English whisky takes global inspiration

A new distillery set to begin production in the Cotswolds next month is drawing on Scottish expertise and a Taiwanese model in a bid to emulate the success of the US craft whiskey scene.

The Cotswolds Distillery

The Cotswolds Distillery

Set up by New Yorker Daniel Szor, a former hedge fund manager who now lives near Chipping Norton, the Cotswolds Distillery is aiming to join a growing band of English whisky producers, although its initial commercial focus will be gin.

Outlining the background to this venture, Szor told the drinks business that the idea stemmed from his desire to find a project that would enable him to be based in the Cotswolds full time. “There was no one distilling and there was a lot of barley,” he recalled, explaining that he eventually began pursuing the initiative seriously in May 2013.

Already a fan of whisky, Szor had witnessed for himself the rise of the craft spirit trend in the US. “As a whisky buff I would go to these shows like Whisky Live and see all these single malts and Bourbons,” he remarked. “Suddenly there was a whole load of smaller guys – there’s been something like 500 new distilleries in the US in the last five years.”

Szor was then able to tap into Scottish expertise thanks to his close connection with Islay producer Bruichladdich, where he has kept a cask in storage for the last 10 years. As a result, the team, which is headed up by a former member of Chase Distillery, Alex Davies, can draw on the whisky experience of ex-Bowmore manager Harry Cockburn and cask specialist Jim Swan.

Szor’s Scottish connections also helped him to overcome a three-year waiting list with Scottish still maker Forsyths, who alerted him to a cancellation order for a still that was almost exactly the same size he was looking for and delivered it earlier this month. “It was all very, very lucky,” he admitted.

Having also taken delivery of a German Holstein still for gin production, the distillery is currently in the process of installing these new arrivals but, according to Szor, “we shall be ready to commission by the end of August.”

Despite his affection for Islay whisky, Szor acknowledged that the single malt style produced in his own distillery will be rather different. “I guess we have the luck to be able to define what the Cotswold terroir for whisky really is,” he remarked. “What the Cotswolds represents to me is an incredible agricultural abundance in terms of grain and fruit.”

In order to complement this character, Szor plans to incorporate some Sherry cask expressions into the range. However he indicated that, for the moment at least, age statements were not going to be an important focus.

The new Forsyth stills in place

The new Forsyths stills in place

“The big trend in the trade is to move away from age statements,” he observed. “You’d be hard pressed to find one in the new craft distilleries in the States.” Moreover, argued Szor, “with today’s technology I don’t know that age is so important.”

To support this claim, he highlighted the “mindblowing” example of Taiwanese whisky brand Kavalan. “They make a five-year-old you would have sworn was 10 years old at least,” maintained Szor.

“There are a lot of tricks and techniques one can use to create a fuller flavour sooner without resorting to what a lot of people in the States are doing with new wood or smaller barrels.”

Highlighting the importance of Swan’s cask expertise for emulating Kavalan’s results, Szor pointed to “STR” – Shaved, Toasted, Recharred – as a particularly valuable barrel treatment process that “will work its magic relatively quickly.”

With an initial target of producing around 150,000 bottles per year, the first batch of whisky from The Cotswold Distillery is due to be bottled in 2017 after the legal minimum three year maturation period.

Prior to bottling, the casks will be matured in a former bonded tea warehouse in Liverpool’s Mersey docks run by Plutus, although Szor hopes to construct his own storage facility for at least a proportion of the stock in the near future.

For the moment, however, the distillery’s commercial focus will be channelled into the faster process of gin production. Again, Szor comments on the dynamic shift within this category recently.

“I’ve always liked gin but like everyone else it’s been amazing to look at what’s happened in this sector in the last few years,” he commented, adding: “I don’t think you’ll see a vodka from us – odourless, flavourless, colourless – it leaves me totally cold.”

However, Szor did indicate that other types of spirits could also join the range in future. “There’s such great fruit out here – apples, pears, damsons – so we want to do different things with them,” he remarked. “Germany is still the best at highly aromatic eaux-de-vie, but there are also oak-aged brandies, which are bigger in Europe than here.”

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