By Jack Peat, TLE Editor
Earlier this year I boarded an overnight train from London with a group of friends to the barren whisky wonderland that is Speyside. Home to more than 60 per cent of Scotland’s single malt production I was anticipating being bathed in a tapestry of white-washed buildings hidden in remote nooks of the Morayshire valleys with aromas of malt and American oak engulfing the senses. Mildly disappointed, I returned feeling underwhelmed by the overt sense of commercialism evident at all the distilleries we visited. Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Jonny Walker, William Grant & Sons – after a while they had all started to look the same.
So when I received the invite to visit a new, independent distillery in the Lake District I decided it could be the antidote to my lacklustre tour of the Highlands. At first glance, there isn’t a great deal telling the two apart. Glacial lakes, forests and fells litter the short journey by road from Penrith train station to Bassenthwaite Lake. At the foot of Skiddaw, Bassenthwaite stretches approximately six kilometres by 1.2 kilometres, but is also extremely shallow, with a maximum depth of about 70 ft. It is also the only lake in the Lake District to be called by that name; all the others are meres, tarns and waters.
As a doppelganger of the Scottish highlands with fast flowing rivers, rugged mountains and clean pure air, it perhaps shouldn’t some as a surprise to find the Lake District has a long, albeit shady, whisky producing history. Clusters of illicit distilleries once operated in the area, keeping the tax man at bay by supplying whisky to the local magistrates. But as the local authorities cleaned up their act the number of distilleries operating in the Lakes declined until the notion of English whisky became a relic of the past, shipped north of the border to Scottish regions with established, and legitimate, trade connections to the rest of the World.
But English whisky is enjoying something of a renaissance since the start of the millennia with distilleries Norfolk, Suffolk, Cornwall and London starting production of single malts. As is distilling in the Lake District. The Lakes Distillery, set in the backdrop of the beautiful Cumbrian hills and mountains, is the largest distillery in England, aiming to produce the equivalent of 300,000 bottles of single malt whisky per year with the capacity to produce 1,000,000. The distillery, the result of £6 million in investment, is based at a refurbished model farm with the main barn housing the mash house and still house and an old cattle shed converted into the warehouse, with further cattle sheds being transformed into a Visitor Centre, artisan bar and bistro.
The Bistro at the Distillery offers an extensive lunch and supper menu that was overseen by nationally renowned, ‘king of local’ chef and restaurateur Terry Laybourne, a man I had the displeasure of briefly meeting as a waiter in Newcastle. The Scotland-meets-Cumbria vibe is typical of a Laybourne eatery. Sausage and haggis are served in pretentious slates/ baskets/ boards or, if you’re lucky, plates. Expect the usual fillets of white fish, blades of beef, salads of summer vegetables and confits of duck, followed by Lakes Whisky Truffles or Lakes Gin and Lemon Truffles for dessert.
After a tour of the premises we got down to business, sampling the distillery’s blend created from whiskies from around the British Isles. As is the case with most blends we can’t be certain about the precise geography of the single malts, but it was evident from the crisp taste that care had been taken to achieve a well-balanced dram. Fudge on the nose with a light palate, you will pick up hints of spice and salt with a pinch of peatiness right at the end. It is a solid blend, which leaves you in anticipation for the real thing as it slowly matures in a cattle shed. How very British.
London to Penrith takes approximately three hours by train. Book tickets with Virgin Trains here
Find out more about The Lakes Distillery and Bistro at the Distillery here