How did a New Yorker get into the spirit of the Cotswolds and create some of the finest English whisky around? Here’s the story of the Cotswolds Distillery.
There are some distilleries that have long, romantic histories, and others that started with passion after a ‘what if?’ conversation in a bar between old friends. Something of a red flag when it comes to distillery origins is the tale of a person leaving behind the corporate world to create whisky, making an unimpassioned stop on the way to create white spirits to balance the books and cash in on a thriving industry. Particularly when they try and fluff it up with some nonsense about heritage because their great uncle bumped into Johnnie Walker at Kilmarnock station or something.
The Cotswolds Distillery was founded by Dan Szor, a native New Yorker who spent 25 years in Europe, eight in London as an investment banker, before moving to the Cotswolds in 2011. A single malt lover, he was inspired to leave it all behind and make whisky, thinking his new idyllic English countryside home was the perfect place for it. While the whisky matured, he created a range of gin, as well as numerous other spirits that don’t have such commercially prohibitive ageing laws. Uh oh. The red flags are waving all over the place like it’s Chinese New Year. On paper, this doesn’t sound like a distillery that would fill us whisky-lovers with confidence.
And yet, Szor’s creation, The Cotswolds Distillery, is without doubt one of the leading lights of the English whisky boom. Its beautiful site receives nearly 100,000 visitors a year, who are treated to a host of excellent spirits, including a clearly lovingly-made selection of gin, and a superb early core range of whisky. Success has been so relentless that Jeremy Parsons, a 30-year industry veteran formerly at Diageo, has recently come on board as CEO, and a significant expansion is taking place at its site near Shipston-on-Stour. Plans include a whole new distillery that will make the Cotswolds Distillery the largest producer of English whisky with an eventual 500,000-litres of pure alcohol per year.
Cotswolds from start to finish
The whisky made here begins life as local barley, farmed just a few miles from the distillery. Right now they grow the Odyssey strain, but a switch to Concerto is on the way as it’s an advised grain for rotation. The only part of the process that doesn’t happen in the Cotswolds is that Warminster Maltings do the malting, but even then they’re only a short distance away in Wiltshire.
My host is Rob Patchett, global whisky ambassador at The Cotswolds Distillery, who tells me they haven’t experimented much with grain here because consistency of flavour is the priority. “As soon as you add anomalies you can compromise that. Experiments are great, but we’re all about establishing quality first”. There is, however, a barrel of rye whisky maturing in the warehouse, which a local brewery assisted with the mash, and distilled in both pot and column (the advantage of having a gin set up on-site).
This is one of many distilleries to have sought Dr. Jim Swan’s advice, and that’s seen in the creation of a clear wort when mashing. “It accentuates the fruit element in your mash. You let it rest for half an hour at the end of the cycle and the grain sifts to the bottom, which obviously reduces the grainy element and lets the fruit shine. We have clear perspex element in our pipe to monitor it,” Patchett explains. They use floor-malted barley which is fed with hot water recycled from the last run into a 0.5-tonne mash tun.
Fermentation runs for 90 hours in eight 2,500-litre, stainless steel washbacks, which are filled with two yeast strains: Anchor for efficiency and Fermentis to build esters. The first two days of fermentation are about yield, while the next two days are about letting those fatty acids and fruit compounds (where flavour lives), develop. This was one of Dr. Swan’s trademarks, loading the wash with esters to impart as much fruity complexity as possible early on in the process.
As I’m admiring the incredible tropical fruit note emanating from them, Patchett points out a knob of butter sitting atop the liquid. “We couldn’t afford switchers, the blades which stop the foaming element of fermentation, when we started. Jim Swan advised against any chemical compound that could knacker the copper in the still and, this is the beauty of working with someone whose been in the whisky industry for 50 years, said a nob of butter will have the same effect. Anybody whose made jam before will know this is true. The new distillery will have switchers, but I love that this doesn’t compromise the wash or distillation. It’s an old trick to combat a classic old school problem”.
There’s no temperature control here as the Cotswolds is very much a manual distillery. Everything is operated by hand through a network of valves, and the distillers here could now almost run the distillery blind. Walk past the washbacks and you’re greeted by a 2500-litre copper pot wash still called Proud Mary (love the Creedence reference, because she keeps on burning) and a 1600-litre spirit still, Janis (“thusly named because we take a little bit of her heart,” Patchett says). They’re made by Forsyths, who is also equipping the new distillery with its revolutionary pre-assembled kit. The cut points are very narrow here and the distillers will switch from foreshots to hearts (cut at a high 69%-76% ABV) after only a few minutes and similarly cut to feints quickly to preserve those fruity esters from fermentation and reduce the interaction of any heavier, rougher compounds.
Szor, Swan, and other spirit masters
The pre-maturation part of the process was one that Szor was determined to get right, according to Patchett, who describes him as a “spirit fiend” with a love of fruit spirits like Grappa. “He really wanted to create a new make spirit that would stand up by itself. The first few runs we did, Jim Swan said was too feinty and that we should be inspired by the rolling fields and fruit orchards around us to create something light, bright fruity, and accessible style”. That’s the Cotswold’s distillery DNA, something you can see in its White Pheasant expression, which is new make bottled at the casking strength of 63.5% ABV. It’s delightful, full of raspberry chocolate, grape pulp, pear drops, banana foam sweets, digestives, and a little wet grass. I’d happily drink this neat (although I am a new make fiend myself), and it’s very encouraging that this is what is going into cask.
Speaking of which, that’s all happening in the Cotswolds now. The barrels used to be in Liverpool, but everything is moving within ten minutes of the distillery. That gives them full control of the production process, a surprisingly impactful temperate climate (the angle share is more greedy here than in Scotland), and the confidence to truly call this Cotswolds whisky.
Dr Swan hasn’t been the only spirit master to lend his expertise. “Whether it Emmanuel Camut assisting in apple brandy creation, Michael Delevante, Jamaican rum expert and former distillery manager at Wray & Nephew, or Harry Coburn, a former general manager of Bowmore, we want to learn from people who have been in the industry for a long time,” Patchett says. Dr Swan has been the most influential, however, and for maturation purposes, his little black book of cooperages saved the Cotswolds from going through the pain of sourcing casks from inconsistent sources.
Miguel Martin supplies the sherry casks. “He owns sawmills in America and Spain, a cooperage in Spain, a sherry bodega, a winery, and a sherry vinegar manufacturing process. He can control everything from the forest until the end. You can go to him and ask for an American oak hogshead seasoned with Oloroso and PX to create a cream sherry style and he’ll go, ‘ok’”, Patchett says excitedly. “Jim also got us in touch with a broker in Kentucky who gets really good bourbon casks, as well as Alter Ego to do all the ‘exotics’, like all the fortified wines, Sauternes, rum, Tequila, vermouth, sake, Islay quarter casks…”
The three primary casks here, however, are ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and STR (shaved, toasted, re-charred) casks, the latter sourced from J Dias in Portugal. These are Dr Swan’s most recognisable signature, but are often derided by some in whisky circles for being seen as quick-fix casks that mask negative attributes rather than mature them. Patchett is not having that. “STR is best of all words. You’re taking American oak, which already has such a distinctive profile, you’re adding red wine which is removing bad tannins, then you’re taking out the red wine which has amino acid that can cause a sulphuric reaction, making it almost a virgin oak cask after you’ve shaved, that has five-to-six litres of red wine seasoning in the pores,” he explains.
“You’re then toasting to caramelise all the sugar from the American oak and the wine, then applying an alligator char to seal it all in, which also soaks out any remaining sulphur. When you think about all the elements: American oak, red wine, sugars, filtration, it’s a remarkable cask. And the colour can develop in about 18 months. Dan used to have a party trick of taking 4-year-old STR whisky and giving it to friends who would guess it’s 15-year-old Speyside whisky”.
Creating the Cotswolds character
Look across the core range and you’ll see these casks well represented, while the rarer styles are saved for special releases. Of all of them, I think my favourite is the classic Single Malt, all though the Sherry Cask runs it close. What’s really striking though is that, regardless if you’re tasting the Reserve Single Malt, the Peated Cask Single Malt, the Bourbon Cask Single Malt, or one of the Founder’s Choice expressions, you always know where you are. The Cotswolds distillery character runs through the range, typified not only by those new make notes I described earlier but by this beautiful oily, creamy texture that flavours and aromas like vanilla and chocolate glide across.
It’s a joyful thing that people are giving more and more of a damn about distillery character. Wood may still take the lion’s share of headlines in whisky, but people are becoming increasingly interested in what happens before a whisky goes into cask. It’s one of the reasons why unadulterated presentations (whiskies bottled with no chill-filtration or colouring, often at cask strength) are so prized. And it’s been a persistent plus for independent bottlings, which are often a window into distilleries whose whiskies usually end up in blends. A fine fate, but who are they? We can’t tell unless we can get a chance to taste that distillery character.
For a new distillery, this profile is gradually revealed, and of course, the goal is to create something so individual and remarkable you attain the lofty heights of Springbank status. There’s a pressure to maintain it, one the Cotswolds distillery will be wary of when building its new site, because when you tamper with the formula your reward will be the ire of the loyalists who have become attached to that certain character. Because the more you sample a great spirit with a defined profile, the more you create a connection with the producer. You see which casks accentuate or muddle the profile you love, you witness how it progresses with age, and how subtle adaptations in fermentation or barley strain alter things. It’s the kind of detailed, nerdy aspect that drives whisky geekery, a term we mean wholly positively here (because we’re big whisky geeks, obviously).
It’s this above all else that makes The Cotswolds Distillery so compelling for me. As Patchett and I sat in a tasting room discussing the range, that texture and taste kept reintroducing itself. Then there’s the frankly bargain prices, and the clear love and transparency the whisky is made with. At one point, Patchett tells me about a “very nerdy conversation as I was having with our distiller Nick about thermal degradation versus acetate and acetone degradation of the spirit….” There wasn’t a question that went unanswered on my tour, a detail hidden, a press-release paraphrase in sight. There’s no doubt to me that Szor’s love of single malt was genuine, and what it’s led to is a spirit that dutifully represents his adopted home.