Scotch whisky is clearly a thing, English whisky less so. Indeed for almost all of the 20th century there was no such thing as English whisky at all, not since the Lea Valley Distillery Company closed down in 1901. Stratford's whisky factory was located on Warton Road, inbetween Palmer & Co Ltd (oil & candle manufacturers) and A Boake Roberts & Co (manufacturing chemists), backing onto the river Lea. All the old buildings along this stretch were cleared a few years ago, and for a very good reason, which is because the site's now in a prominent position in the Olympic Park. The Lea Valley Distillery Company stood almost precisely where the Aquatic Centre is today, in fact on top of the car park slightly to the south. No plaque marks the site, indeed the Park's industrial legacy is mostly overlooked. But English whisky's last hurrah was here, at least until Norfolk took over.
St George's Distillery was opened in 2006. It lies in the southern part of Norfolk, the bit most tourists drive straight through, just off the A11 past Thetford. There is a station very close by, that's HarlingRoad, but this is one of the least used stations in the UK and has a pathetically infrequent service. So you'll probably have to go by car, ideally someone else's car, because the whole point of going on a tour here is the taster samples afterwards, and you don't want to be the designated driver.
The distillery's the big barnlike building by the tropical fish centre with a couple of red and white flags flapping outside. The St George's branding is a little blatant, perhaps, but still the right side of patriotic rather than über-UKIP. Two different tours are offered, one for £10, the other identical but £20 more and with five drams of "world whisky" tacked on at the end. Both are supposed to start off with a video, but we got a bloke talking instead which was probably more interesting if a little harder to hear. Delivery as dry as a fine malt, I thought, without the burning aftertaste.
This isn't the biggest distillery you'll ever see, more an oversized chemistry set in one large room, but at least this means you get right up close to the action. We were led round from each large copper still to the next, the various stages of the process duly explained, of which there are several. Each still has its own specific temperature and duration, precisely controlled by digital instrumentation, and most were warm to the please-don't touch. In a couple we saw the pre-whisky bubbling its way through, here resembling an aerated gloop, whereas what emerged at the end of the process was condensed reflux that was almost clear.
Out the back, in a large dark shed named Bond 1, we saw the stacked up barrels inside which the distillery's cargo matures. This takes several years of 'breathing in and out' through the wood, but fewer years than in Scotland because temperatures in Norfolk are generally higher. Then it was back in to see the bottling plant, a surprisingly minor feature, where half-dozens of Marks and Spencer's English Whisky were being boxed up. And then to the taster sampling finale, both peated and unpeated, cunningly located in the shop so that if you enjoy your swig you might walk off with more. Personally I'm not a fan, the single malts either too bitter or too smoky, hence most of the contents of the well-stocked gift shop left me cold. But almost everyone else off the tour wandered out with a bag dangling, indeed a bit of a hit all round.
You no longer have to go as far as Norfolk to see English whisky being made - a small number of English micro-distilleries have set up since. One of these is the London Distillery Company, opened last year in Battersea, but whisky officially takes at least three years to mature so they'll not be selling anything local until 2016. Instead Norfolk's your nearest supplier, should you be a connoisseur in search of an unusual day out, by George.