Venue Visit: The English Whisky Company

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.

English Whisky Company

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.

The Norfolk

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!

EWC – The Kitchen

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.

Categories: The English Whisky Co, Venues | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Distillery Visit: Glenfarclas

When the WU guys were putting together a trip to visit Speyside, needless to say that we were spoilt for choice. With over half of Scotland’s distilleries being based in the area surrounding the meandering River Spey, and none of our 4-strong troop having been to the region before, we were living and breathing the grown-up equivalent of being kids in a sweet shop.

Between us, we had found a great looking cottage in the village of Archiestown for a long weekend in March (yes, that’s how long it’s taken to write this up) which we then used to triangulate a Speyside visitor centre hit list. With the cottage being roughly equidistant from Cardhu, Aberlour and the region’s giant, Glenfiddich, that had pretty much settled it without having to look much further, but as the title suggests, we couldn’t visit the region without also going to Glenfarclas.


Double Thumbs Up for Glenfarclas

What had particularly attracted us to the distillery – other than having enjoyed their whiskies on numerous occasions throughout the years – was the fact that it was still a family run distillery and hadn’t succumb to the big money ownership that many distilleries have (and that many have had to). What that meant to us was that we were expecting a smaller distillery with more humble staff than your standard big-budget-backed whisky-maker, and it certainly delivered.

Located just off the A95, the roadsign to the distillery was almost too easy to miss, but luckily enough the classic red font of the Glenfarclas logo stood out from the snow-covered roads and fields, directing us up a narrow farm lane to the car park. As we shimmied and skidded our way along the icy track we noticed a giant tour coach parked just outside the visitor centre (which we narrowly missed) and as we drove around an old and ornamental still, we managed to find one of a few dug-out parking spaces.

Glenfarclas Visitor Centre

Having taken some 9 hours of travelling from our southern England starting point, we bundled out of our car and looked on in awe at the picture perfect distillery. Covered in snow and with the warmly-lit interior beckoning us inside, we entered the visitor centre to welcoming smiles and hellos from the staff – and this was with just 45 minutes left on the clock of their working day.

The visitor centre is of course, first and foremost, a gift shop and upon walking in you are instantly drawn to the remains of another still and the multitude of glass cabinets adorning the room’s walls. Each cabinet was themed with past releases and current offerings all nestled amongst the rare and ancient drams from the distillery’s past. These were also accompanied by price tags that ranged from reasonable to eye-watering. Our attention was particularly drawn to the distillery’s “Family Cask” section, filled with bottles in chronological order from the date that they were first distilled from 1952 onwards. We each sought out the bottle from our respective years of birth, and were content with just looking through the cabinet doors, rather than shelling out the £3,500 each!

Family Cask Display

Given the timeframe, we were not in time to undertake any tour, but we had plenty of time to enter the tasting room, and join up with the coach trippers (who were probably all 40-50 years our senior) now at the fun end of their tour: the tasting. The room itself was like a Victorian dining hall, with a set of long tables down the middle, with a few smaller tables dotted around and more wooden cladding than Ron Burgundy could ever have wished for. The whole room was covered with old advertising posters and newspaper clippings from yesteryear. There was a real sense of history and nostalgia here, with a clear emphasis on family.

Tasting Room

To the matter at hand, our troop found ourselves a seat and were presented with a sample of their opening gambit, the Glenfarclas 10 year old. Our new host then reeled out a well-rehearsed but still well-delivered spiel about the history of the distillery and we were all ears. As we listened, we savoured our first dram of the day, picking out the flavours that stem from the family’s longstanding use of sherry casks. The 10yo proved to be a fairly light dram, enjoyed in no time at all with its Pear drop sweetness and pretty quick finish getting our tastebuds going.

‘Farc-ing Bliss

Our temporary curator then plied us with a serving of the Glenfarclas 15yo and that’s when the sherry influence really hit home. This whisky had a much fuller, fruitier nose, and the 46% alcohol gave for a fuller taste and body too. It wasn’t all sherry flavourings though as a little bit of time and water released sweet vanilla and a little citrus into the mix. An excellent whisky that seemed to knock its younger sibling out of the park.


As the history lesson turned into more of a flowing Q&A session, we were presented with the third of the distillery’s post-tour offerings, the mighty Glenfarclas 105 (Unfortunately not 105 years old – can you imagine?) Whilst I had experienced and loved this whisky before, my senses still took a battering, as did the other guys’, as it’s 60% ABV natural strength delivers a real punch. It has a BIG nose leaving you fighting the alcohol but some fruitiness (raisins?) and sweetness still manage to poke their way through. Without the aid of water, the 105 pretty much attacks the palate but not the throat strangely enough. After some taming though that fruitiness really comes through with faint sherry this time.

It was at this point that the coach group were being hustled up by their weary-looking driver, and a little bit of minesweeping was afoot. As the congregation filtered out though, we keen-beans had pretty much settled on acquiring a bottle of the 15yo but our host didn’t seem to want to rush us out and after a little cajoling he went to the backrooms to bring us samples of their 21yo! Despite its years, this dram was still surprisingly light and whilst it had a good nose and those sherry-like fruity and sweet flavours were still present, it didn’t quite meet the standard that the 15yo had set. With our conversation starting to wind down and the 25yo or older expressions remaining firmly locked away for the evening (we tried) we were fully sated and couldn’t leave without making a purchase or four…

Whatcha Doin’?

By the time it came for us to leave, we realised that the staff had actually kept us indoors well after their closing time and were still happy to talk (mostly). Their head honcho however was starting to purposefully look at his watch and with our purchases having already been made before they had to close the till, we were also ready to head off and set ourselves up for the long weekend at the cottage. With some parting pleasantries and a few snaps, so ended a brief but memorable trip to Glenfarclas. If you get the chance to go, then you should definitely do it! We certainly will. Again. And again.

Categories: Glenfarclas, Tasting Notes, Venues | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Distillery Visit: Oban

It’s fair to say that whenever I get to visit a Scottish town then the trip is usually based around the distillery. With Oban, this happens to be the case for the entire town itself!

Oban distillery was legally established in 1794 and the town has since been very much built around it. Set in a beautiful, naturally occurring bay and sat at the bottom of a steep bank overlooked by the iconic McCaig’s Tower, the distillery is nestled in the heart of the harbour town. To be honest, it is so settled in that, if it wasn’t for the distinctive chimney and lingering malty scent, you could easily miss the distillery altogether when walking through the streets. Luckily, with enough signage (and sat nav as a potential backup) I was able to stroll up the waterfront road and stumble across the near-camouflaged building, tucked just behind a row of shops.


Oban Distillery

Immediately within the cold-looking, grey stoned building lies a warm, wood-panelled gift shop with an equally warm and friendly group of staff awaiting to tend to your every whisky-related need. Having attended a couple of Diageo-owned distilleries, I’d learned to present my ‘whisky passport’ – like the true whisky geek that I am – keen to get another stamp and get ready for the upcoming tour. Speaking of which, the gift shop itself seemed to be filled to the rafters with all of Diageo’s other staple offerings and a few gems from the Flora and Fauna range, plus the serious connoisseur/bankrobber’s Lagavulin 37 year old.


Oh, I’ll have two please…

After a little wait in the gallery area the tour was presented by a young local lass by the name of Emily and she’d gotten her patter and knowledge down to a tee. Unlike other tours, which usually talk in generalities about their range of products, the Oban tour focussed almost exclusively on its core 14 year old output, and in particular, its four distinct flavours: Sea Salt, Honey, Orange and Smoke. I’ve enjoyed an Oban 14 on many occasions, but whether or not it is the power of suggestion, since visiting the town, I can no longer drink it with ticking off each of those four flavours along the way. The other flavour that I often pick up is the grist-like malt itself.

The tour took you through the whisky making process from start to finish as you got to smell the grist, walk between the tuns and through the stillhouse before ending up in one of the warehouses. Here we got our first taste of the Oban signature liquid, followed quickly by another short measure straight from the barrel – an 11 year old cask strength, dram obviously, which was delicious (see notes below).


How to make Oban

One thing that I’d read about the tour in advance on trip adviser (and was happy to see as still ringing true) was that they offered to put your dram into a miniature travel cup with lid for those not able to enjoy the dram onsite, i.e. the conscientious drivers. Fortunately for me, I was with my wife and she later kindly donated her dram after the drive too (double thumbs up).

At the end of the tour, Emily was all too happy to answer any questions and we were not simply rushed out of the premises, like you can feel sometimes when there’s a chain of tours and tastings going on. Of course, the tour ended up by having to make your way out of the building via the gift shop and once again the combination of alcohol and enthusiasm resulted in a swift purchase – not forgetting the all important £5 discount for having been on the tour!


Oban Visitor Centre

Just before leaving, nature was calling for us two travellers and I’m glad that it did because we then happened upon the distillery’s small bar upstairs, above the gift shop and this resulted in sampling the Oban Distillers Edition (notes below).

All in all, it was a really nicely polished tour, as you would come to expect from such a revered distillery and I would heavily recommend it to anyone going to the Argyll area. I would also strongly recommend the Oban Whisky and Fine Wines Shop (click here) adjacent to the distillery and the Cuan Mor pub nearby – excellent drams and food, respectively.


Some appropriate reading

Notes from the tour:

Oban 14yo

N: Pretty honey-sweet smelling after the fruity alocholic burn

T: A little salty. A little malty. Then the sweetness makes way for the zesty, orange and citrus flavours

F: Damn fine with a little smoke to finish off the orange zest

V: Absolute solid dram and worth the little extra money for one of Scotland’s most time-honoured whiskies

Oban 11yo Cask Strength (Tour)

N: Sweet marzipan and Christmas flavour

T: Very light and sweet – after the 55.7% punch and burn of alcohol

F: Sweet and tingly – very warming

V: Nice, tour only tasting and very indicative of the original flavours to come in the 14yo

Oban Distiller’s Edition

N: Slight Christmas and sherry fruitiness

T: Sweet fruit cake

F: Slightly treacle like texture

V: It is the 14 plus 8(ish) months in a sherry cask, and does exactly what it needs to – adding that additional festive flavour

Categories: Oban, Tasting Notes, Venues | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at