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The Legend of Lanty Slee
The Lakes Distillery was established in 2011 but at one time, the Lake District was no stranger to whisky production. So-called illicit distilling and smuggling is often associated with the story of Scotch whisky but Cumbria can tell a similar tale. When researching the historic production of spirit in this picturesque corner of England, one name stands out above all the rest: that of Lancelot “Lanty” Slee.
Lanty was born between 1800 and 1802. Of Irish descent, he was born in Borrowdale. For most of his life, he made his home at Little Langdale. Slee was a farmer and a quarryman who supplemented his income by distilling moonshine and selling it to the local community. The man and his product were known far and wide with many seeing him as the provider of a much-needed service.
Like so many small-scale distillers of the day, clashes with law-enforcement forced Slee to develop more and more ingenious methods of disguising his work. On one occasion, the local Exciseman was tipped off about Slee’s illegal practices. Backed up by Hawkshead Police, he descended upon the suspect’s property. A thorough search uncovered a trap door beneath one of the Stable stalls. The trap led to a concealed room which contained all the apparatus required for producing whisky. Perhaps most impressive, was an underground pipe that carried steam from the boiler to the chimney of the cottage nearby. Whenever Lanty ran his still, it looked like innocent smoke rising from his hearth.
Such was his renown, Lanty became an almost legendary figure. He passed away in 1878 but stories of his antics were still being published years later. One Mr Daniel Irvine Flattely, a former gauger, told of the legend that Lanty Slee could produce a bottle of whisky within five minutes of being asked, no matter where he was or who he was with. One morning, after a night in custody, Slee entered the local courtroom to face justice. The magistrate took to taunting him by saying “I am told that you are able to furnish your friends with a glass of spirit at any time when desired, but I think we have broken the spell this time.” Apparently the court erupted in laughter when Lanty produced a bottle from his coat pocket and offered the magistrate a dram.
How much of Lanty’s story is fact and how much is fiction isn’t clear. Certainly there are contemporary news reports of his being captured and fined and several possible still sites have been identified in various caves and quarries. One location, near Betsy Crag, even showed the remnants of distilling equipment until at least the 1960s.
Things are a little different nowadays. The Lake District remains as beautiful as always, of course, but its hills and valleys are no longer the hideouts and walkways of smugglers. Whisky production, however, is back in a big way. The Lakes Distillery has gone from strength to strength in the last couple of years. The quality of whisky being bottled seems to get better with each release and for my money, it is very possibly the most impressive whisky, yet distilled south of the border.
*Full disclosure: This sample was sent to me free of charge. As always I will strive to give an honest opinion on the dram and the value for money it represents.
Whiskymaker’s Reserve No 5 is the latest in The Lakes core single malt releases. The spirit was matured in a combination of Pedro Ximenez, Oloroso and red wine casks. It’s bottled un-chill-filtered at 52% and retails for around £70.
Smell: Full of the layered sherry character we’ve come to expect from this range. There’s raisins, sultanas, dark chocolate, treacle, leather, oak… There’s also toffee and a slight oak char note. Some wood stain. A touch of maple syrup. Cinnamon, nutmeg and cayenne pepper. Plum and cherry.
Taste: Strong PX influence. Aged balsamic. Raisins, figs, prunes. Some red berries. Caramel and toffee. Sweet Golden Syrup. Burnt oak. Sherry evolves into some prickly, peppery heat.
Thoughts: It’s another well put together whisky from The Lakes. I’m not sure if I enjoyed it quite as much as the previous batch, however. For me, No 4 was the best yet from this distillery. No 5 is certainly in a similar vein but I felt it came up a bit short. Maybe it lacked a little weight or possibly it could have done with some more oaky depth. That said, it’s still a very pleasant whisky with a big sherry influence and some lovely subtle red wine notes. It maintains the good standards already set, rather than re-defining them.
Value for money: The price has gone up, with several retailers asking just short of £70 per bottle. I can’t help but feel that stings a bit. For £10 more I could buy two bottles of Bunnahabhain 12-year-old. Is The Lakes whisky twice as good as Bunnahabhain? Absolutely bloody not. On the other hand, there are other £70 bottles that aren’t as good as the Lakes No 5. So where does that leave us?
The Lakes have deservedly earned themselves a reputation for quality but I wonder how far that will stretch in such a crowded market. We’re in the early days of a cost-of-living crisis but some whiskies look to be distancing themselves from the average consumer. I get the feeling The Lakes want to be England’s answer to Macallan: decent whisky that’s ridiculously priced for those with more money than sense. A status symbol as much as it is a drink.
I hate to be negative because this was an enjoyable dram; it’s just a little depressing watching the seemingly relentless march of this spirit towards being a luxury that’s only affordable for a select few. As always, the best thing to do is taste before you buy. Only the individual can decide if it’s worth £70 to them.
If the whisky reviewed in this article catches your eye, you can buy it from Master of Malt BUY HERE
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** Other retailers are available.
For more on The Lakes Distillery visit www.lakesdistillery.com/