Last Friday (20th Oct) the Whisky Unplugged boys set off on a road trip to Norfolk for a weekend of camping, jokes and drams. The primary target en route was, of course, the English Whisky Company (EWC, formerly the St George’s Distillery).
Whilst S and T had been to the distillery before, this was a first time visit for M and we had read that the site had recently opened up a new cafe/shop area (barely 5 weeks ago!), so we were all keen to experience it, as well as stock up for the weekend ahead.
Upon arrival it was clear to see that EWC had invested heavily in the new visitor centre, which looked very modern compared to the more traditional distillery building sitting alongside it. The new centre was a clean-looking combo of exposed wooden panelling, a giant, curved metal roof and large panes of glass–with the obligatory stack of barrels outside.
Upon entering, the sheer size of the centre made us pause to take it all in, before the large collection of cabinets and shelves caught our attention, filled with whisky bottles from EWC and the world over. The vastness of the structure was emphasised by the fact that we were the only people there apart from the two staff members in their respective areas: one in the shop front, and one in the cafe section. Unfortunately, the clatter of empties in the distance signalled that serving hours were over. Instead, we decided to peruse the stock before talking to the staff members at ease about all things whisky.
This is where things then took an unfortunate downturn.
Perhaps there were still teething problems in operating the new visitor centre, but sadly our presence did not seem to inspire the staff to take an interest in us. Once we had looked over the shelves, we eventually had to initiate the conversation to talk whisky and try some samples before we bought anything. This is when we found out that the distillery’s sole front of house staff in the shop did not a) like whisky, or b) know much about whisky or the distillery she worked for. Now, there’s nothing wrong per se with not liking whisky. However, one could argue that liking whisky is not commensurate with being able to appreciate or discuss its characteristics. Hopefully, EWC see the value in training their staff so they can be brand (and whisky) ambassadors.
Making any form of conversation proved to be a real struggle and the staff member just did not seem to know much about their products, beyond the basics (e.g. the now defunct chapter-naming that EWC whisky was previously inspired by so that people could follow the chapters in their whisky making book). Given that we had collectively travelled 10 hours to make this trip, and are passionate about whisky, this was pretty disheartening. This was the same week that their expression “The Norfolk – Parched” had received an award from Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2018 as best European whisky. Whether Jim floats your boat or not, this could be a great hook to engage visitors with–perhaps EWC are not interested in awards, which would be refreshing in itself!
Though a perfectly nice staff member (they weren’t rude at all, for instance), the more we asked about the distillery, the recent rebranding, the different expressions, the more awkward it became. I know we can tend to be whisky-bores but we hoped that such an environment would provide a space to properly geek out about our love of it!
When it did come to samples, although we were offered plenty to choose from, we had to keep asking to taste different expressions, which again, just added to the awkwardness of the visit. The tiny plastic thimbles did not allow the chance to appreciate what was on offer too much. We were keen to review The Parched but that will have to remain a quickfire affair, for now. Not even designating the driver to the staff could coax more fulfilling measures!
We were left very confused by the new EWC visitor centre. Apologies, “shop and kitchen”. It’s not a centre and it’s not meant for visitors. Perhaps that was our misconception. This new space is for customers and café patrons, with whisky lovers a distant third. As if to underscore this, a couple came into the store during our visit and promptly bought two jars of whisky-flavoured chutney and then disappeared. Perhaps that is EWC’s target market, the casual customer, not the discerning whisky drinker. That doesn’t quite chime with the premium feel they place on their whisky (or prices) but maybe they have worked out that it is more profitable to be an outpost of fine goods and food to passing trade, than a beacon for whisky lovers. Maybe their distillery tours are fantastic and those interested in whisky should bypass the shop altogether in favour of these. Timings didn’t allow us to test that theory out, but based on current experience, Whisky Unplugged won’t be returning anytime soon. Shame. Although this visit took the wind out of our sails, we recovered to have a great weekend and some new reviews will soon follow!
M, S and T.