THERE’S something oddly familiar about wandering around St George’s distillery. The copper stills look the same, the oak barrels look the same, even the amber liquid in the glass at the end of the tour looks the same.
For all intents and purposes, this could be a Scotch whisky distillery anywhere in the Highlands or on Speyside or on Islay. But this is no Scotch whisky distillery – this is an English whisky distillery.
And it’s a very smart looking distillery too. The English Whisky Company has been making spirit on the site at Roundham, to the south-west of Norwich, since 2006.
The distillery was built by Andrew Nelstrop and his father, James, on the family’s farm. Andrew had already diversified the family business from agriculture into construction, but building a distillery allowed him and his father to indulge their shared passion for whisky.
They set about constructing England’s first distillery for 120 years, which now produces up to 140,000 bottles of spirit each year and is visited by some 75,000 enthusiasts. Each year the company releases a new bottling or “chapter”, with its first single malt, Chapter 5, having gone on sale in 2009.
The company is now up to Chapter 16 and produces a mix of peated and unpeated malts. The backbone of its wood policy is first-fill bourbon casks from the United States, along with a mix of sherry and other wine barrels, including Burgundy and Madeira.
Instead of simply buying barrels, the company decided to import rich and thick Pedro Ximenez (PX) sherry too. Blending the sherry with some single malt led to the creation of Nelstrop’s PX, a part-fortified wine, part-liqueur that defies classification but which displays delicious flavours of brown sugar and Christmas pudding.
Chapter 6, on the other hand, is all about the lighter notes, with lemon and orange flavours intermingling with the vanilla backdrop. In contrast, Chapter 11 is all about the peat, with plenty of smoky and TCP aromas.
Watch out for further developments from the company. Plans include a new grain whisky and an expanded visitors’ centre, which will include a daytime restaurant and a much larger shop.
Brewing up a storm
Norwich and its surroundings may be developing a name for themselves in the fledgling English whisky market, but the area is perhaps better known for its brewing. There are scores of microbreweries throughout North Norfolk – the same arable farming tradition that gave rise to St George’s distillery has long fed the desire of brewers wanting to make beer.
Nowhere is that more true than at Woodforde’s Norfolk Ales. “It was a hobby that got completely out of hand,” laughs David Crease as he leads the way through the company’s brewery at Woodbastwick, to the east of Norwich. Crease and Ray Ashworth were enthusiastic members of the Norwich Homebrewers’ Society and founded Woodforde’s in 1981.
They named the brewery after Parson Woodforde, a local clergyman in the nineteenth century who brewed his own ale. Crease took early retirement from his job as a chemistry teacher in 1994 to become head brewer.
The brand hit the headlines in 1996 when its Wherry bitter – named after a local style of boat with a retractable sail for navigating the Norfolk Broads – was crowned “supreme champion beer of Britain” by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra). Crease is now retired, although he still comes back to run tours, with the responsibility for maintaining the high standard of the beer falling to head brewer Belinda Jennings, who joined from Suffolk-based brewery Adnams in September 2015.
Woodforde’s can produce about five million pints a year. Alongside its core range of beers like Bure Gold, Nelson’s Revenge and Wherry, the company has expanded into more modern styles of beer, including Norada, Reedlighter and Parson’s Porter.
Two of the liquid highlights for me were Reedlighter, which balanced sharp grapefruit-centred hoppiness with maltier notes, and Nog, an “old ale” that offers flavours of chocolate, coffee and liquorice. Wherry, the star of the show, makes for an excellent session ale and cropped up in many of the bars I visited, including – as you’d expect – across the road from the brewery at its pub or “brewery tap”, The Fur & Feather, which not only stocks the full range of beers but also serves scrumptious food. I tucked into a “Norkie Yorkie”, pieces of steak in a soft Yorkshire pudding, accompanied by a pint of Wherry.
The Holiday Inn Norwich North where I stayed was serving Wherry from one of Woodforde’s beerboxes, offering a modern take on the bag-in-a-box model. Norwich is only a short hour’s hop on the plane from Aberdeen with BMI and the hotel is conveniently located next to the airport. It has about 120 rooms, so it feels quite homely while still offering lots of facilities, like a restaurant, bar, and leisure centre, with a swimming pool and gym.
Wine to dine
With whisky and beer ticked off the list, it was time to head into Norwich itself to explore the city’s wine credentials. I enjoyed browsing the shelves of Jarrold, the venerable department store, to peruse its range of wines and spirits, and The Library restaurant – housed in the UK’s first public subscription library – provided a picturesque setting to sip a glass or two.
Two of the wine-related highlights for me were The Last wine bar and restaurant, located in a Victorian shoe factory, which had a cracking range of affordable wines by the glass, and The Wine Press restaurant at the Maids Head Hotel, which traces its roots back to 1287 and is billed as “the oldest hotel in England”.
The Wine Press serves tipples from Norfolk’s Winbirri Vineyards by the glass, which provided an excellent opportunity to try some English still wine. Winbirri’s Bacchus offered floral aromas of honeysuckle on the nose, which led into peach and apricot flavours on the palate. I sometimes find Bacchus – a hybrid grape variety well-suited to cooler climates – to be a bit flabby, but Winibirri’s example had concentrated fruit flavours and plenty of acidity for balance.
The Bacchus worked well with my starter of partridge duo. But the wine to write home about for me was Winibirri’s Pinot Noir, which had such intense red cherry flavours that I could have sworn they were closer to black cherries. It paired delightfully with my main course of pork cheek and tenderloin.
There are few cities where you can find such an interesting mixture of beer, whisky and wine, but Norwich skilfully weaves together the three themes.
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