England’s largest whisky producer just got a whole lot bigger so we took a trip to the new Cotswolds Distillery with founder Daniel Szor to take a look around.

“We realised we would have a problem in five years time with stock,” Daniel Szor founder of the Cotswolds Distillery said when we visited him last month. In most industries a problem that far ahead could be kicked into the long grass, but in whisky a stock shortage in the future is a problem now. The distillery had become something of a victim of its own success. The two small Forsyths stills were running 14 hours a day trying to keep up with demand. There was only one thing for it: they’re gonna need a bigger distillery.

Stills at Cotswolds Distillery

The new stills at Cotswolds Distillery, author included for scale

How did they build the new distillery so quickly?

The problem was that Szor didn’t have the money, apparently £2.7m, to buy a new distillery from Forsyths that can produce around 500,000 litres of pure alcohol a year. So he’s renting it. Yes, really, you can now rent an entire distillery. Everything from the mill to the spirit safe is modular, like whisky Lego. It was built up in Rothes and then disassembled, brought down south and put together in a new building next to the old distillery. All the equipment is on metal frames and could be taken to pieces and packed off somewhere else if Szor decides he has been over-ambitious. Apparently there are only three such distilleries in the world. They managed to put the new distillery up in a year and it began distilling in 2023.

There’s a two tonne mashtub – four times bigger than the old one – and nine washbacks with foam breakers. In the old distillery they just added butter to keep the foam from fermentation down. A trick from marmalade making suggested by Jim Swan. The stills are the same shape as the old ones but bigger. The wash still, ‘Rosie’, has a 10,000 litre capacity while the spirit still, ‘Fanny’, is 5500 litres. Because of the limited space, the shell and tube condensers aren’t quite as big as necessary so there are sub-coolers afterwards to further cool the spirit. These are like miniature worm tubs built into the pipework. Very clever. 

There are still teething problems with the new equipment. The main issue is that the new mash tun is too efficient so it extracts more sugar and flavour from the malt so the resulting wash is stronger and richer than the one from the old distillery. Apparently it makes great new make but it is noticeably different from the light fruity Cotswolds profile. Szor described it as “Cotswold 2.0 – only in the last few weeks are we embracing the character.”

Daniel Szor founder of The Cotswolds Distillery

Mr Cotswolds whisky himself, Daniel Szor!

Tasting Cotswolds whisky

What won’t change is the cask regime at the Cotswolds distillery, mainly a mixture of bourbon casks and STR (shaved toasted and recharred) with some sherry and a smattering of funky casks like Banyuls, Port, amaro etc. The flavour profile owes a lot to the late Jim Swan who was very involved with the distillery. “Without Jim we’d be wandering around in the desert. He knew where to get the best casks”, Szor commented.

Though they do unusual cask finishes, Szor said that he’s not interested in releasing age statement whiskies. Partly because they don’t have the stock but also because Szor loves the punchy, fruity Cotswolds style: “We’re a new world whisky, like a big and bold Australian shiraz”, he explained. The classic Cotswolds Signature bottling will remain roughly three years old and is tasting as good as ever with its sweet, fruity profile. There are six whiskies in the core range, including a smoky whisky aged in Laphroaig casks. My own personal favourite is the Sherry Cask – the extra sweetness, richness and high ABV really suits the whisky. I also tried two single sherry cask seven year old whiskies in the sample room. Both were absolutely superb being full of spice and richness but with that trademark Cotswolds fruitiness. Let’s see if we can persuade Szor to release some older age statements. Watch this space… maybe. 

Muck at Cotswolds Rum Distillery

That’s authentic Cotswolds muck that is, leftovers from rum distillation

What about the old distillery?

We don’t have space to go into this in detail but what is happening at the old distillery is very very exciting. There’s a small column still which will carry on making the award-winning Cotswolds gin but the main stills are being given over to rum! And not just any rum but a high ester Jamaican-style rum made from treacle. There’s even a muck pit where all the dunder leftovers from distillation goes and then a small amount is added to the next fermentation. There was a flor-like layer of yeast on top of the muck and the smell was heady and wild. The distillery has released a few trial amounts of rum which sold out quickly but they are now making and ageing rum on a whole different scale. Szor is convinced that lovers of whisky and other dark spirits will make the move to premium rum. 

The distilling team at the Cotswolds led by Alice Pearson are a creative bunch turning out dozens of experimental spirits. In the past few years they have made gorgeous bitter amari-style gin liqueurs, absinthe, cider brandy, pommeau and countless other things. Not all of them have been financially successful but it’s clear that they love distilling and experimenting. You won’t be surprised that Szor is on very friendly terms with another booze explorer Alexandre Gabriel from Plantation rum and Maison Ferrand.

Cotswolds Sherry Cask Single Malt

Cotswolds Sherry Cask Single Malt – probably my favourite from the range

Whisky, whisky and more whisky

But these are all sideshows really compared with the main business which is whisky whisky and more whisky. In the last few years sales of gin have slowed down but they have been more than made up for in whisky. They now have 4,000 casks ageing in their on-site warehouses. Ageing due to the warm Cotswolds summers is much quicker than up in Scotland. 

The other big news beyond the new distillery is that wine and spirit merchant Berry Bros & Rudd has bought a 10% stake in the business. The company has some serious whisky heritage as the creator of Cutty Sark (though it no longer owns the brand) and former owner of GlenRothes. The Cotswolds Distillery’s CEO, Jeremy Parsons, is a former Berry’s man so the two businesses are clearly close. 

The English whisky industry is getting organised. Morag Garden has just been appointed as the first CEO of the English Whisky Guild, an organisation that represents most but not all producers. Formerly of the SWA, she’s a major appointment for this young industry. When we ran a social media campaign about English whisky in April, the name that came up most in the comments was the Cotswolds Distillery. In terms of production and name recognition, it’s clear that Szor’s team is right out in front.