The sky forms a uniform battleship grey. And waves of rain horizontally lash an exposed pagoda with a viciousness even old timers here have rarely seen before.
As I sit here, windscreen wipers on full speed just so I can get any view of the distillery 25 yards away, the rapidly flooding car park has a small smattering of visitors, few daring to venture into the 50 mile- per-hour westerlies bringing this almost clichéd whisky weather.
One brave soul, though, has made the dash between shop and car. He carefully bundles his bottle inside before squeezing himself, entirely sodden, into his seat and slams the door shut. Sanctuary. Five minutes later, the storm has abated and the sun begins a mocking attempt to dry the white distillery walls.
Oh, to be in whisky country in late November. Oh, to be in England. Because once, such a scene, such an experience, was the exclusive preserve of Scotland. And, to a lesser extent, Ireland.
Now, I am in Norfolk, an English county about as far removed from the Highlands of Scotland as you could make it. Indeed, its highest point barely struggles over the 300ft mark, rather than the 3,000ft of a Highland Munro.
But something it does have in common is the quality of the single malt produced there. At this moment, I cannot yet call it whisky, exactly. The distillery, St George’s, is currently in a strange no-man’s land where it made single malt over three years ago, but it is not for another five days that the anniversary can be celebrated of it first being put into cask. So what I have been tasting is still malt spirit.
But having sampled its new make, and the spirit at a year, two, and…ahem…three – and the younger versions in both unpeated and peated mode, not to mention matured in sherry, Bordeaux cask, Port and others – there is no doubt the distillery is on to a winner. Some of the samples were beyond excellent and nudged exceptional. Though, in common with Scotland, it also had the odd cask ruined by sulphur.
What was particularly intriguing was that distillery manager David Fitt, after looking at a wall of single malt Scotch sold in the shop to raise much-needed revenue while his distillery was in the one-way spending phase that all embryonic whisky distilleries are forced to endure, pointed to a non-Scotch for special attention. It was a bottle of Amrut from Bangalore in India. “Just amazing stuff,” he said. “Especially at cask strength: people just don’t believe me how good it is until I give it to them blind.”
He was, of course, already preaching to the converted as this year I had awarded “Third Finest Whisky in the World” to Amrut Fusion in my 2010 Whisky Bible. It was an award I made which raised a few eyebrows and slightly miffed one or two Scots I know. But anyone who has tasted it knows it is there on merit. Because whether they like it or not, the Scots no longer have the right – if ever they had the right at all – to dismiss other single malts as poor imitations, as they certainly did a decade or two ago. And sometimes, I’m afraid, still do.
It naturally begs the question: is Scotch single malt under attack? Is Scotland losing its grip as the undisputed home of single malt? Will malt from other countries begin to make inroads into its sales?
The answer has to be a blend of yeses and nos. In the last decade alone, we have seen single malt of at least very good quality come from the United States, Wales, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Australia and countless other outposts, including India and Taiwan. And that is on top of known top-grade malt distilleries such as those in Ireland and Japan. But will the Scots get their kilts in a flap? I somehow doubt it.
Put the production of all these new distilleries together and you are unlikely to even match the output of Diageo’s new Roseisle malt distillery. Let alone a grain plant. A distillery such as St George’s is little more than a midge bite to be contemptuously flicked off. Or at least so far as output is concerned.
But as for quality? That is another matter. There is a lot of ordinary Scotch about, not least because much of it has to go for blending and as close an eye is kept on yield as it is on quality. Especially when it comes to cask selection.
For the smaller distillers worldwide, the emphasis has to be on quality. Because they cannot survive by quantity alone. They need their customers having to come back for more.
And that is putting the pressure on the Scots: it is keeping them on their toes. And for everyone – the Scots included – that might not be a bad thing.