In the midst of this Brexit chaos we invite you to take a step back and pour yourself a young, innovative English whisky whilst listening to the hard won wisdom of an oft-overlooked songwriting master. Cotswold Distillery meet Roy Harper!
The notion of English whisky raises a suspicious eyebrow in many, and red faced indignation in some. I love Scotch nearly as much as Ron Burgundy, but as the World Whisky Awards have crowned whisky from Tasmania, Taiwan and Japan as the greatest on the globe in the past decade, it’s time to explore the possibility of great whisky being made south of Hadrian's Wall.
The Cotswold Distillery laid down their first casks of whisky to mature in only 2014. Twiddling of thumbs was clearly not their style as during the wait they produced a superb and multi award winning gin! In 2017, they considered their single malt ready to share with the world and it was met with a lot of love with the general consensus being that the taste belied the drams tender years.
So how did they achieve a quality whisky in such a short period of time?
Well, under the guidance of whisky industry legend Dr Jim Swan they employed two innovative production techniques: long fermentation and STR or shaved toasted re-charred barrels.
Before distillation can happen, whisky producers have to make what is essentially beer without the hops from malted barley. In most distilleries this fermentation process takes two days until the yeast has turned all the soluble sugars in the starch of the barley to alcohol. Cotswold let this continue for another day or two allowing a bacteria to develop and produce an acid that combines with the alcohol to produce flavour compounds called esters. This sounds slightly gross but these esters give the liquid (or wash to use its correct name) an amazing fruity complexity that can be tasted in the finished whisky.
Shaved Toasted Re-charred barrels were pioneered by the aforementioned Dr Swan and give young whisky a kaleidoscopic array of flavours fast. Cotswold use premium ex-bourbon and red wine casks from Portugal with the whiskies then blended and bottled in the distillery.
The resulting dram has a nose of apples in butterscotch with a hint of apricot and marzipan. The palate is rich with toffee, dark sugar and sweet spice joining fantastic fruit characters of Seville orange marmalade and dried mango. It’s a victory for the team and a validation of the techniques used.
I love the place names in the Cotswolds (Stow-on-the-Wold being a particular favourite), which along with natural charm of this green and pleasant land are undeniably and beautifully English. Of course what is also beautifully undeniable about England is that its culture is forever changing. So I’ve paired this new whisky that to a tune that couldn’t have come from any other country, but was written by an artist who refused to let others define him.
If you haven’t heard of Roy Harper, you’re not alone, he’s an artist whose influence far outstrips his commercial success. For years I only knew him as the title of a song from Led Zeppelin III - ‘Hats Off to (Roy) Harper’. That in itself is damn cool but he’s also been named as a key influence by Kate Bush, Johnny Marr and Pete Townsend as well more contemporary American artists such as Fleet Foxes and Joanna Newsom. As well as Led Zep, he was big mates with Pink Floyd singing ‘Have a Cigar’ on their hit album ‘Wish You Were Here’.
I was introduced to him by Nick, the manager of our West Kirby store, who remembers going to Roy Harper gigs in the mid seventies but straining to see him due to a fog of exotic smoke!
Roy never let commercial concerns stem his imagination or convictions with 1968’s ‘I Hate The White Man’, a song which asked that generation to remember and take responsibility for its history, causing no small degree of outrage.
‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’ is his most famous song. If he’s railing against anything here, it’s time itself, but when in verse two ‘the clock turns back to reflect’, he seems quite at peace with the mischief and mystery of it all!
On watching Sir Gary Sobers play his last over, John Arlott reportedly said ‘such a pity to see an old cricketer leave the crease for the last time’. Inspiration immediately hit a listening Roy and the song was written within a day.
It has an undeniable wistful edge, with its evocation of village cricket in the sun and the ethereal treatment of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. The use of the brass band was to give the ‘fabled men’ of yesteryear who inhabit the lyrics a musical sense of place and pay tribute to the game as he watched it in his youth. As Roy celebrates what has passed, he concludes that these chaps are ‘much more than just yarns of their days’. Without doubt, ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’ is Roy ruminating on mortality, but he’s happy to leave doom and gloom to one side and give the inevitable a more elegant setting. This is maybe why legendary DJ John Peel asked for the song to be played in the event of his death. A request that was carried out by Andy Kershaw at the end of a tribute show in 2004.
At the end of the song, as Roy murmurs ‘silly mid on’ and the brass band ripples into infinity, I want to say “they don’t write them like that anymore”, but then I don’t think they ever did.
The chorus has the line - "And it could be Geoff and it could be John". The pair are Geoff Boycott and fearsome fast bowler John Snow.
If you want to investigate more of Roy Harpers work check out ‘Stormcock’ which legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr described as thus –
“If ever there was a secret weapon of a record it would be Stormcock... It's intense and beautiful and clever: Bowie's Hunky Dory's big, badder brother”