Reviews

Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery

Time for a closer look at the Filey Bay Whisky range.

Karyn Noble visits Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery to see why their Filey Bay Single Malts are starting to accumulate a medal tally that would be respectable in any Olympics.

There can’t be many bank managers who would be understanding of a new distillery’s decision to swerve gin revenue while waiting for their whisky returns, but it’s one of the quirks of Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery that I quietly marvel at. “We never would have been able to call it field to bottle,” says co-founder David Thompson, as he drives me through the verdant Yorkshire Wolds. “Our principles would have been broken [if we’d made gin]. It’s stood us in good stead, really. We’ve got through those three years and now we’re into our fifth year and people take us really seriously.”

Very seriously. Yorkshire’s first single-malt whisky distillery received seven awards from the IWSC in 2021 (two silvers, five bronze). They also just scored a prestigious Masters award from the 2021 World Whisky Masters for their Filey Bay Single Cask – Fino Sherry Cask #669, along with two gold and a silver. 

For England’s youngest whisky distillery in these competitions, this is an extraordinary achievement.

Spirit of Yorkshire, File Bay Whisky
Spirit of Yorkshire, File Bay Whisky

Despite all the accolades, arrival at the distillery is…well, rather unglamorous. David had tried to keep my expectations low on the one-hour drive from York station to the village of Hunmanby, but from the exterior the vibe is very much ‘industrial car park with nondescript office building’. “We didn’t build a visitor centre,” says David, “We just decided, you know what, it’s all about the product and if it’s good enough people will come. It’s an industrial shed.”

He’s down-selling it slightly, because inside it’s another story. Certainly, it’s not pretentious, but there’s a certain Yorkshire authenticity combined with a rustic cosiness. Upstairs is the surprisingly charming Pot Still Coffee Shop, a popular local spot for breakfasts, brunches and afternoon teas, with its views into the working distillery and the tasting room.

Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery tour
Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery tour

Downstairs is the shop selling Filey Bay Whisky, named after the bay just six miles away, which can be glimpsed from the distillery’s windows. There’s also Spirit of Yorkshire merch, glassware, whisky literature, and beers from Wold Top Brewery. Why beers? Well, that’s where the other co-founder of Spirit of Yorkshire comes into the picture. Tom Mellor has a 600-acre sustainable farm just around the corner on one of the best malted barley grain areas in the UK. All the barley and spring water for the whisky is sourced from this farm. His brewery (set up in 2003), provides the wash to the distillery, chugging down the hill on a tractor twice a week in 10,000 litre batches. Tom and David were also mentored by the late Dr Jim Swan, often hailed as ‘the Einstein of whisky’. “He was instrumental in the stills and the science behind what we were trying to achieve,” says David.

Essentially, they set out to make an accessible, fruit-led whisky, something that might even be approachable for a non-whisky fan. Located outside of strict Scottish regulations, they’ve also been able to experiment a lot more by installing a piece of kit (a four-plate copper rectifying column), which they use alongside their spirit still to create more variance in flavour and a unique style.

I’d tried three of the Filey Bay Single Malts prior to my trip to Yorkshire: the Flagship, the STR Finish and the Moscatel Finish. 

The Flagship is very approachable: light with a juicy fruitiness and a creamy mouthfeel – easy to drink with notes of caramel, honey and vanilla, yet not head-scratchingly complex. The Moscatel Finish, their first ‘finished’ release (initially matured in bourbon casks then Spanish Moscatel barrels), still has that approachable softness but with a dried-fruit spiciness that’s a little more reminiscent of Christmas, along with a hint of marmalade and honeycomb to round out the warmth. 

My favourite by a long shot was the STR Finish, matured in bourbon casks then finished in Rioja barriques from Spain, with intriguing notes of citrus and caramel mingling with a complex spicy fruitiness. I congratulated Spirit of Yorkshire’s Whisky Director, Joe Clark, on achieving a Silver award from IWSC for it, and he admitted the STR was unlike anything else they’d done before. Joe also let me try a little something he was experimenting with that was exceptionally delicate but still very much in the development phases. But if there’s ever a whisky whisperer, the kind who can pinpoint an aroma as precise as pink wafer biscuits, it is this man.

Filey Bay Whisky Range
Filey Bay Whisky Range

One highlight of my visit was being the third person in the world (apart from Joe and David) to taste the annual Filey Bay Special Release 2021, bottled to commemorate Yorkshire Day (1 August). One of their strongest spirits at 55%, it’s almost reminiscent of a Cognac in intensity. It marries some of their oldest whisky with Oloroso sherry butts and ex-bourbon casks. And with only 1500 bottles produced, I expect it to sell out as quickly as the 2020 release.

I was slightly disappointed by the new Peated Finish (released in June 2021) but that could be because I sit heavily on the peat-me-until-I-die-on-the-shores-of-Islay spectrum of smoky whiskies. It’s true to Spirit of Yorkshire’s ethos, however, of producing whiskies that are accessible and will appeal to those wanting to dip a tentative toe into the smoky waters. It’s soft and sweet with just a little wisp of smoke.

Spirit of Yorkshire - Cliffs, birds and barley
Spirit of Yorkshire - Cliffs, birds and barley

The time for Yorkshire’s first single-malt whisky to keep flying under the radar is definitely over, though. And it makes me wonder if there will come a point when the humble little two-storey distillery and café in an industrial centre will morph into something more visually impressive as it attracts greater international acclaim. Might be an idea to visit while you can say ‘I knew it when…’.

Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery

Spirits Kiosk
Filey Bay Moscatel Finish Whisky
Filey Bay Moscatel Finish Whisky
70cl46%GB
£58.44
Filey Bay STR Finish Whisky
Filey Bay STR Finish Whisky
70cl46%GB
£59.44
Filey Bay Flagship Whisky
Filey Bay Flagship Whisky
70cl46%GB
£49.44

By Karyn Noble

31 August 2021