England Interviews Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery

Spirit of Yorkshire: interview with David Thompson

An exclusive interview with David Thompson, one of the creators of Filey Bay.

We are delighted and proud to present an exclusive interview with one of the founders of Yorkshire’s only (so far) distillery, which in recent years has emerged in the growing English whisky market as one of the most interesting realities.
Farmers before being distillers, they grow their barley on their own farm in Hunmanby and are one of the few British businesses to follow the production process in-house right through to bottling.
You can find out more by exploring their website, which is full of information about their working method and the principles that guide it.

WHISKYART: Having only officially started distilling in May 2016, yours is a young business but with a clear and defined project in mind: what can you tell us about it?

DAVID THOMPSON: Before we set off, we waited three years to see if this was something that was actually feasible. Yorkshire is the biggest county in England, with five and a half million people, which is more than the whole of Scotland, but with only one distillery out of the hundreds in their area, we wanted to be innovative. We have one of the best soils for growing barley, and being farmers we were in the best position to produce beer and whisky.
Our idea is to create a traceable and renewable product, with complete control of its ingredients, and that it’s accessible to as many people as possible, even those who have never drunk whisky before, without making a copy of Scotch, and you can see this right from the shape of the bottles, which are more modern and linear than Scottish ones.
We wanted to respect tradition, but in our own way: we wanted the best equipment we could get, and this could only be Scottish. We travelled all over Europe looking for alternatives, but in the end we always chose the Forsyths, the best on the market.

WHISKYART: Given the sheer size of the area and the farming tradition, why do you think you are the first distillery in Yorkshire?

DAVID THOMPSON: I think it’s always a question of tradition. When you talk about whisky, the first thing that comes to mind is Scotch whisky, then Irish whiskey and probably then American whiskey. These are very defined production areas, and if you find yourself producing English whisky, it’s difficult to find a place on the shelves, being relegated to the generic section of Whiskies of the World, and this certainly doesn’t help. Furthermore, opening a distillery requires a massive financial investment, secure backing and the conviction that you are making a product that will sell well. These are very big hurdles to overcome, no matter where you want to start your business, which is probably why it has never been done before in Yorkshire and why so few people have undertaken it in England anyway.
Others will follow, for sure, although it’s not as easy as starting to produce gin, where you put up the facilities today and tomorrow you can already start selling: the road to start is difficult and impassable, and it doesn’t produce short-term economic returns.

WHISKYART: What does it mean today to make a whisky as tied to the territory as yours is? Do you think that the concept of terroir, usually associated with wine, will be the future of whisky too?

DAVID THOMPSON: The most important thing is that the soil is suitable for growing barley, particularly malted barley. I have been growing barley, bottling it and selling it for 30 years, so I know it first hand, and what you need to grow good barley for malting is light soil, like Yorkshire, and good weather conditions. You can have the same soil, the same quality of barley from the same farm, but from season to season the outcome can change because of the weather, so you can have a great crop in 2019 and a really poor one in 2020. You can do your best to get the same crop every time, but weather conditions are unpredictable! For example, we are trying to get to carbon-neutral cultivation and one day make a carbon-neutral whisky, but we can do this because we are the ones who plant, tend and harvest the raw material.
The soil and its quality are therefore fundamental, but I believe that terroir is definitely overrated and brings nothing in terms of aromas. The concept was born precisely for wine, where the vines reside in the same soil for decades with a clear influence that leads to differences from year to year, so we can also talk about specific vintages, but when you want to apply the same terminology to barley, which resides in the soil for about five months, the matter is completely different. As a farmer, I find it a great marketing idea, a fascinating narrative, but terroir has very little to do with the quality of the crops and the aromas that end up in the whisky.
I think it’s very important what some distilleries are doing, working in collaboration with the farms that supply them with barley and putting them at the forefront of the production of their whisky, but to talk concretely about terroir in whisky doesn’t make any real sense to me.

WHISKYART: Does it therefore make more sense to talk about territorial identity rather than terroir?

DAVID THOMPSON: In England, everyone is doing something different, and that’s the exciting thing about English whisky: you can’t define it by taste and aroma as you do the various Scottish regions, but by the individual distilleries and their approach to production. And nowadays also in Scotland the distinction in aromas between one region and another is becoming less and less clear, to the point that it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish, for example, a precise style for Speyside, because it depends more and more on where the barley comes from, on the process of the individual distilleries, on their policy, arriving at something similar to what we are doing in England.

WHISKYART: It’s therefore increasingly important to produce something personal that differs from what others have done, but how do you think it is important to differentiate yourself from, for example, Scotch?

DAVID THOMPSON: As I said, it’s a question of tradition, and we certainly didn’t want to reinvent the wheel! We wanted to draw on that knowledge, experience and technology through working with Dr Jim Swan, who has been with us from the beginning, teaching us everything we didn’t know about the various aspects of single malt production, from maceration to the use of yeast to the choice of casks for ageing. He himself was not a traditionalist, he was open to experimentation, and this helped us to create our own style by adding a rectifying column, which allows us to obtain two different types of new make: six months of the year we produce a more traditional, heavy and oily one, and for the next six months we activate the rectifying column to obtain a lighter and clearer spirit, two new makes which are then matured separately. This gives us an extra card to play when it comes to putting them together for bottling. It also gives us more flexibility than producing Scotch, with the possibility of faster maturation as the casks have to work less on the spirit.

WHISKYART: Are you thinking of making a peated whisky at some point?

DAVID THOMPSON: As this is a renowned barley growing area, we are fortunate to have two large malting companies in the vicinity, which gives us the confidence that the return product is 100% from our own crops, and they have recently built a peat plant. This is the only facility of its kind outside of Scotland, with a slightly different process, and just last July we started working with them, expecting our first peated malt next season.

WHISKYART: Your initial production, not yet definable as a whisky, was divided into different projects related to cask ageing, with 001-004 dedicated to blending different casks, and 005 and 006 as single casks: how risky is it to present yourself to the public with a product that is still so “immature”?

DAVID THOMPSON: Precisely in order to maintain the traceability of our whisky, with the desire not to put anything else in the bottle that didn’t come from our farm, we didn’t launch, as many do, into the production of gin, which allows you to monetise your business while waiting for the whisky to mature. Thanks to the rectification column we were able to produce a whisky that matured more quickly, so that even from the new make it was very interesting, but we felt it was not suitable for bottling as it doesn’t meet the public’s taste. The new make can give an idea of what direction the distillery is going in, but a whole bottle can never be a mainstream product because of the difficulty of approach, to the point of being repulsive to those who are not particularly expert, and perhaps giving the wrong idea of its product.
We therefore chose to wait at least three and a half years of maturation before releasing our whisky, but from the first samples from the ageing casks, taken by people visiting the distillery, the results were already excellent, with guests asking if they could buy the distillate while it was still so young. So we decided to bottle a small part of it, and not being able to define it as a whisky yet we called it Maturing Malt, and the first series sold so well that we decided to create others over the next two years, from 001 to 006, with a total production of 10,000 bottles, all sold out. The 003, for example, scored 95/100 in Jim Murray’s guide, which is a lot for a product that isn’t yet defined as a whisky!
All of this was only possible because of the rectification column, which removed the over-acerbic flavours from the new make, thus managing not to damage our reputation.
However, this was a unique experiment, as we now have the actual whisky to bottle.

WHISKYART: Do you think that the public of enthusiasts has changed and is now more informed and open towards the spirit?

DAVID THOMPSON: I think the public has grown up, has more interest in production, in how whisky is made, asking the right questions, and is more open to trying new products. Just think back thirty years ago, when whisky in England was considered a product for people of a certain age, whereas today, and I think gin has played a key role in this, attitudes towards spirits in general have changed, leading people to want to try different tastes, different products, to explore different styles of production.
In this sense, the production of Scotch is very limited by the rules imposed by the SWA, rules that certainly protect the production and its identity, but also block innovation: in England we also have a regulation to respect, but it gives us more room for experimentation.
We want to share our idea of distillation, also to help those who want to undertake the same activity, although my fear is that, over time, some may see it as a growing trade and therefore want to participate for the wrong reasons, with the risk of damaging the entire sector.

WHISKYART: A sector that is divided between the multinational giants and the many new distilleries that are rediscovering craft production, in England and around the world: where do you think whisky is going?

DAVID THOMPSON: I think the future for English whisky, which is given the freedom to experiment that Scottish whisky doesn’t have, is very bright, and for us, who make everything by hand and in person, it means creating something that isn’t just a commodity but a product in which we put all of ourselves. You have to be sure of the quality of your choices, because it’s not just about the liquid that ends up in the bottle, it’s about the people who made it, a passion that only comes to the fore when you get the community involved: the people who come here to visit us always end up buying one of our bottles because they can understand the spirit we work with and the passion we put into it.
I believe that as long as we stick to this principle, without launching into dozens of blends that all look the same, either by nature or because they are coloured, I believe that our future can only be positive.

WHISKYART: And how does this care translate into the choice of international distributors, such as Cuzziol for Italy?

DAVID THOMPSON: I prefer to build a personal relationship with the companies we work with or intend to work with, because business relationships are built between people first. Whisky doesn’t sell itself, your distributor have to understand not only the product but also its background, how it’s made, because they have to be able to tell that story, and you only get that by meeting face to face, spending time together. I would never put my brand in the hands of someone I couldn’t meet or who doesn’t understand my product and everything behind it.
If you choose a big distributor, like La Maison du Whisky for France, they ultimately make the decisions and you have to adapt to their way of thinking, whereas choosing a smaller distributor means being an important part of their portfolio rather than one of many in a huge catalogue. So instead you can grow together, slowly, understanding what the market wants and reacting quickly.
Even in these times when travelling is no longer so easy, we keep contacts open to continue to build a personal relationship as well as a commercial one, and when we can, we will resume attending events, meeting our distributors and going out to dinner together to talk about whisky and more, because that is how you build a long-term relationship.

WHISKYART: Brexit and Covid-19 are having and will have a major impact on the whisky market: what do you think are the challenges ahead and how do you plan to address them?

DAVID THOMPSON: Our good fortune during the lockdown was that we were a very small business, which allowed us to continue production with just two people, and to be flexible and respond quickly. We implemented new technologies with online tasting, the description of our production processes on Facebook, online sales… the feedback has been very positive.
What I fear most is Brexit, because we still don’t know the impact it will have on our company in terms of bureaucracy, taxes, duties… in a way, much worse than Covid!
We have no idea what’s in store for us in the future, at the moment we’re focusing on the European market with an eye on the rest of the world as well, keeping our flexibility and waiting for what will happen.
We are still drinking champagne and driving BMWs, so I guess we will continue to drink whisky too!

WHISKYART: In conclusion, is there anything you would like to say to Italian whisky enthusiasts?

DAVID THOMPSON: The Italian market is a very mature one for whisky, and it’s great to have the opportunity to be part of it and to be appreciated by whisky enthusiasts but also by those who may never have drunk whisky: our style is fruity and light and offers different levels of complexity to suit every drinker. We believe in premium quality whiskies, not premium price, and we try to keep the final cost affordable.
We want to open up to the world, and in Italy where there is a particular love for food and drink we believe we can find a market that appreciates our whisky, and we hope you will soon find our bottles on your bar shelves!

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