As a whiskey fan living in England, I always feel like I’m a prisoner of geography. Irish distilleries are popping up exponentially, and the myriad of Scottish distilleries are just out of reach for a day trip. Thankfully, since 2014, Cotswolds Distillery has been making their own whisky in the beautiful setting of Stourton, a mere 45-minutes from my front door.
Having originally been founded by Daniel Szor, the initial development of the distillery was assisted by the experienced Harry Cockburn (former Master Distiller and production director at Bowmore Distillery) and Dr Jim Swan (of Penderyn, Kavalan and Milk & Honey fame). The money required to build, operate and eventually expand a distillery can be extortionate. Like Copeland, a crowd-funding project was set up in 2016 to raise £500,000 to grow the business. The popularity and realisation of the business’s potential were huge, and the crowd-funding effort eventually raised over £1 million in seven weeks.
The distillery boasts a beautiful café, still house, and maturation warehouse, the latter of which looked like it was also expanding. The stillhouse boasts two column stills—Loralie and Dolly (because she works 9 to 5…). Loralie is in retirement and is currently used for experimental gins and spirits, whereas Dolly (a 500-litre hybrid pot and column still made by Arnold Holstein GmbH of Markdorf, Germany) is their leading gin still which produces their range of seven gins.
Cotswolds brand themselves as a ‘grain to glass’ distillery in terms of whisky. Their grain comes from the Cotswolds, with the variety noted on the bottle for maximum transparency. The only aspect that isn’t ‘local’ is their malting process, which is outsourced to Warminster. After malting, fermentation takes place utilising their yeast, Anchor and Fermentus, which lasts for four days. After fermentation, distillation via Janis (Joplin….Heart) and Mary (proud Mary… you get the theme by now), their 1600 litre and 2500 litre respective whisky stills, takes place. Since they produce double distilled whisky, the first run via Mary produces a 25% spirit, and the second run via Janis produces the 80% spirit. They run a ‘high-end narrow cut’ for their spirit, producing 10% of the 250-litre run. The feints get to run through Janis again.
Their current range, which comprises their own no-age-statement spirit, includes a signature single malt, a madeira, bourbon, sherry, and peated cask finishes, ranging from £38 to £95ish. Then there’s the less standard whiskies, their reserve single malt, a ‘founder’s choice’, single malt, and a limited Hearts & Crafts Pineau Des Charentes Cask Single Malt Whisky, each of which I will taste and rank in the second part of this article.
After checking out the stills, we took a quick 15-second dander to the maturation warehouse, where the smell of maturing whisky was heavenly. The warehouse held a variety of casks: Laphroaig casks for the peated whisky, Jim Beam Kentucky Bourbon casks for their bourbon finished whisky and two tuns which held ‘Cotswoldvados’ (a clever loopholed play on ‘Calvados’, a French apple brandy). At this point, we were treated to their new make spirit, White Pheasant. This is the 63.5% liquid that goes into the barrels for maturing, a beautifully sweet and fruity spirit that was very intriguing and rightfully accoladed by the World Whiskies Awards. I even bought a bottle at the end of the tour due to its taste and appeal.
The 90-minute tour, which cost £20, went incredibly quickly, and we were treated to a tasting in the tasting room situated beside the café. Amid this very comfortable setting, Brian, our guide, generously offered us samples of all Cotswolds’ current range of whiskies and gins. Albeit a 2cl sample, the gesture was unselfish and allowed for a real examination of the range. After the tour, my wife and I sat in the sunshine outside the café for a spot of lunch, which was beautifully set and epitomised the tranquil setting of the Cotswolds.
During lunch, the thoughts of why distilleries aren’t more prominent in England puzzled me. England boasts some of the most beautiful landscapes in the Kingdom. After Lea Valley stopped distilling in 1905, a nearly century-long gap occurred with no English distilleries sticking their head above the parapet to produce whisky. England actually houses 25 distilleries. However, with the majority of them focussing on the artisanal market, that’s probably why you may be unaware of their standing, but there are no major businesses.
Cotswolds feels like a catalyst for change. I hope other distilleries see its success and replicate the model; the results could be tremendous.
to be continued……