Wednesday, January 2, 2013
The first batch of its single malt whisky sold out before it even hit the shelves and the second left them bare within hours.
Now the English Whisky Company (EWC) is in its sixth year of trading, its award-winning products are revered by critics and customers alike and thousands of visitors are guided around the distillery every year.
It is a success that managing director Andrew Nelstrop, who founded the company in 2006 with his father James, could never have imagined in such a short space of time, but one which has seen the company take a well-earned seat in the world of whisky.
This year alone almost 40,000 people are expected to have visited St George’s Distillery, at Roudham near Thetford, and 150,000 bottles of whisky, all matured in American white oak bourbon barrels, will have been produced.
Of course, with the law dictating that whisky cannot be so-called until it is at least three years old, and with age playing a large part in the quality of the product, only a small proportion is on sale at any one time.
“It’s an interesting business because we’re buying our barley and casks for next year but we’re basing that on sales we may get in 10 years time - it’s part guess work,” Mr Nelstrop said. “We’re taking a punt but we’re also building up a massive stock so we’ve got enough to sell in the meantime.”
Despite East Anglia’s key role in producing malting barley for the vast Scottish whisky industry, there were no distilleries in England until the EWC began production.
Born of an idea mooted by the Nelstrop family, which has been in the farming business for 600 years, around a table one evening in 2005, around £2.5m was invested and within a month plans had been drawn up for a new building on a greenfield site on Harling Road. By March the next year construction work had begun and by September the Nelstrops had begun the distilling process. Today the turnover is more than £1m.
“There was a rumour that there was something opening up north so we had to get a move on - there are no prizes for being England’s second whisky company,” Mr Nelstrop said.
“We started distilling without doors or windows and me and my father took it in turns to guard the entrance because we had no gate.”
Renowned Scottish distiller Iain Henderson was also brought on board.
“He was retired and we managed to persuade him to come south and give us 18 months to make sure it was good stuff,” Mr Nelstrop said. “It was invaluable because he took us from being fairly unknowledgable Norfolk farmers to whisky producers.
“You’re never going to know it all but in practice I don’t make the whisky - all I’ve been doing is quietly picking up facts over the past six years.
“I think having a farming background has helped too - it’s such long term-ism. You’re thinking about things which might happen in 30, 50 or 100 years and this is a very similar industry. We’re putting whisky down which may not be in a bottle for 40 years.”
By 2009 the first single malt whisky, Chapter 5, had matured, with the company relying on tourism and the sale of spirits, liquors and other brands of whisky before then. This sold out before it even went on sale, and has since appeared on eBay for hundreds of pounds.
It was followed by Chapter 6, named as part of an ongoing numbering system allowing customers to follow the company’s progress as its products slowly mature, which sold out in a matter of hours.
Today, the company has a number of variations including peated whisky, celebration and single-cask editions, and even St George’s Pedro Ximenez which is made with sherry taken in along with sherry casks usually used to mature the whisky, then fortified with English whisky before being matured for an additional year.
EWC sells to 14 countries across the world and intends to release Chapter 14 and 15, which is between five and six years old, next year - it is currently superstitiously unsure about a Chapter 13.
A wider range of food and drink could also be available in its small cafe, and a further warehouse added as part of its tourism trade in which people could fill their own bottles.
Mr Nelstrop also plans to reduce the number of countries the company currently distributes to in a bid to pay more attention to those still on the books. This includes America which the company will begin selling to for the first time in March next year.
“When you’re selling abroad you have to go and see them,” he said. “Overall sales are growing but in the UK we want to grow them a lot. Overseas we want to grow a bit. We want to bring the overall number of countries down to about five so we can grow them up and go over to shows and that sort of thing.
“We just don’t make enough whisky to justify having someone whose on a plane going all over the world.”
He is currently in talks with all the major supermarkets to sell a new “black range”, a single malt whisky and a peated version, which he hopes could be in stock by the end of next year.
“We’ve been talking to all of the retailers and some seem more genuinely interested than others,” he added. “At the moment we’re mostly in independent retailers but supermarkets like to be doing a bit of a discount, which is fine.
“By spreading the two out we’ll have the chapter range for the independents and the black range for the supermarkets and nobody is missing out.”