Opened in 2014 in what was a disused Victorian dairy farm, The Lakes Distillery has since become a multi-award-winning tourist attraction with a Michelin-guide Bistro, as well as of course producing some might mighty fine spirits. We went on a tour of the distillery to see how some of our favourite spirits are made.
Dating back to 1850s, the venue is as atmospheric as they come; located moments away from River Derwent and in the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage National Park, the old farm has a rugged charm that keeps it feeling decidedly boutique and independent. Alpacas stare at us with an unassuming curiosity as we wander up from the river towards the distillery and run our fingers over the local stone walls, adorned with quatrefoils – an architectural air vent feature with four leaves, representing “Faith, Hope, Luck and Love”, which the team have taken as their motto.
Our tour guide, Evelyn, explains that when they acquired the site, it was in disrepair but as they couldn’t expand the heritage site outwards or upwards, they had to remove each and every stone in each building, numbering and photographing them so that they could be replaced correctly in a more secure manner. This attention to details carries through to the newer features within the distillery, including the impressive entrance gate by local artist, Alan Dawson, which depicts water, barley, wheat and botanicals used in the spirit making process, as well as the signature quatrefoil emblems.
We are taken through to a room where we are shown an incredible aerial video following the water source from a spring to Lake Bassenthwaite where the distillery is situated before being introduced to the digital caricature of Lancelot Slee, the infamous Lake District farmer, quarryman, whisky smuggler and moonshine producer who talks us through the region’s (illegal) distilling legacy.
Once suitably informed, Evelyn brings us back to the present day with a brief overview of the distilling procedure. She explains that the barley is malted (grains are steeped in water until they begin to germinate) elsewhere as they couldn’t have maltings on site due to building regulations. As soon as the grain begins to germinate, they kill it off with heat, then proceed to mill it down to 20% husk, 70% grits, 10% flour, (referred to as “gris”) allowing the water to get in and bring the sugar out. Once the sugar starts to show itself, they begin the fermentation process and turn it into alcohol using powdered distiller’s yeast. When the alcohol has been collected and distilled, it can be put into casks for maturation. Evelyn tells us that the new make has to be in casks for three years before it can illegally be called “whisky”, which means that their first single malt from December 2014 has just been released in the summer of 2018.
She then walks us through to the Mash Room, pointing out the malted barley that is delivered in 1 tonne sacks and that goes to the mill downstairs before being fed into the hopper. The first two tanks in the room are filled with hot water (64.5°C). Grain is fed through these mash tuns where big metal blades mash it up. After a couple of hours, they are brought up to 75°C to make sure the water gets into the gris and as much sugar is extracted as possible. A few hours water, this sugary wort is drained out. A final rinse at 85°C picks up some residual sugar, but not enough to be useful, so this goes back into the first hot water tank to be used for next morning’s mash. Evelyn tells us that the distillery mashes 78 days a week and that once drained, all the bits of (non-boozy) barley that are left go to farmers to give to their cows.
The wort is then moved from mash tun to stainless steel wash bath where it is cooled to 18°C and yeast is added. It is then left to ferment. The yeast activates itself and generates heat, bubbling up as it does so over the 90-hour fermentation process. The result is a wash that looks like a flat beer and is eight-percentage alcohol.
We follow the wash to the Still Room where two impressive copper stills (Susan and Rachel) created to The Lakes teams’ specifications sit. All whisky-to-be is twice distilled as is done in Scotland. Huge steam pipes within Susan heat up the wash to 100°C. As alcohol evaporates at around 78.5°C, the vapour rises, hits the sides of the still and roll back again. This happens a few times; when the vapours are light enough, they go through the top line pipe and down through the condenser, which has a cold water pipe that then turns it back into liquid at 24% ABV (“low wines”). Residue left at the bottom of the still is called “pot ale” and is again sent to local farmers for them to spread on their fields.
The low wines eventually pass through Rachel and go through the same process. They then pass through a spirit safe – a large container that allows the distiller to analyse and manage the spirit coming out of the pot still without coming into contact with the spirit itself. The first part of the run of spirits is too strong and the end run is too weak. The stillman only wants to keep the middle run, which will eventually become The Lakes’ single malt. This is only 20% of the 3,500 litres that Rachel holds and is placed into casks at 66% ABV. However, nothing is wasted and the liquid that doesn’t make the cut is sent back to the low wines stage to be processes again.
So, what about the gin and vodka that The Lakes Distillery produces? Evelyn brings us based the hefty Susan and Rachel towards the little Chemmy (named after World Cup skier and Brand Ambassador, Chemmy Allcot). The Chemmy still has been hand-beaten into shape with a steam pipe skirt and is where all the distillery’s vodka and gin gets distilled. Unlike with the whisky stills, 90% of the spirit made in the smaller still can be kept at 80% ABV. For the gin, 5 local botanicals (juniper, bilberry, hawthorn, heather and wheat) are added alongside Scandinavian juniper, liquorice, cassia bark and oris root. The still is brought up to 40°C before being switched off and left for 12-hours. In the morning, it is brought back up to 100°C. Vapours rise, are cooled and the process continues as before. The spirits are then packaged and bottled, giving the distillery something to sell whilst the single malt lies in waiting.
Once we’ve said goodbye to the three, hardworking women, we wander on down to see what happens to the new make whisky. The middle cut comes down into stainless steel receiver tanks that fill up over the week. The liquid is then syphoned off into American oak ex-bourbon and European oak oloroso casks, with around 15-20 casks being filled per week and left to sleep in bonded warehouses in nearby Cockermouth. The warehouses where the casks are stored are kept as cool as possible to limit the volume lost to the Angel Share (the inevitable loss through evaporation during the maturation process) as much as possible. Evelyn explains that around 2% is lost per year, meaning that over 10-15 years, over 25% of each cask’s contents can be lost to the angels.
The flavour of whisky comes from the barrels, with the bourbon cask imparting nuttiness, coconut and vanilla, whilst the sherry casks give a thick, fruity sweetness. Evelyn states that it will be up to their Master Blender how the final single malt whisky will taste but that it will likely be made of a mixture of casks.
With our tour complete, we are directed back to the on-site tasting room where we are given the chance to taste the final products.
The Lakes Distillery, Setmurthy, near Bassenthwaite Lake, Cumbria CA13 9SJ