There has been no shortage of new Cornish food and drink products appearing in recent years (let’s see, this one, that one, and this one) but there is one product that emerged this year that has a particularly interesting backstory – one that had me clicking through to the press release with unusual speed. I’m talking about the first Cornish whisky, made collaboratively and on a very small scale by Hicks & Healey’s, both leaders in the Cornish drinks industry.
I got busy arranging an interview and most importantly getting my hands on a very, very small wax-sealed sample bottle of this liquid gold (priced at £150 a bottle, with only 319 bottles in circulation), pictured below. It was handed over with all the weight of a historical artefact, which I suppose is what it is – a true limited edition.
I thought p&c readers might like to read more about it, so here is the little feature I wrote about it, first published on the food pages of Cornwall Today.
It was amid a flurry of curiosity and inquisition that leading Cornish drinks producers Hicks of St Austell Brewery and Healey’s jointly launched the first Cornish, indeed also the first English, whiskey – an oak-matured, seven-year single malt made with Cornish ingredients. Barley isn’t traditionally grown in these parts, nor of course is whiskey traditionally distilled in England, let alone the South West. But then improbability isn’t traditionally something to deter the Cornish.
The plan to create the first Cornish whiskey was hatched between two men ten years ago, who realised that together they were in possession not only of the skills and motivation but also the equipment required to make a serious single malt. One of the men was Roger Ryman, head brewer at St Austell Brewery, a whiskey enthusiast and former student of brewing and distilling in Edinburgh; the other was David Healey, founder of the Cornish Cyder Farm, creator of Cornish Rattler, and also home to a Grade II-listed distillery, the only distillery in the county.
Roger recounts, “As soon as I walked into the distillery on a tour, I clocked that what I was looking at was a Scotch whisky still, a classic onion-bulb copper pot still made by the Forsythes based in Aberdeenshire. We’ve got a brewery, they’ve got a distillery, I thought. What is whiskey? It is basically distilled beer, so let’s get together and make some whiskey. And that is what we did.”
A thoroughly Cornish product, then, save for the casks of course, which are ex-Bourbon American oak casks.
The “beer”, or “mash” as it is called, was made by St Austell Brewery with malted Marisota barley – a premium variety used to make cask-conditioned beers, commissioned by St Austell Brewery to be grown for the first time in Cornwall – and soft, pure water from the brewery’s own spring. From the huge copper pans in the Victorian brew-house, the “beer” was transferred to Healey’s, where it was double-distilled in the smallest legal still in the country, just 1,200 litres in volume, and laid to barrel in the bonded cellar at Healey’s. A thoroughly Cornish product, then, save for the casks of course, which are ex-Bourbon American oak casks, selected to impart subtle vanilla and coconut aromas during the maturation process.
When it comes to whiskey, the finest results can often be attributed to attention to detail and barrels of patience – this product excels on both counts. “The pressure in the larger distilleries is to get a bigger run out,” explains Ryan Sealey, Healey’s head cyder maker. “We don’t need to rush, we have that luxury. Both the Cyder Farm and St Austell Brewery have plenty going on without a barrel of whiskey, so the idea was just to wait until it was perfect. There are lots of benefits in being a small, craft product – we wanted to make the finest possible Cornish whiskey.”
It is fresh, smooth and distinctively fruity, with none of the peaty and smoky notes characteristic of many Scotch whiskies.
“Whiskey is the sum of a lot of factors,” comments Roger, the man responsible for such ales as Tribute and Proper Job. “Clearly there’s the water and barley, the distillation process itself, the casks and the cellar but also our warmer, more humid climate, which determines the way the whiskey matures over the years.”
It follows, then, that the first Cornish single malt smells and tastes unlike any other whiskey. It is fresh, smooth and distinctively fruity, with none of the peaty and smoky notes characteristic of many Scotch whiskies. The aromas of ripe apples emanating from the neighbouring barrels of cider brandy in Healey’s cellar penetrate the wood during the maturation process, resulting in a distinctive hint of calvados (an apple-based spirit) on the nose. “There’s nothing to compare it to,” says Ryan. “It doesn’t smell like Scotland, Ireland or America. It’s a whole new region to add to the whiskey map. We’re almost an island, so it has an island quality.”
What emerges from speaking to both arms of the Cornish whiskey partnership is that this is not a commercially driven product – the volumes are very small, the process is slow to return on the investment, and the product is hand-crafted every step of the way, right down to the wax seal. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make business sense. Cornwall is emerging as a leader in the UK drinks market – we have sparkling wine to rival the French, leading cask-conditioned ales, premium ciders and a plethora of eye-catching artisanal drinks – and this pioneering new tipple can only further the county’s reputation.
“Faultless and almost beautiful beyond words.”
Only 319 bottles of the liquid gold were bottled from cask number 29 to create the first Hicks & Healey Cornish single malt – a limited edition in the true sense of the word. Your own piece of whiskey history will set you back £150 for a 50cl bottle, presented with the ceremony it is due. The elegant teardrop-shaped bottle nestles in a silk-lined wooden box between two engraved crystal Glencairn glasses, considered the finest for whiskey drinking, combining a nosing glass with something you can comfortably hold.
The rarity of the product and the ravishing presentation may not be enough to convince more conservative whiskey connoisseurs to part with their cash. However, an endorsement from the country’s foremost whiskey ‘nose’ just might. The verdict of Jim Murray, author of the Whisky Bible, was unequivocal: he has declared the Hicks & Healey Single Malt “faultless and almost beautiful beyond words.” •
Hicks & Healey Single Malt can be purchased at Healey’s Cyder Farm (www.thecornishcyderfarm.co.uk) or the St Austell Brewery Visitor Centre and online (www.staustellbrewery.co.uk). Available in 50cl bottles in a wooden presentation box with two Glencairn glasses, priced at £150 (plus £6 delivery charge for UK mainland only).