If you’ve ever visited the UK’s Scarborough and set your eyes upon its rolling farmland, ripe for growing barley, it might be hard to believe that Spirit of Yorkshire was the first whisky distillery to produce a single malt in ‘God’s own country’ when it started production in 2016. Created by good friends and business partners Tom Mellor and David Thompson, the distillery is set between Mellor’s farm in Hunmanby – in the family since 1947 – and the sea at Filey Bay, and is one of a young new wave of English whisky distilleries cropping up once again. But one hundred per cent of the barley for Filey Bay is homegrown, and the distillery has its own water source – its farm-to-bottle approach setting it apart from other young whisky upstarts.
The Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery launched its First and Second Releases in 2019 – totalling around 12,000 bottles – aiming to manifest some buzz and cement a ‘house style’ for the forthcoming Filey Bay Flagship. ‘We saw a vast number of new fans or followers when we launched the first release, probably due to the increased interest in English whisky,’ says Joe Clark, the distillery’s whisky director. Flagship finally launched in October 2020 and solidified that all-important bourbon-matured house style. The distillery has since gone from bottling every four months to every three, and next year they will be putting liquid into bottle every other month. The brand also saw recognition from the IWSC 2022, with its Flagship, Sherry Cask Reserve and STR Finish awarded Silver medals, and five other bottlings achieving Bronze.
The origins of Filey Bay Flagship
Mellor and Thompson came up with the idea of making whisky on the farm after becoming uncomfortable with the fact that their top-quality malting barley was being sent north to make Scotch. The farm has its own water source, and housed Wold Top Brewery (with which Thompson was already involved), so a move to making whisky seemed an obvious one to the pair – if it weren’t for their lack of experience. ‘They knew next to nothing about whisky, other than drinking it,’ says marketing director Jennifer Ashwood, who is also Mellor’s daughter.
The pair enlisted the help of renowned whisky consultant Dr Jim Swan, described as ‘The Einstein’ of single malt. Swan, who sadly died before being able to see the launch of Flagship, assisted in developing Filey Bay’s signature style. ‘Things started with discussions about what style of whisky we wanted to make, arriving after much debate, and I dare say a few drams, to a light, fruity style,’ says Clark. ‘Did we know it was going to be called Filey Bay Flagship? No, we didn’t. But did we know that we wanted to make a whisky that tasted like this? Yes.’
What goes into making Filey Bay Flagship
‘Really, the starting point is the growing,’ says Clark. Agricultural methods are at the heart of whisky production, with 100 per cent of the barley that goes into a bottle of Filey Bay Flagship grown on Mellor’s farm. As a result, keeping the soil in top condition is a priority for the distillery. In the winter, Mellor plants nitrogen-fixing cover crops – like clover and radishes – which he claims, ‘keeps the soil structure healthy for future generations.’
The barley then rumbles up a track to Bridlington, where it’s malted, before coming back down the hill to the farm. The mash is made at Wold Top Brewery, using yeasts which encourage a long fermentation and which its makers claim leads to a fruiter style in the glass. Distillation takes place in The Spirit of Yorkshire’s Forsyth pot stills or in a four-plate copper column still, with production split 50/50 between these two types, and the results blended together post-maturation and at an undisclosed ratio. Then, it’s a visit to the spirit safe under Clark’s watchful eye (and tastebuds).
In terms of maturation, Flagship is matured in first fill ex-bourbon casks, and the team uses what they call ‘fractional marrying’ a method similar to that used in a Solera system for sherry, and which Clark calls ‘a real labour of love’. Part of each batch is kept back in the warehouse and is used as a benchmark of consistency. Clark says he looks for ‘a nice balance of citrus against vanilla notes, sweet honey and barley sugar notes’ when making each batch.
‘Flagship is our core bottling and represents the distillery,’ says Clark. This product has not only seen a following of its own, but has become the building block for a range of Filey Bay cask-finished whiskies over time. Over the course of the year, about 85 per cent of the casks filled will be ex-Bourbon, but beyond that, the distillery also buys in sherry butts from Jerez, ex-Moscatel hogshead barrels and even ex-red wine casks from Rioja to make its Filey Bay STR Finish.
How did the design come about?
Like everything in whisky, the bottle design isn’t something that Filey Bay rushed into, working with a design agency for a year to come up with the final product. ‘We wanted something that could help visually tie together the land where we’re growing all our barley, and the sea on the other side of the distillery,’ says Clark.
According to Ashwood, the distinctive lines around the circumference of the glass bottle are representative of both the patterns made by the sea on the sand, and the shape of barley farming on the fields. If you look closely, you’ll also spot an embossed gannet, the talisman of Filey Bay whisky. Nearby Bempton Cliffs is home to the largest gannet colony in the UK, and the graceful homing instinct of the bird is ‘something we feel represents Filey Bay whisky and its home in Yorkshire,’ says Ashwood.
What’s next for Filey Bay?
Continuing to make production more sustainable is on the cards, with a focus on increasing direct drilling (a system where seeds are delivered into the ground in narrow slots, and the soil is left undisturbed to reduce carbon dioxide release and soil erosion) and an aim to become carbon neutral over time.
There’s a new sherry cask bottling in the works, as well other cask-strength experimentations – plus growth for the distillery itself. ‘We’ve got a lot of land to grow into – 650 acres,’ says Clark. ‘We’re fast outgrowing the space that we’ve got,’ he adds – further proof of the Spirit of Yorkshire’s swift flight to stardom.