31 JAN 2019: Long gone are the days of Scottish whisky distilleries being mothballed and London Dry gins in limited selection. Spirits are on a roll in the UK and the number of new distilleries popping open are astonishing with the equivalent of one distillery opening every week last year. Even more surprising, England now has more distilleries than Scotland, which has traditionally been the dominant distiller in the nation due to its rich Scotch whisky heritage. How is that?

According to figures published by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) England now has a total of 166 distilleries compared to 160 recorded in 2018. Last year 31 new distillery licences were granted in England compared to 11 in Scotland. That puts England ahead of Scotland for the first time. (In 2017 there were 149 distilleries in Scotland and 135 in England.) The overall UK distillery tally in now 361.

For the tourist this means lots of tour and tasting opportunities and plenty of great local choices at the bars and restaurants. Money is being poured into visitor centres and distillery experiences. Some of my favourite tasting tours in the past have involved golf in the morning follow by whisky distillery visits in the afternoon in Scotland. It’s just that now the whisky visitor experience might even overshadow the golf.

For example, The Macallan’s new £140 ($253) million distillery in Speyside was designed by internationally acclaimed architects, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. The visitor experience starts with an introduction to The Macallan in an exhibition and gallery area. It progresses from there through a sequence of spaces that follow the production story of the whisky. Natural materials are used such as local stone, timber and a living meadow roof to create an atmospheric journey that evokes the environment and ingredients of whisky production.

Don’t golf? How about a jogging to the distilleries? Registration just opened this month for whisky-lovers to take part in the third annual “Dramathon” this coming October 19. This marathon runs along the Speyside Way in Aberdeenshire from Glenfarclas distillery to Glenfiddich distillery taking in several distilleries along the route including Ballindalloch, Craigellachie, Dalmunach, and Aberlour. Participants have three distance options. There’s the “full dram” extending from Glenfarclas to Glenfiddich, a half marathon and a 10km race, all of which wrap up at the Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries. Runners receive a selection of drams dependent on the length of the race they took part in.

Last year, around 1,500 people participated of whom 20% came from overseas.

Bombay Sapphire’s state-of-the-art distillery is set astride the banks of the crystal clear River Test at Laverstoke Mill within a Conservation Area and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in rural Hampshire. Laverstoke Mill operated as a paper mill and sole-manufacturer of Bank of England bank notes between 1719-1963, but the site sat unused for over a decade before singled out as the new home for Bombay Sapphire Distillery.

British designer Thomas Heatherwick created the visitor site's glass structures using strips of metal that swoop out from the existing buildings and down towards the waters of the river. The complex has been described as a "gin palace with a fantastical Willy Wonka vibe". About 100,000 visitors pass through annually.

There were once thousands of gin distilleries in London, but these closed one-by-one until there was but one left. History is now slowly reversing itself.

Beefeater founded in the 1860s, is the only survivor of London’s classic era gin distilleries. In 2015 the company built a new visitors’ facilities at its large distillery in Kennington. A self-guided tour at The Home of Gin visitors centre is an interactive experience that presents the history and events behind one of the world's favourite spirits.

It starts with a walk through the cobbled Victorian street markets, into the secret watering holes during prohibition, and then on to view the distillery's cathedral-like still house.

In my column last fall I wrote about Sipsmith, the gin distillery set on a residential street in the affluent Chiswick district of west London. When it first opened in 2009 Sipsmith was the first micro-distillery to operate in London for more than 200 years. The London Distillery Company which opened in 2012 on Bride Lane, was the first in its area of the Square Mile for about 200 years. Tours here are followed by a three flight gin tasting.

The East London Liquor Company in the gritty location of a former glue factory in Bow Wharf is the first to open in east London for more than 100 years. It produces a 100% British wheat vodka, three London dry-style gins and a London Rye whisky. There’s a pizza restaurant and bar on site.

Just this past fall, Moses Odong, a London Cabby opened the first ever rum distillery at Mile End in London and named it Taxi Spirit Co. after his current profession. His first product is called ‘Cabby’s White Rum’.

The Marylebone Hotel in central London has partnered with English distiller Johnny Neill, whose family gin-making history dates back eight generations to 1762, to distill the hotel’s own gin on premises. A copper pot still named Isabella located in the 108 Bar in the hotel produces 108 Gin in-house using seasonal British botanicals.

That’s all just a taste of the 361 distilleries (and counting) now available to pleasure the visitor to the UK and salve the sting of Brexit woes for the locals.

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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