Grasping the nettle: The Cotswolds Distillery
There’s a well-stocked gift shop at the Cotswolds Distillery in the heart of the English countryside. There are Cotswolds keyrings, candles and cufflinks. Pessimistic umbrellas share shelf space with tastefully branded notepads and books on gin and whisky by noted authors. About the only thing that’s not on the shelves yet is bottles of spirits.
But that will all change over the coming months when the new venture’s gin kit and two whisky pot stills are fired up by Alex Davies, the head distiller who’s joined the company from Chase, arguably the biggest and best-known of the modern generation of boutique distilleries.
Davies was tempted away by the lure of making English whisky from grain to glass. “I’ve always liked whisky,” he says. “Vodka’s great but there’s only so much you can do with it.”
Davies was already working with whisky, which Chase has ageing in casks. “We bought beer in to distil and were using a vodka still, so to be here and oversee everything from the mash onwards and use an actual whisky still is very exciting.”
Being in at the start of something also appealed. “When I first saw this it was just an empty shell. When I was at Chase my aim was one day to start my own distillery but now I’m pretty much doing that already.” But without the personal financial risk.
That’s being shouldered by Daniel Szor, an American whisky enthusiast whose first whisky investment was a barrel of Islay malt on a visit to Bruichladdich in 2003.
Szor settled in the Cotswolds after being made redundant from his job with a New York hedge fund, whose operations in Paris and London he’d overseen.
“They did me the great service of going out of business at just the right time,” Szor says. “It seemed inconceivable to start all over again in a declining market in a business I never particularly liked. By comparison this is so much fun and something I can get passionate about.”
Szor had an epiphany standing in a Cotswolds field – his “barley moment” – in 2012. He decided a whisky that related to the “terroir” of one of Britain’s most beautiful and abundant agricultural locations just had to be made.
“For me, distilling on this artisanal basis is about connecting with agriculture, and the grain and the fruit,” he adds. “I was also very aware of the craft distilling revolution in the States. There are 85 distilleries in Colorado, 90 in New York state and 100 in Washington state. I don’t think it will get to that point [in the UK] but it will go a lot further than it is now. There’s a sweet spot where there’s enough people doing it so we’re not out there on our own.”
In May 2013 he returned to Bruichladdich, reacquainted himself with master distiller Jim McEwan and asked his advice. The response: “Well, what are you waiting for?”
McEwan put Szor in touch with well- travelled consultant Harry Cockburn, who has set up 15 distilleries in locations as far flung as Taiwan, Uruguay and Pakistan. He in turn introduced Szor to another whisky legend, wood guru Jim Swan, who’s advising on cask management.
A collection of light industrial buildings hewn from Cotswolds stone was found on the edge of the village of Stourton. They’d lain abandoned for years after the developer had a hissy-fit in a dispute about planning use, but were the perfect size and look for the vision Szor had.
A little over a year after he first set eyes on them, they have been manicured into a pristine modern distillery with the shop that’s waiting for its first tourists. “It would have been easy to do this for £20,000 a year on an industrial estate, but I had a different vision,” says Szor.
He is conscious that the location is “real Cotswolds” rather than the well-trodden chocolate box tourist route.
“If we can’t get them to the distillery, we’ll get the distillery to them,” he says. “In year four we’d like to do a pop-up tasting room in Bourton-on-the-Water as a test project. I’ve been to price store fronts and it wouldn’t cost that much, and if it went well we could replicate it in other towns.”
Gin production starts in August and the first whisky will be laid down in the autumn, for bottling at the earliest in 2017. There are also long-term plans for a rye whisky to be called Trader’s Ford – after a local site with links to the English Civil War – plus a range of fruit brandies, including apple with the working title Cotswold-vados.
The investment has cost in the region of £2 million to date and Szor is planning a Founders’ Circle investment club to fund future expansion and trading capital until the whisky can be sold.
“We’ll take in 50 investors for £50,000 each. They’ll get dividends, some shares, a barrel and their name in the distillery. There’s a fair bit of money locally – people who are passionate and might think it’s something neat to be associated with.
“The costs aren’t huge but they aren’t inconsequential, and it’s impossible to run two production lines with the revenue from one, so we can at least alleviate that a little bit.
“It’s not like opening a travel agency.”