English whisky, this has meant distilleries like Bimber and White Peak putting on small, but brilliantly curated tastings that have spread by word-of-mouth and created quite a stir.

Doing this online doesn't phase me at all, in fact it's exciting to see how broad a reach we can have that wouldn't have happened if we'd been in a physical location.

ShortList: How has English whisky evolved over the last few years?

RF: The first modern English Whisky was laid down about 15 years ago. Initially there were a trickle of new distilleries emerging, but in recent years the number has grown exponentially to the point where there are now about 24 distilleries making, or having made whisk(e)y in England.

What's exciting about the category is the breadth of styles, approaches, equipment and ideas. Unlike Scotch (which is bound by very specific rules) England has more leeway and distilleries are taking advantage of that with some innovative production processes and wood types for cask ageing. There are also distilleries championing organic and heritage grains, others focusing on sustainability and some single-mindedly aiming to make the best whisky in the world.

ShortList: Do you think English whisky can eventually take on the might of what Scotland offers?

RF: The entire amount of whisky currently produced in England matches the output of a single good sized Scottish Distillery. This isn't about competing like-for-like, rather English whisky is a small-batch, craft movement and drinkers can venture on a unique journey with these distilleries from their first new-make, to their first release and beyond - creating a truly magical bond unavailable from the larger, established brands.

So Scotland isn't going to be losing sleep over England's output by volume. However, where England can succeed is in drawing the discerning Whisky drinker South of the border to experience award-winning, hand-crafted, small-batch whisky that is rare in its availability, but rarer still in the opportunity it affords enthusiasts to take part in a whisky experience like no other.

If the English Whisky Festival sounds like your thing, then tickets cost from £35.

Main Photo: by Anastasia Zhenina from Pexels