What picture does the affluent Suffolk coastal town of Southwold bring to mind?
For some visitors it might be the tastefully renovated pier with its self-consciously eccentric coin-operated amusements (have your picture taken at the Expressive Photobooth – “guaranteed to capture your natural beauty and develop your true personality”). For others it may be the famous multicoloured beach huts that line the seafront, eclectically decorated but with uniformly silly price tags (the last original hut went on the market for a guide price of £60,000 this summer).
What it does not bring to mind – at least not yet – is whisky-making. Yet Jonathan Adnams, chairman of the eponymous family brewery that has been based in the town since 1872, believes there is no reason why it shouldn’t. From 2013, Adnams, renowned for making “beer from the coast” complete with robust naval monikers such as Explorer and Broadside, will sell whisky that comes not from the highlands of Scotland but from the rather flatter environs of East Anglia.
In fact, beer is more integral to the whisky-making process than many realise, says Adnams. “People say, ‘You can make spirits from beer?’ And we say, ‘Where do you think it comes from?’,” he explains as if in disbelief, while I shake my head conspiratorially and furiously make a lot of notes.
To vastly oversimplify the process, the company’s recently completed Copperhouse microdistillery brews what it calls a “distillery wash” – a beer made without hops, which contains a basic blend of flavours that form the basis of what will, during the distillation process, be turned into spirit.
Adnams is, however, not rash enough to think he can go head to head with the taste or mass appeal of those he refers to as “the Scotch whisky boys”.
“You’ve got to bring your own style to it,” he says, explaining that Adnams will mature its whisky in new barrels made from Russian oak. This is vastly more expensive, he points out, “but our point of difference is that by mixing this oak with different grains it brings different flavours”.
By 11 o’clock on a summer Sunday morning I have tasted several of these flavours, including a promising 100 per cent malted barley wash and a smoother, “tri-grain” wash (wheat, barley and oats) – straight from the barrel at a fairly enlivening cask strength of 65 per cent alcohol by volume.
In the barrel since last November, they will not be ready to drink for a while yet – the laws on whisky-making dictate that it must be in the cask for three years and one day in order to be classified as such.
I also sample some excellent velvety oak-aged vodka which, along with gin, has marked the company’s recent first foray into the world of alcoholic spirits.
I am on a private tour of the microdistillery with 54-year-old Adnams who has worked for the company, chiefly as a brewing engineer, since he was 18.
Such walk-rounds, he says, offer an insight into the “grain to glass” process, but are equally revealing as an illustration of the way the company helps drive local tourism. Certainly, wherever you are in Southwold, it’s pretty difficult to avoid the brewer’s influence.
At either end of the bookshop- and boutique-lined main street are Adnams pubs, and in the middle, just a few doors apart, are its two hotels, the majestic 350-year-old Swan and the smaller, more contemporary, Crown.
It also lends its name to many of the events that take place in and around the town, including a five-day literary festival, held in November (speakers this year include Melvyn Bragg, Tony Benn and Joanna Trollope), the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival and a bunch of select “wine lunches” and grand dinners, each effortlessly reinforcing the town’s reputation for being the height of good taste – as well, of course, as the home of Adnams.
Tours of the brewery and distillery are further encouragements to buy into a clearly defined sense of place. “Some of it is to allow people to see the whole process, to educate people a little. And some of it is to say, ‘This is made by real people; come and see it, touch it, feel it – and talk to the people who made it’. So they can learn something of interest and, not to be too coy about it, hopefully buy the product.”
He believes it won’t be an impossible mission to convince fans of Adnams beers to buy whisky that is English rather than from Scotland. He points to other examples of English whisky producers such as the English Whisky Company, based up the road in the Breckland area of Norfolk, which encouraged him that he wasn’t totally going out on a limb with the idea.
Even so, he concedes, you don’t always know when the moment to launch something is right, particularly something like whisky, which requires a longer-term commitment.
“You just have to hold your nerve,” he smiles.
Tours at the Adnams distillery (www.adnams.co.uk) cost £10 per person (over 18s only), take around an hour and are followed by a tutored tasting in the Adnams Cellar & Kitchen store. The Swan Hotel (same website) has double rooms from £163. The Southwold literary festival (www.wayswithwords.co.uk) runs from November 10 to 14.