Reviews of affordable whiskies with some entertaining tales along the way…
The Oxford Artisan Distillery was founded in 2017 by Tom Nicolson, Cory Mason and Tagore Ramoutar. Working with local farmers, the distillery produces spirits using various heritage grains. In this feature, I’ll be sampling the Heritage Corn Whisky, which was released as part of the Grain Stories series in 2021.
The distillery was born of a chance meeting at a farmers’ market. To be more specific, it happened as a result of an introduction to John Letts, an Oxford-based archaeobotanist and grain expert. In 1994, John discovered more than 200 examples of wheat and rye landraces dating from the late Medieval period. These landrace grains were developed over centuries to adapt to their local conditions. Prior to John’s discovery, no one knew what they looked like because none survived the industrialisation of farming in the 1800s.
John Letts is now the farming partner of the Oxford Artisan Distillery. He believes in minimising the use of fossil fuels and in enhancing the biodiversity of the land. Sustainable farming depends upon such things and a strong emphasis on landrace varieties, specially adapted to the local conditions, alongside a focus on traditional methods, ensures an environmentally friendly crop.
The distillery produces its whisky using grain grown by Letts and other farmers like him. The spirit is produced in Stills designed by Paul Pridham and South Devon Railway Engineering, one of the last historic coppersmiths in England. Their unusual design is said to be inspired by Victorian engineering, old diving helmets and the imagery from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Production commenced in the summer of 2017. The distillery was then certified as organic in 2020 and released its first whisky in 2021.
Grain Stories B1: Heritage Corn Whisky
The Grain Stories series is an opportunity for Master Distiller, Chico Rosa, to celebrate the diversity of English-grown heritage grains. Heritage Corn Whisky is distilled from diverse corn varieties grown especially for the distillery and harvested in 2017. It’s a limited edition of around 830 bottles. The whisky is bottled at 50.4% abv and comes in a 50cl bottle.
Smell: Really interesting nose. Actually quite spicy. Almost rye-like. Lots of fresh mixed herbs and spices – ginger especially. Parsley and fresh mint, even. Coconut and almonds. Biscuits with runny honey. There’s a real aromatic warmth to it. Like sticking your face in a spice cupboard.
Taste: The spice from the nose carries through – even tingles the lips on the way in. A nice creamy texture. It feels like you can give it a good chew – something I always appreciate. Rye bread. Wheat flour. Lemongrass. There’s an almost rum-like banana note, as well. More ginger. Clove. Nutmeg. Lingering corn on the finish.
Thoughts: I found it quite hard to pin this one down. There’s a lot going on in the glass but the elements don’t always feel like they’re working together. I like its weight and the spices are intriguing but it feels a little disjointed and a splash of water only served to dial down the intensity – without encouraging any greater harmony. Feels like it could become something really interesting but perhaps needs a few more years to fully develop. Obviously, you don’t want to go to the trouble of using heritage crops only to smother the spirit in oak but right now it feels like a progress report. Almost unfinished in some way. An intriguing curiosity that would be fun to revisit a couple of years down the line.
Price: £95. Asking £95 for a 50cl bottle of 3-year-old whisky is a bit mad. I understand that investing in lower-yield grains and traditional methods may have an impact on price but this still feels a step too far. A shame, because it’s an interesting concept.
*I received this sample as part of a subscription to The Whisky Pioneer. For more information visit https://whiskypioneer.co.uk/
For more on Oxford Artisan Distillery visit here: https://www.theoxfordartisandistillery.com/