Scroll Down

County or Country?

English Whiskey-Blo English DistilleryLogoNow here’s a conundrum.

You are opening the first whisky distillery in England for well over 100 years. And you are located in prime barley-growing country in Norfolk.

So, how do you choose your positioning? Are you going to go hell-for-leather for the broader idea of England – and your place at the front – or will you go hammer-and-tongs for the alluring appeal of Norfolk?

That was the brain-teaser facing the Nelstrops when they set up their distillery in the tiny village of Roudham in south Norfolk.

Irrigation for Propagation

There is evidence of the Nelstrop family growing grain in Yorkshire 600 years ago, and this they still do in Lincolnshire. However, James Nelstrop, the youngest son, born in 1945, branched out. Having rented a farm near Stamford as his first go at farming and then emigrating to Australia with his family, where he took on an enormous farm, he returned to Norfolk and learnt a great deal about the art of irrigation, having bought a sizeable piece of sand land in Norfolk.

The land wasn’t used for much, there was heathland and sand dunes, and a bit of cultivation – asparagus, hops and cereals – but the yields were poor, and it didn’t seem too promising.

says his son Andrew

Undeterred, James won himself a Nuffield scholarship in that sent him to the USA, and with a deft hand, turned his fields into barley-growing havens. The Norfolk climate, sandy soils and water sourced from the Breckland’s underlying chalk aquifers created turned out to be ideal.

Grain of an Idea

James was an entrepreneur and a creator, as well as a farmer. He had always harboured the idea of doing something with the grain he grew, even if only as a hobby. That something was distilling. He loved the idea of a micro-distillery.

Uh oh! Micro-distilling. In England. Sorry, but no. Micro-distilling was illegal.

Back in the early noughties, still in force were old laws preventing the installation and use of stills of less than 1800ltrs. The rules were first introduced to exert more control over the production and sale of alcohol, and one of the consequences was to prevent start-ups from appearing on the scene and to stifle competition.

On discovering the inadmissibility of anything micro, rather than giving up the idea of distilling, James merely scaled up his dream. His ambition was to create excellent whisky, regardless of quantity. He believed he had a good start with the supply of premium barley, grown in one of the best barley-growing regions of the world – and malted locally by Crisp.

A lot of the barley grown and malted here was (and still is) sent to Scotland for distilling – so why not make use of it nearer to home? That’s exactly what the intention was. Crisp supplied us with our first batch of malt, and have supplied us ever since. We are intrinsically Norfolk.

Building began in 2005, whisky production started in 2006 and the distillery was formally opened by the then Prince of Wales, Charles, in 2007.

The English Distillery Buildings

Whisky from England! Say What?

It was going to take a while after beginning production to have matured bottles of whisky (Scotch whiskies have to be aged in oak for a minimum of 3 years) – as opposed to bottles of new-make spirit.

The challenge facing James and Andrew in the meantime was find a market for whisky from England. ‘Find’ a market? For whisky from – England? Make that ‘create’ a market. For whisky from – England!

B5033_English-Whiskey-Blog_Anthony-KellyThe last whisky distillery in England, Lea Valley, had closed its doors in 1903.

How exactly were James and Andrew going to persuade lovers of Scotch to contemplate bothering to try a whisky made in the country south of the border? Especially with all the preconceptions – or should that be prejudices? –  about whisky provenance.

Lucky there was a marketing budget to match that of Diageo, Chivas, William Grant, Bacardi, Whyte & Mackay and all those other well known names…

“Haha,” says Andrew. “There was hardly a marketing budget at all. And we had more than a century of reputational void to fill. But that was all fine – just another small hurdle as far as my father was concerned.”


Norfolk is a largely rural county, with a population of fewer than 850,000 people in 2007. Roudham, where the distillery is located, is so small that it’s barely a village. Local demand was never going to be sufficient to keep the mash tuns running. James and Andrew weren’t even convinced that the UK’s thirst for the Norfolk spirit would be sufficient.

“Anyway, with all his experience abroad, my father recognised the cache of certain English products, and felt there would be significant curiosity from whisky drinking nations to provide an overseas market. So right from the start, there had to be a focus on export.”

Back to the Question

County or country? The export issue neatly answered the branding dilemma. Because, shock, horror: lots of people have never heard of Norfolk. And many of those who have heard of it, think of the Norfolk in Virginia, USA. So, to capture any interest in whisky from England, it had to be The English Whisky Company.

Hindsight would show what a strong positioning this is, but at the time we were not to know of a change in the law that would allow small scale production. We would definitely not have guessed that by 2023, there would be – largely as a result of the lifting of restrictions – around 50 whisky distilleries in the country.

says Andrew.

The fact of ‘owning’ Englishness – by the company ‘The English Whisky Company’ – may not have been a bid for dominance, but it can’t have done any harm to the business. And anyway, the naming decisions were taken in the light of it being the first distillery in England for over 100 years.

Camaraderie Matters

We weren’t then, and still aren’t now, in a race with any other distillery. We still just aim to make and sell stupendous whisky, the fact there are now more distilleries in the country just increases awareness of, and respect for, English craft spirits – and we all benefit as a result.

Says Andrew

Andrew chairs the English Whisky Guild, which is seeking Geographical Indication (GI) for whisky produced wholly in England. While it is looking to impose conditions on drinks that distillers wish to call English whisky, the rules will be less restrictive than those for Scotch whisky. There will still be more opportunity for innovation, including the use of malted rye and maize.


Still Rooting for Norfolk

The company exports regularly to more than 20 countries, and now that Russia is no longer on that list, China is the largest export market. Made in England tags work well in all its export destinations.

Andrew says that while country is top of the branding hierarchy for his whisky, it doesn’t mean that Norfolkness has been abandoned.

Far from it. We shout about Norfolk, our barley and our malt, whenever we get the opportunity. And in case you’re wondering, yes, Crisp is an integral part of our story. Norfolk is at the top of the branding hierarchy for our grain (as opposed to malt) range. For these products, it’s county then country, whereas for the malts, it’s the other way around.

To remove any doubt, in case you’ve skipped the previous paragraphs, that’s Norfolk, East Anglia, England. Not Norfolk, Virginia, USA.

Word of mouth and recommendations matter. To get them, the whisky has to be good, and people have to believe in it. The English Whisky Company has established an excellent reputation in its 15 plus years of operation. It’s Norfolkness, and the provenance of the malt it uses, really can’t do any harm in this regard. In our humble, Norfolk-based opinion.

Our Malts
Read More
View All

Back to top