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10 best English spirits

There's more to the country's distilleries than just gin – from Cornish pastis to vodka made by the cows of Dorset

Black Cow

With the country’s craze for gin showing no signs of slowing, new distilleries continue to crop up throughout the land. But it’s not just juniper-led boozes that are keeping their stills active. England’s new breed of distillers are producing everything from vodkas that rival Eastern Europe’s finest to a whisky that would be welcomed by even the most discerning of Scottish dram-seekers.

We’ve tracked down some of the finest spirits that England has to offer, made using a wide variety of ingredients from the humble nettle to the mighty oak. So whether you’re looking for a shot of something strong to be taken neat, or a new booze for your favourite cocktail, there’s a special English spirit for everyone. 

1. Freya Birch Spirit, 40%: £37.95 for 700ml, The Whisky Exchange

Want to experience this year’s cleanest, freshest tasting booze? Then this is the bottle for you. In early spring, birch trees from Nordic forests are tapped for their sap, which is frozen before being transported to an English copper still and turned into a very special spirit. The taste is unique but reminds us of the fresh, invigorating qualities of a pure peach schnapps and the smooth, boozy glow of a good tequila. It’s the essence of the outdoor elements and a great alternative to gin or vodka when served with tonic.

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2. Tarquin’s Cornish Pastis, 42%: £31.09 for 700ml, Drink Supermarket

Aniseed-flavoured spirits are popular throughout Europe but have yet to find much favour on these shores. Cornwall’s Southwestern Distillery is hoping to change opinions with this pastis – a French-styled aniseed and fennel aperitif given a local twist by the addition of gorse flowers that emphasise notes of coconut amidst the aniseed and zesty orange flavours. 

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3. Capreolus Doyenné du Comice Pears Eau de Vie, 43%: £36.75 for 375ml, The Whisky Exchange

For the best in fruity spirits, sniff out the Capreolus range of limited edition eau de vies, each lovingly crafted by hand in the Cotswolds. The alcoholic delights available include distillations of a deliciously sweet smelling dessert plum and a sensational wild elderberry creation. This pear-based spirit is double distilled from perry and has perfectly captured its fruity beauty: enticingly aromatic with a crisp and light sweetness and a tickle of tannin from the skin that adds an extra layer of complexity. Ideally served as an ice-cold aperitif on a hot summer’s day.

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4. English Whisky Co, Chapter 9, 2010, Peated, 46%: £45.55 for 700ml, The Whisky Exchange

After a century or so without a whisky distillery, England is once again distilling fermented barley. Leaders of this new challenge to Scotland’s dominance are Norfolk’s St Georges distillery, which opened in 2006 and already has an impressive range of whiskies in its cellars. This single malt has been lightly peated, adding just a hint of smokiness while emphasising the peppery, piney notes from its ex-fill bourbon cask ageing. For whisky fans the world over, the English scene is at last one worth watching with interest.

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5. Black Cow Pure Milk Vodka, 40%: £24.95 for 700ml, 31DOVER

Dorset’s cows have been busy doing their bit for the English booze industry, providing milk destined for the Black Cow copper pots. Whey is fermented, after the curds are separated for cheese making, before being distilled and triple filtered, resulting in a smooth and vanilla-sweet vodka with a good boozy kick to finish. Works a treat in fruity cocktails – just don’t pour it over your cornflakes.

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6. Warner Edwards Harrington Dry Gin, 44%: £32.95 for 700ml, 31DOVER

Warner Edwards’ first batch of gin was produced in a 200-year old Northamptonshire barn in 2012. Named after its village location, Harrington, the bold, blue-bottled booze has been steadily building a reputation as one of the country’s finest. It’s a smooth sipper, with a delicate bouquet and a good juniper presence, which is enlivened with a touch of warming spice. Warner Edwards’ spirit range includes gins flavoured with elderflower and lemon balm, but it’s this London dry that that we rate as a contemporary English classic.

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7. Chase English Oak Smoked Vodka, 40%: £33.55 for 700ml, Master of Malt

Williams Chase was at the forefront of the new spirit revolution, and this small batch vodka couldn’t be more English: distilled from English spuds and flavoured with the smoky essence of English oak. Smoked booze isn’t to everyone’s liking, and its uses for mixing are limited, but anyone intrigued enough should serve it neat with ice for a new taste experience. It’s a smooth vodka with a wisp of smoke, a peppery bite and an oaky bitterness that adds an extra depth to the booze and matches well with a simple platter of cheese or cured meat.

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8. Bombo 40 Rum Caramel & Coconut, 40%: £24.95 for 700ml, Master of Malt

From the tropical paradise of Newquay, Cornwall, comes a range of spiced rums which are reportedly based on an 18th century pirate recipe. This seafarers’ tipple is infused with coconut, which mingles with warming rum spices to transport the drinker to a faraway, sunnier land. Caramel provides a rich but not-too-sickly sweetness and some fruity notes add further tropical colours to the drink. Slosh a few drops over your favourite dessert or serve with ice as the sun begins to set over our calm island seas…

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9. J J Whitley Nettle Gin, 38.6%: £19.99 for 700ml, Amazon

Distillers are becoming increasingly keen to produce gins that lean on unusual flavours, and we’ve found room for one such spirit in our list. Nettles give this gin a prominent herbaceous focus which sits happily alongside the more familiar fruity and bitter juniper flavours. Some zesty lemon notes add brightness to the taste, creating a distinctive, well-crafted gin at a great price and with no stings attached.

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10. Harrogate Rum, 42%: £30 for 500ml, Harrogate Tipple

Harrogate’s spring water is renowned for its supposed therapeutic qualities, but we didn’t expect to see it used as the source of rum. This booze is distilled from sugar cane molasses and flavoured with an array of natural ingredients including cherries, red hibiscus flowers and wildflower honey produced by Yorkshire’s hard-working bees. As befits the serenity of its spa town location, the rum is less in-your-face than other spiced rums on the market, offering a more leisurely sipping experience with some soft, fruity notes smoothing out the booze’s rougher edges.

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The Verdict: English spirits 

Tarquin’s Pastis proves that Cornwall has more to offer than pasties, but for a truly unique and fresh-tasting booze we’ve awarded Freya Birch Sap spirit the Best Buy. 

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Nick Moyle is one half of the Two Thirsty Gardeners. Their book, Brew it Yourself, is out now

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

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