Blackpool is a seaside resort on the West Coast of England, just north of Liverpool and Manchester. Famous for sand, kitsch, “illuminations,” and amusements, Blackpool is like a British Atlantic City but colder and without the casinos.
On the East Coast, the equivalent—though much smaller and less famous—is Scarborough. Surrounded by farmland, it was at best a working class holiday destination in the mid-twentieth century. Without bigger cities nearby to drive tourism it gained neither size nor fame.
Ten miles south of the already unfashionable Scarborough is Filey, its puny and even more neglected little sister. It’s the resort town where my family used to holiday. My grandparents’ generation, my father’s generation, and, eventually, my generation went to the seaside in Filey. We’d spend a week at the beach together, walking around smelling of sea, eating fish and chips, and playing a crazy golf course that had seen better days even in the pictures from my father’s childhood.
At no point in this history had anyone suggested that the neighboring farmland might be promising terroir for an English whisky and yet, as of this summer, Filey Bay Single Malt Whisky is available in America’s liquor stores.
The natural bay arcs from the Filey Brigg peninsula in the north past Bempton Cliffs (with Europe’s largest gannet colony) down to the green headland of Flamborough Head in the south. For a few miles in the north, the coastline comprises a glorious curve of sand sweeping down from Glen Gardens past the remnants of the fishing fleet and a small outpost of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
Inland, a single street overlooks the cliffs, carrying supplies, postcards, and ice cream, or when you are in need of warmer stuff—and you probably are—freshly fried fish and chips or hot tea and scones. Now, too, a nip of some surprisingly accomplished local liquor, coming out of the village of Hunmanby and Wold Top Farm, where Tom Mellow is growing sustainable barley from which he and David Thompson make Yorkshire whisky.
English Single Malt Whisky feels a little like a contradiction in terms. Indeed because England acceded supremacy to Scottish whisky for a century, the term seems odder even than Israeli whisky, which I wrote about here. But for over a decade, The English Whisky Co. has been making excellent spirits, and five years ago, the Master of Malt blog was able to name a dozen or so notable English whisky distilleries.
Despite my loyalty to my county (Yorkshire is known as “God’s own country”), it’s hard for me to believe that the farms adjacent to Filey can be the sustainable home of Yorkshire whisky. But Jake Mountain at Master of Malt notes that this is no arbitrary decision; indeed, he points out, “the Yorkshire Wolds is said to be the largest malting barley growing area in the UK!” And, with farmers increasingly seen as custodians of the land rather than merely as producers of crops, the idea of using complementary plants rather than harsh fertilizers to promote barley growth adds a green credit to the Spirit of Yorkshire project.
Like many other distilleries just coming of age, the owners of Spirit of Yorkshire were guided by the late Jim Swan and their Flagship Single Malt is redolent of his influence. It’s a pungent and nutty rich basic spirit that comes entirely from locally-grown barley with a smooth creaminess that belies its youth.
The STR finish (48% ABV) is a typical Swan inspiration. It’s delicious, though sweeter, with caramel overtones and suggestions of the dark wild blackberries that grow over the side roads leading to Hunmanby.
For its potential, though, I think I preferred the Filey Bay Fino Sherry Cask #674. Though it is barely sippable at 61% ABV, its strong notes of orange and butterscotch run across the nutty base in a fascinating way. I’m partial to a sherry cask and I thought this strong young whisky (distilled in 2017 and in cask for only 4 years) was as good a 4-year-old as I’d tried.
Yorkshire pride and memories may be adding to the flavors I’m tasting, but all three expressions are impressive and—after centuries where Yorkshire whisky wasn’t even available in Yorkshire—are now ever more widely available across the United States.