Living in the middle of Kent, essentially in between London and France, and two minutes from the travel corridor that is the M20, I am perfectly situated to travel into mainland Europe by car. I often did so in pre-pandemic times, as often as twice a week in my previous life as a sports photographer and wine writer. It is incredibly fast and stress free, allowing me to be enjoying moules and frites in the medieval city of Bruges in Belgium, in less than three hours door to door. Approximately the same time it took me to travel to the Cotswold Distillery.
When visiting Bruges, my drive is virtually all motorway, bar the thirty-five minutes of being carried under the English Channel by Le Shuttle. The views are pretty boring, but it is three times faster than the ferry and runs in all weathers. The monotony of the motorway and autoroute is broken quickly upon arriving in Bruges, a beautiful city that refreshes your mind and palate, especially with a strong Belgium beer. Much can be said of the Cotswolds, a similar distance away if calculated by time travelled. Leaving the busy roads, you soon catch a glimpse of the houses built from oolitic limestone, quarried locally forming an idyllic backdrop to this historic landscape since the 16th century.
This was my first time visiting the distillery, even though I am a tiny shareholder in the company via crowd funding. Having visited their two boutiques in Broadway and Bourton-on-the-Water a number of times, for some reason I thought the distillery would also be located in a tourist hot spot, so it was slightly concerning that Google Maps directed me along country roads (I am a petrol head so thoroughly enjoyed this) that flowed from corner to corner and took me through a part of the Cotswolds I had not seen before. It was my first stop en route to Speyside, which you will be reading a lot more of over the coming issues.
I was greeted by Claire, who gave me a quick tour before Dan Szor, the founder, arrived for our interview which you can read or watch below. Once completed, I went on a second, more comprehensive tour which gave me an opportunity to see the workings of the distillery in a little more depth. It really is a beautiful site with a lovely cafe and shop, so if in the Cotswolds I highly recommend popping in.
I then went onto chat with Dan from Cotswolds Distillery, the biggest English whisky distillery in the UK.
Despite hailing from New York City, spending time in London due a thirty year loveless career in finance, Dan from Cotswolds Distillery actually was bitten by the whisky bug in Paris in the early noughties. France is the world’s largest importer of single malt whisky, and it was there that Dan went to an evening hosted by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, tasting a variety of single masks, discovering the magic of single malt whisky. From there, he continued to learn at Maison Du Whisky, and took annual trips to Scotland to visit distilleries.
Having no more knowledge than the average whisky consumer, all Dan knew was that he wanted to build a beautiful distillery, to make a beautiful product, in a beautiful part of the world – knowing little to nothing about whisky or the beverage industry. Seeing an opportunity in the Cotswolds with their bounty of spring barley, the landscape as romantic and emotionally arresting as anywhere in Scotland, he wondered why no one had thought to make whisky here before? Thirty million people visit the Cotswolds yearly, surely some of them would love to taste a local dram or visit a distillery.
Due to his lack of knowledge and investing the entirety of his life savings into the distillery, Dan spared no expense. The goal was simply to make whisky he would like to drink, in a distillery he would like to visit. No expense was spared – he wasn’t going to get a second chance if this went bust. He hired the best consultants, doing all possible to ensure a process to arrive at the best product possible. He had two Scottish mentors with over a century’s worth of knowledge of making whisky between them, Harry Colbert and the late Dr Jim Swan.
After working intensively on the process for a few months, when they tasted the new make spirit, it was good. In the industry, this pretty much ensures the whisky is going to be fantastic. They waited three years and a day for the proper whisky, which coincided with Whisky Live in Paris, Europe’s largest whisky show. Cotswolds Distillery had birthed a whisky in Paris. On the first day of Whisky Live they had the first ever bottle of Cotswold single malt, in the very place Dan was turned on to whisky in 2000.
Not wanting to take a risk with his venture, Dan bought the best of everything. The best locally farmed barley, the best wood – his contacts provided by Dr Swan. Using a huge variety of woods and casks, what they all had in common was full term maturation, allowing the whisky to live its full life in the wood. Their limited edition Hearts & Crafts single malt is just one example of their weird and wonderful casks, matured in a French oak ex-red wine cask flavoured with Pineau des Charentes, and they have plenty more releases on the horizon.
At Cotswold Distillery they like to go against the grain a little, with so many fun things to do in the whisky business there’s plenty of room to experiment. They have friends in Wales in Penderyn, the number one whisky distillery in Wales. They have a lot in common with Cotswold – similar processes, both working with Dr Swan. They were an role model to aspire to, being ten years senior. Believing in balance and layered flavour, Dan was inspired by Penderyn’s use of a peated cask rather than producing a traditional peated malt with smoked barley. Carefully buying one cask quickly led to purchasing several hundred. For Dan, the peated cask presents the very DNA of the Cotswold single malt without overwhelming it with the peat – a rich, fruity spirit for a little bit of smoke. A perfect gateway for those who are unsure about peated malts, described as a kind of ‘smoky vanilla ice cream’ – very Heston Blumenthal!
Their newest release, the Cotswold reserve, is a flagship entry level drink with a price tag as approachable as the taste. It differs from their their signature, aged at exactly three years with a 70% red wine cask, 30% bourbon blend, imparting fruity, chocolatey, toasted coffee flavours, with a good malt from the bourbon. Because red wine casks extract so much more quickly, this is the dominating flavour in their signature whisky. In the reserve, the percentages are flipped with 80% bourbon, 20% red wine. It’s older, minimum five years – although they don’t make a big thing of age at Cotswold, Dan advises to not look at a label, but rather smell and taste a bottle instead. The reserve is a more traditional drinker’s whisky, moreish but with a sweetness on the side – the slightly more elegant, sophisticated cousin to the signature’s bold, brash flavours, especially with 50% ABV.
The most iconic time that Dan saw his product behind a bar was in the American bar in the Savoy Hotel in London, the birthplace of so many wonderful cocktails. Bigger companies than Cotswold pay extortionate amounts just to have their bottles behind the bar. Cotswolds’ single malt and dry gin take their place their proudly. Although Cotswold products are highly available, (the first English whisky in standard supermarkets) to really understand the place and product is to visit. Dan confides that he built the distillery as an excuse to live in the beautiful countryside. Boasting a lovely café, four open fires, the distillery implores you to enjoy, there are plenty of pathways directly from the site up into the hills. Only an hour and a half from London, it is very accessible, and a great opportunity to discover the joys of English whisky.