‘It depends how you measure the numbers,’ distillery founder Paul Currie tells me on a recent visit. ‘Not all distilleries are clear on how they work out their visitor numbers, but we think we are now in the top ten distilleries in the UK. We’ve done 40,000 tours this year, with 120,000 visitors. We’re actively promoting it as a family visitor attraction.’
With its beautiful setting alongside the River Derwent, just where it enters Bassenthwaite Lake, it’s not surprising the distillery has become one of the most popular new attractions in the Lake District. They are only 40 minutes from Windermere, 15 minutes from Keswick and less than an hour from the Scottish border. Apart from London, the Lake District is the most visited part of England and this is the only distillery that is in both a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We walk down to the River Derwent, which supplies the distillery with its water, and I’m delighted to see a herd of alpacas in the field by the path.
‘They don’t belong to us,’ says Paul, ‘they belong to our neighbour, but we work together and visitors can book a session to learn more about them and children can feed them.’
There’s certainly a history of distilling in the Lake District, though not all of it legal, as Paul tells me.
‘Here’s a figure for you, that I found. In 1795 a million gallons of gin were smuggled across the Solway Firth into Scotland. Whitehaven was a big port, connecting the north of England with the Isle of Man and Ireland. The landscape and climate of the Lake District is very similar to Scotland so there’s no reason at all why whisky shouldn’t be made here.’
There’s also a history of distilling in Paul’s family, as he and his father opened the first distillery on the Scottish island of Arran before Paul began looking for a place to open his own distillery in the Lake District. He found it by way of a run-down Victorian dairy farm, as our guide Caroline explains when I join one of the regular Lakes Distillery tours.
‘The bistro was the milking parlour,’ Caroline tells us, ‘and the bull was kept in the boardroom. The restoration had a lot of restrictions because of the National Park regulations. In some cases buildings had to be dismantled stone by stone and numbered, then put back together again.’
‘Note the quatrefoil on the building behind you, and in other places around the distillery. It’s a little like a 4-leaf clover and that’s become our symbol. They stand for faith, hope, luck and love, which is also the title of the book about the distillery that you can buy in the shop. The gates behind you were made by a local metalworker, Alan Dawson, who has also made gates for people such as Disneyland Paris. They incorporate some of the ingredients in our spirits, like wheat and barley, and the botanicals that go into our gins.’
Caroline then takes us into the main building and upstairs to watch a truly excellent video about the River Derwent. She explains that on a scale from 0-100%, where zero is absolutely pure, the water from the River Derwent is rated 0.6%, which is about as pure as natural water can be. We learn about the ingredients that go into the Lakes Distillery’s various spirits, and get to smell and taste some of them, before the next bit of entertainment.
We are introduced to a character named Lanty Slee, a local farmer with sidelines in smuggling and illicit distilling. Some of Lanty’s descendants are still around and came to a Lanty Slee evening that the distillery put on as one of the regular events that it holds. I’m still not sure if Lanty was a hologram or a very convincing bit of filming, it was so cleverly done.
We then visit the cellar at the distillery, though Caroline explains they have two more warehouses in Cockermouth. Like most distilleries, they don’t keep all their stocks of spirits in the same place, in case of fire.
Finally we enter the Tasting Room, for a run through the distillery’s range of spirits, and some tasting advice from Caroline. We start with The One, their unique blended whisky which blends spirits from all parts of the British Isles. Hold it up to the light, Carole says, to assess the colour, then swirl it around the glass to see the legs. Stick your nose in for a good sniff and try to identify the aromas. Finally take an appreciate sip, and enjoy the various flavours that the spirit contains.
We move on to sample their gin and vodka, both of which are served straight from the freezer. Caroline encourages us to first try them neat, and then with a quality tonic like Fever Tree. Most people enjoyed their three samples and headed straight into the shop to buy a bottle (or two) of their favourites. A few stragglers then got an extra treat, as Caroline poured some of their excellent Explorer Edition Gin which some people had been asking about. It’s a superb gin and you can read my review here.
Unfortunately the distillery’s first single malt won’t be available till the summer of 2018, and then only in a limited edition, as Paul Currie had explained to me earlier.
‘It’s a sherry-heavy whisky,’ he said, ‘but light on the peat, that was the style we wanted. It spends the majority of its time in sherry barrels. Going non-peaty was the biggest decision.’
The Lakes Distillery has also released several flavoured vodka and gin liqueurs, and other expressions of their The One whisky, including one matured in tawny port casks and another in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. The distillery is already the biggest whisky distillery in England, and is clearly going places… though hopefully not away from that idyllic location between Bassenthwaite Lake and the pure waters of the River Derwent.