Cooper King Distillery Tour

If an intrepid traveller ventures into the countryside of North Yorkshire, they may find a distillery as small as it is interesting. While the Cooper King Distillery must rank amongst the world’s smallest in continuous operation, this is far from the only thing that makes it worth a visit. Not only does it boast the only Tasmanian-style still outside of Australia, but it also has the most impressive set of environmental credentials of any spirits producer.

Cooper King Distillery was founded by Abbie Nielson and Chris Jaume on their return from Australia, having been inspired and taught by distillers in Tasmania. This antipodean link explains the Tasmanian-style still, manufactured in Australia and shipped without many instructions or any insurance! The capital to establish the distillery was raised through crowdsourcing, with their Founders’ Club being critical for raising funds in exchange for the promise of early releases.

It would be noteworthy if a distillery boasted just one of Cooper King’s environmental initiatives. However, Abbie and Chris have chosen to place reducing the company’s impact on the planet and promoting sustainability at the centre of everything they do. All the electricity they use is sourced from renewables, and there is a plan to place a solar array on the distillery’s roof so that they can generate most of this themselves in the future. Ingredients are sourced locally and from producers with similar ethical approaches. They have put a “zero to landfill” policy in place, with their spent barley being recycled locally as animal feed, and spent botanicals from their gin-making going either to compost or to a local bakery to be used as bread ingredients. Although Cooper King is yet to release their first whisky, it’s reasonable to assume that the approach to packaging will match that of its gins, with reduced-weight bottles featuring recycled glass and biodegradable tamper seals. The company can also refill these bottles for a reduced price, encouraging consumers to reuse them. The profits from Cooper King’s gins are also used responsibly, with 1m2 of woodland planted for each bottle sold and at least 1% of total profits being donated to the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust to further generate sustainable forests.

The implementation of these environmental initiatives is aided by the Cooper King Distillery’s small size, which allows the team a tight control of the company’s impact. This small size is immediately apparent on arrival. I will admit that I was unsure if I had come to the right address initially: surely the building in front of me couldn’t house a distillery?! Once over this initial confusion, I received a warm welcome in the distillery’s cosy Tasting Room, where I was introduced to our hosts for the visit, Mark and Ruth.

Once introductions had been made, we were led through to what I would typically call the still house. However, due to the artisanal micro-scale of the set-up, this was more of an “everything” house: almost every aspect of whisky-making takes place in a single room, which also hosts a well-appointed gin lab. Pride of place is reserved for the 900-litre Tasmanian still, Neilson, which is electrically heated and coated with dark grey insulation to ensure it runs as efficiently as possible. Straight sides and angular construction, typical of a Tasmanian still, ensure maximum surface area per volume, maximising copper content. With a single mash tun, fermentation vessel, and still, production runs in very small batches: Mark estimated that they fill about two casks in a good week. With production having started in 2019, only the first couple are officially whisky, but this has not been bottled at the time of writing as the team judged it not quite ready.

In the meantime, Cooper King keeps the lights on and the stills running through its array of award-winning gins. These are produced across the room from the whisky still in the well-appointed gin lab’s rotary evaporators. This process allows the use of fresh botanicals and preserves some extremely subtle flavours. Given the Cooper King ethos of environmental sustainability, some of these are carbon-negative, giving any gin drinker the perfect excuse to buy a bottle. While the distillery tour focussed mainly on whisky-making, the time it dedicated to gin would make it a worthwhile experience for those more interested in juniper than barley.

After examining botanicals, we moved outside to look at Cooper King’s cask store. In keeping with the scale of the operation, the cask store is tiny, currently comprising two shipping containers fitted with insulation and cask racks. In theory, this could be seen as a modular approach, with the team being able to add more containers as their available space fills up. While the exterior was a little underwhelming, the casks inside were an entirely different matter: the range of different casks was highly impressive. While ex-bourbon casks were the most numerous, I spotted several ex-rye, corn whiskey, red wine, Cognac, Armagnac, and even virgin French oak casks. I suspect we may see some exciting single-cask Cooper King offerings in the future. The tight confines of this store may put off those with extreme claustrophobia, but for the rest of us offer an amazing opportunity to become very intimate with Cooper King’s casks.

As is tradition, the tour concluded with a tasting. Unfortunately, as the distillery’s whisky is not quite ready, it was not featured. However, we were able to try their very light, almost tropical new make spirit, as well as some excellent gins. I hope it’s not too long before whisky makes an appearance at this tasting as well: that would have crowned a great visit.

So, what are the logistics of a visit to the Cooper King Distillery? Guided distillery tours run on Saturdays only. They are limited to 8 people and only open to over-18s. They cost £12.50 per person and include six samples: we tried three gins, a gin liqueur, a vodka, and the new make spirit. They offer a driver’s pack containing c. 50ml samples of 2 of these. Tours can be booked through Cooper King’s Website.

The Cooper King Distillery is a great option for a visit for anyone wanting to become intimately acquainted with craft, artisanal whisky production. It had the feel of an operation focussed on the quality of the product and company ethos rather than on attracting tourists. Even the tasting room is dual-purpose, serving as the venue for weekly team meetings. But, to me, this is a positive: you get a real sense of the passion of everyone involved in the process, rather than a slick tourist photo opportunity. This passion is also infectious: now that I’ve got a sense of what Abbie, Chris, and the Cooper King team are trying to do, I can’t wait for the result. This is the purpose of these visits: at only £12.50 per person, they can’t be the cornerstone of the Cooper King finances. Instead, they seem to be about raising the distillery’s profile and building anticipation for the release of its whisky. And, hopefully, there’s not too much longer to wait: early indications are that the first bottling of Cooper King whisky will be released at some stage in 2023. It will certainly be worth looking out for.

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