What drives a couple to quit two lucrative careers and build a Tasmanian-inspired whisky distillery in Yorkshire? We explore the story behind the Cooper King Distillery, England’s newest single malt whisky-maker.
“We got a bit bored and left our jobs and just started following our dreams, I guess,” Abbie Neilson takes a sip of her lemonade as we chat about one new distillery in particular set to join the swelling ranks of English whisky producers. Spirit might not yet flow at the Yorkshire-based Cooper King Distillery, but it already comes with a backstory that could fill the annals.
It’s a rainy September day and I’ve travelled up to York to meet Neilson and her partner Chris Jaume, the pair behind Cooper King. They recently joined a 14-strong community of English distillers (at the last count – there are more in the pipeline). We’re discussing how the distillery came to be over lunch before heading just outside the city to where Neilson and Jaume are mid-construction, next to her parents’ house.
Cooper King intrigues for two reasons. Firstly, the duo is perhaps the youngest English team to break ground with the intention of producing whisky. Unlike others, they are neither industry veterans nor distilling graduates. Before one game-changing trip they, by their own admission, weren’t even that into whisky. But today they are fervent, and their zeal for the distillery is miasmic. They live and breathe it, literally. They are in the process of constructing the distillery themselves, piece by piece; it’s impossible to resist getting caught up in the Cooper King vision.
Secondly, this will be a distillery like no other in England – perhaps even Europe. The result of a plan hatched in Tasmania, almost every part of the Cooper King production process is informed by whisky-making methods from the island. Yet, Neilson and Jaume maintain a decidedly local focus. Sourcing is thoughtfully kept to Yorkshire as far as possible, and the historic roots of the distillery’s name weave through the tapestry of the county’s history. This is a compelling distillery build, indeed.
The whisky piece
The story starts with, and is defined by, the couple themselves. Neilson, who holds a PhD in biomedical science, and Jaume, an architect, first met at Newcastle university.
“We had a nice house, we were renting, we were saving up a bit of money and thought we should buy a house,” Neilson looks back. “But we weren’t really ready to settle down and have kids; we were both a bit restless.” They had both become disenchanted with their respective fields of study. This was 2014. The answer? Booking one-way tickets to Australia for a two-year holiday.
What followed was months of work, either through Help Exchange, where backpackers swap skills and labour in return for bed and board, or out in fields for the harvest in order to extend their visas. Ahead of travelling to Tasmania, they got in touch with MoM’s very own NPD and sales director, Ben Ellefsen, to offer their services as roving reporters.
“I emailed Ben out of the blue, an opportunistic backpacker, saying ‘I’m over here, do you want us to go and visit the distilleries and write it up?’” Recalls Jaume. The brief was set: visit the distilleries, report back, and expenses would be covered (you can find the first in the series of blog posts here).
“He thought there was three distilleries,” laughs Neilson. “There were eight!”
What ensued, in Jaume’s words, was a “bizarre double life” – journalists by day, before returning to backpacking and moving to the next distillery in the car-slash-mobile home. It was meeting Peter Bignell at the Belgrove Distillery that saw the seed which would become the Cooper King distillery start to germinate.
“Peter had done some work at a neighbouring distillery, Nant,” Neilson remembers. “He did a bit repairing their copper stills and then thought he’ll give it a go himself.” Bignell proceeded to make his own pot still from reclaimed copper, and then produce his own rye whiskey. “He even runs the still off biofuel, which he makes from old cooking oil,” Neilson enthuses. “We were like, oh my god! This is amazing.”
The contrast between Bignell’s “couple of sheds out the back” and the shiny operations of mainstream distilleries was startling. “You don’t normally see any liquid or ingredients, it’s all hidden. It was like this is how you make whisky.”
It was a fascination that was cemented over the course of the reporting mission. “At Nant I met one off the distillers, he was in his overalls covered in draff,” Neilson recollects. He was a backpacker, and she had to know how he came into distilling. “I was like, what do you mean? You’re a backpacker and now you’re a distiller at this amazing distillery? He said he’d seen an advert and they’d trained him on the job. He didn’t have any experience in the industry, or in science. Nothing.”
It was an eye-opener. “I knew I didn’t want to stay in biomedical science; it’s really hard to get a job. When I looked into food science or brewing or distilling, you needed a degree from Heriot-Watt [a leading Edinburgh university] or tons of experience in production. So I just ruled it out. But then I met this guy and realised you don’t have to go down the traditional route.”
For Jaume, it’s a culture of learning on the job that helps define the character of Tassie whisky. “They’ve got it coupled with making stunning whisky. It’s unlike anything else – maybe it’s because they’ve all come from doing something different, maybe because they’ve all come from different backgrounds and different industries. They are being innovative.”
But it all can be traced back to that first day at Belgrove. “We asked Peter Bignell how much it cost to set up and actually get producing whisky – and it was £20,000,” Neilson says. “So we had a whisky that night at the little hotel we were staying in and had a joke that maybe we could do it ourselves. And then we started talking about it and all the people we knew who could help – and it just snowballed from there.”
Why Cooper King?
The Yorkshire rain has stopped and we step outside of the restaurant and into York’s old town. There’s no such thing as rain, only future whisky, they say – and this is certainly the case in Yorkshire these days. The three of us walk and talk.
After that decisive nightcap a stint at Redlands Distillery’s week-long distilling school followed, which included sessions with Bill Lark, a shareholder who also founded the nearby Lark Distillery, they tell me. Halfway through their trip, the pair decided to get serious and put a business plan together.
“Everyone thought we were taking the piss,” Jaume continues, remembering the first reactions from family when they shared their idea.
“The plan was to have a proposal and say to the parents, look, this is a serious idea,” Neilson chips in. “They thought we were joking.”
Her dad, she says, was picturing huge Scotch distilleries. “I sent him pictures of Peter Bignell and all the people that we met, and he gradually came round to the idea.” Vital, considering Cooper King is built on their land. “We’re so lucky,” she says. “That’s saved us a lot.”
They returned from Australia in Christmas 2015, armed with a would-be house deposit. The initial idea was to convert and expand an existing stable block – and planning permission was duly granted. Then engineers were commissioned.
“They said no, you can’t, that concrete slab’s not thick enough,” Jaume says. We ended up ripping the whole distillery down, the stable block and starting from scratch. It doubled the budget…”
The plan now – and indeed, what is slowly coming into fruition, is a purpose-built distillery, complete with a barrel store and a joint-purpose visitor centre and tasting room, all under one roof. “Exactly like the Tassies,” he states.
What very much isn’t born of Tasmania is the ‘Cooper King’ name. It is taken from two extraordinary family volumes, hand-drawn by Jaume’s great-great-grandad, Charles Cooper King, born in 1843. In 1885 he set about charting the family history, following leads across the country and identifying ancestors right the way back to 1030.
“Imagine the time – it was pre-Google, obviously, so he would have travelled across the entire country to the old parish churches and offices,” Later on, Neilson shows the tome-like records to me, carefully removing them from the layers and layers of wrapping cocooning them from harm. Page after page of dense, calligraphy-like detail fills the pages, punctuated with still-vibrant hand-painted illustrations. The Cooper King logo is a stylised version of a crest created by Charles in the records as a result of his findings. Parts of the original design from the pages can still be spotted in the nearby Ripon Cathedral today.
And there’s a Da Vinci Code-esque mystery afoot. “He made three volumes but we’ve only got two of them,” Jaume explains. “My uncle, when he was a teenager, lent the third to a work colleague – and then got fired from his job. So it’s out there somewhere.” The consensus is it must be lying forgotten in a loft somewhere. There’s talk of launching a pseudo-quest to find it when the first Cooper King bottles launch.
The Cooper King brand is decidedly of Yorkshire. But when we drill down into the distillery equipment, the extent of the Tasmanian influence becomes clearer.
“We’ll have two fermentation vessels, about 2,000 litres, and the mash tun is going to be about 1,600 litres, so fairly sizeable,” Neilson describes. Their 900-litre pot still, made by Peter Bailly at Knapp Lewer, is currently being shipped across from Tasmania.
“It’ll be the only still of its kind in the UK,” she continues. “It’s quite a boxy still. Most have got a very rounded shape, but this is very angular. And it’s very small and squat.” It’s similar in stature to the still at Redlands. “The spirit we tasted coming off that, the new-make, was just amazing. Really fruity, just gorgeous. So we were adamant we wanted to use that shape still.” While others are traditionally heated with a steam coil, this one is electrically heated from the base, she adds.
The plan is to operate two wash runs and one spirit distillation from each 1,200-litre mash to fill one 100-litre cask, with initial forecasts dictating that two will be filled each month. That will equate to around 4,000 bottles of whisky a year.
Bourbon, Port and sherry casks are all earmarked for filling. “We’ve also got contacts who have sourced us a Tasmanian Port and a Tasmanian sherry cask,” Jaume adds excitedly. “As far as I’m aware, no-one else in the UK has used Aussie wood.”
With all this Tassie influence, where do the local leanings come in? The Cooper King floor-malted Maris Otter barley, although sourced from Warminster Malt, is grown in Yorkshire. The other decidedly local element is the cooper involved with the project. Alastair Simms, in his fifties now, is the last remaining independent master cooper in the UK. “I googled him and he is in Wetherby, which is 20 miles away,” Neilson says. “I just thought, this is too good to be true.”
Except it wasn’t, and Simms is now primed to receive the Tassie staves, packed carefully around the still which is, at the time of writing, away at sea. A serendipitous blend of Tasmanian material and Yorkshire craft. Would they ever consider using local oak, too?
“Currently not, but it is something we’re definitely going to look at,” Jaume says. “To use Yorkshire barley, Yorkshire oak, a Yorkshire cooper and aged in Yorkshire…” he trails off in a way that indicates it’s an enticing ambition.
All these plans – what about the eventual character of the whisky? They plan to age for perhaps three to five years initially, as it’s not clear how quickly the spirit will mature. From the cask size and profile, it won’t come as a surprise that character is the name of the game.
“We’re definitely going for really fruity,” explains Neilson, who with her science background will head up operations, at least initially. “Light stuff doesn’t do much for us. We like the really punchy whiskies.” Christmas pudding, spices and dark fruit notes are all bandied about, as is a potential 2022 release date.
“We’d like to experiment one day with a peated whisky as well,” Jaume adds in. They look at each other almost conspiratorially.
Neilson takes over, as if something might slip. “We kind of just want to make whisky that we want to drink – which is probably a terrible business idea!”
With whisky – Tassie whisky especially – driving so much of the Cooper King build, it’s easy to forget that gin will be an important part of production, too.
“We’ve got a 10-litre copper pot, really good for harder botanicals, and then we’ve got a rotor-evaporator vacuum coming at the end of the month,” Neilson details. “I can’t wait to get experimenting with that.”
The aim is to produce a standard house gin, and then a number of experimental batches, possibly seasonal releases. They are keen to use honey from the on-site beehives, along with apple blossom, lavender and chamomile from the adjoining orchard. While juniper is to be shipped in from Europe, there’s the chance of producing a 100% Yorkshire-made release, as word has reached them of a local producer offering small quantities. “I don’t want to commit to anything just yet because we might hit on something really interesting and decide to do that instead,” she continues.
Without a column still they plan to buy in English wheat as a base, but then blend in some of their own malt spirit. “That’s a little extra something that no-one else can replicate; it’ll have our character to it,” Jaume says. The plan is to make around 8,000 bottles in the first year, which can be “easily scaled up” if and when demand requires it.
The pair also mention the potential of a jenever, and hint at some other experiments to come. “In a couple of years we’ll explore different things,” he continues. “Some we’ll keep close to our chests for now, but I think we might lay down a few different things and see how they turn out in a few years. And be like, ‘by the way, we made this!’”.
From the ground up
Neilson and Jaume both acknowledge they are living a reality that others often only aspire to – walking away from less-than-satisfying careers, brave enough to leap into the unknown to pursue and realise a dream. But it’s far from a charmed existence. When you meet the pair, in addition to their clear bond, it’s a steely determination that is most apparent.
We arrive at the site. The distillery isn’t quite watertight yet but it’s there – a timber-clad building, larger than I was expecting but not substantial, across a newly laid driveway and car park from Neilson’s parents’ house. To one side is a fledgling tree plantation, part of a sustainability project, a little orchard, and a gathering of beehives. On the other side of the distillery building is an expanse of grass, and the caravan that the pair share. I venture that it seems remarkable that they’ve built everything from scratch. Neilson and Jaume, along with friends and family, have lined up every piece of timber and drilled it all together by hand. There’s a huge sustainability focus, too with reclaimed materials used as far as possible, and until solar panels are installed the distillery will exclusively be powered by a green supplier. The pair have documented the entire build on their blog – it’s another remarkable piece in the Cooper King puzzle.
“We could have got a massive bank loan to do it all, but we didn’t want to,” Neilson says. “We wanted to do it ourselves as much as possible. Partly for budget, but also for our learning curve. Because what we did in Australia, people living off the grid, building things themselves, it was really inspiring.”
And they both remain resolutely positive. “There’s stuff we didn’t even know existed or things we had to do,” she continues. “It’s really scary because we’ve had to learn everything as we go.” She pauses before laughing. “It’s good fun, but also quite intense!”
But it’s not all been sunshine and breezy Instagram quote-worthy levels of inspiration. The process has been tough, too. Sacrificing creature comforts to move into a caravan is one part, but the pair both agree that raising the required finances was the hardest aspect. On this they are incredibly honest.
“Our original budget from when we did distillery school and roughly costed everything up was £100,000,” calculates Neilson. “But then we got back and we realised it would be £200,000.”
“And now it’s £350,000,” Jaume adds in. “We sold some equity in the company, a very limited amount. That was probably the toughest thing, because without getting that cash injection, we wouldn’t have been able to get on with production.”
“There was a big chunk of time when we were putting everything into it, but we didn’t know if it was ever going to go anywhere,” Neilson continued before pausing. Well… I guess we knew we would, it was a case of when.”
That determination and resilience shines through again. “You just had to. You just had to think it was going to work, so you had to keep going, speaking to investors, putting feelers out there, speaking to family and friends,” Jaume says. “That whole process took months, but at the same time we will wanted to keep the whole project going forward. But, as Abbie said, you’re still aware at the back of your mind that if you don’t raise the money, you’re stuck.”
The Cooper King Founders’ Club
The pair still hold 90% of the company, and remain remarkably open about build challenges and processes. One way to both bring in revenue and keep things feeling open and collaborative was to launch the Cooper King Founders’ Club earlier this year. From as little as £30, anyone can join and become part of the Cooper King adventure – but places are limited. The entry-level Seed Package includes a welcome pack, members card, lapel pin and key ring, plus access to pre-release spirit, limited editions and complimentary miniatures. Other membership options are whisky- or gin-themed with bottles of exclusive product, and the highest level Copper Package includes a whole host of inaugural releases. Every package encourages members to get involved in product development and provide feedback. It feels genuinely close-knit and inclusive.
“We had people waiting from the moment it launched, and orders started coming in right away,” says Neilson, who seems almost surprised by its success.
The collaborative effort follows the theme of the entire distillery build. Friends and family have given up holidays and weekends to contribute to the project, and now Founders can get involved, too.
The timing of the Cooper King build brings additional momentum to the flourishing English whisky category, and both Neilson and Jaume are adamant that their project should champion the whole sector. They plan to stock other producers in the Cooper King visitor centre, and even created an English whisky map to highlight the growth of the region.
“It’s a really young industry, and because there’s not that many of us it would be a shame if it became really competitive,” Neilson says. “It would be really good if we could work together and put England on the map.”
Cooper King is already pretty well known on the English whisky scene, largely due to the blog the pair maintain on the Cooper King website. It’s been a deeply personal journey for the pair, who share so much of their lives online as they seek to get the distillery up and running. I ask if they find it strange sharing so much of themselves with their fans and Founders.
“I hadn’t really thought of it like that… it is really open, isn’t it?” Neilson ponders. “But I think it’s a good thing. It really frustrates me when you think you know a company or a brand and you’re buying it for a particular reason, and you find out they’ve been doing something underhand. I’d rather just know upfront.” Jaume agrees: “The thing with being open is that’s the easiest way of doing it.”
Unsurprisingly, conversation turns to use of ‘craft’, a word that’s become much maligned in spirits circles. Can brands market themselves as ‘genuine craft’? How do you define a ‘micro-distillery’? Does any of it matter? All questions the pair will need to navigate, as their unarguably micro, craft distillery is born.
“The thing we really liked about Peter Bignell especially was that he was raw and honest,” Jaume says, taking it back to Tassie. “It wasn’t polished, it was just him, and he’d often say things he shouldn’t. It was unguarded. And it’s refreshing.” It’s an approach they keen to model.
With the impending arrival the custom whisky still, the first gins set to be ready around Christmas, and final labels and branding to be signed off, there’s more than just a debate about craft to keep Neilson and Jaume busy in the coming months. They also mention plans to expand the team – with her distilling licence, Neilson can get things up and running, but an extra pair of production hands would help – and the second phase of the build, dedicated warehousing, needs some thought. And there’s a Founders’ Club event in the pipeline, perhaps for the first cask-filling, and the eventual opening an on-site B&B.
“It’s strange because it’s been in the planning for so long, and there are all of these ideas, and it’s just starting to come into fruition,” Neilson says, almost breathing a sigh of relief. “It’s becoming really real. But also, thank goodness we’re at this point!”