It's the eve of spring on a beautiful bright blue day and we found ourselves travelling through the English countryside to the Cotswolds Distillery. A company that is well known for their gin, but that isn’t the tipple we have come to learn about today; whisky is our intention.
We are greeted by former investment banker and now founder of the distillery Daniel Szor. Originally from New York, his past career spanned multiple locations, from Wall Street, Paris and London. It was while in London that his new wife became ill and in seeking respite from the demands of the city they moved to the serenity of the Cotswolds countryside.
It was the Cotswolds countryside that inspired him to leave his past business behind and start anew. He had a love of whisky, a hobby, but what he had little of is knowledge about the production of spirits. Established in 2014 the distillery is located a few miles from where Daniel conceived the idea. He found guidance from two sources for the outset, Harry Cockburn, former distillery manager at Bowmore and chemist and whisky guru, the late Jim Swan.
Originally just two disused buildings, the distillery has now expanded over multiple areas, including a bonded warehouse in Liverpool, with a new larger distillery being built to cope with demand on the same site. The building that houses the current distillery is like a temple to spirits, upon entrance you are greeted by the warmth of two beautiful copper pot gin stills. The gin is produced using the finest grain spirit, with a blend of botanicals that are steeped overnight. It is then slowly distilled where they collect only the ‘hearts’. Daniel instructs us to dip our fingers into the freshly distilled liquid. This intense burst of concentrated juniper led flavours makes us crave a gin and tonic in the warmth of the spring sun... but it is the whisky we seek.
As we move through the distillery we are led to the milling and mashing section. It is here that locally sourced barley that has been malted in Warminster, the UKs oldest working maltings is milled. The crushed barley, known as grist, is then moved to the mash tun where boiling water is introduced and the sugars are released, producing worts.
There are eight steel washbacks, it is here that two strains of yeast are added causing the fermentation to begin. Each washback contains 2,500 litres of fermenting liquid in various stages. We are encouraged to smell these tanks, the initial stages you are met with high levels of carbon dioxide but as you move on the aromas seem to develop. After the first two days fermentation stops as the sugars are turned into alcohol, up to 8%. Many distilleries start distillation at this stage but at Cotswolds it is left for a further four days. Daniels says ‘it’s a bit like a banana, after you bring it home from the supermarket it is green and unripe with very little flavour. But as the days pass and the banana ripens you get a greater intensity of flavour’. The liquid reacts in the same method as it undergoes a second stage of fermentation, greater levels of bacteria are grown and flavours develop.
The next stage is distillation, two large stills, named Mary and Janis, are hard at work and radiating a great warmth. Mary, the initial still is used to produce what's known as low wines, a liquid containing all the alcohol and flavour compounds. The second distillation in Janis is for purification, rougher foreshots are removed and the hearts are collected with some of the heavier flavour compounds collected.
As we leave the distillery we enter a large shed containing rows of perfectly coppered barrels. The air is heady with the aromas of oak and the alcoholic vapours that escape, otherwise known as the angels share. Fermentation and distillation may be the unsung heros when it comes to flavour. We are given a sample of their new make (unaged spirit) to try. You can already draw upon the flavours that will be present in the final product.
Barrels are definitely not unsung heros when it comes to the production of whisky and Cotswold distillery are utilising them to the fullest. Whisky producers in England are given a lot of freedom when it comes to whisky production and the team at Cotswolds are making the most of this freedom. Their signature Cotswolds Single Malt uses a mix of ex-bourbon and shaved, toasted and re-charred (STR) ex-wine casks. These highly active casks help to achieve increased levels of flavour for such young whiskies.
A look around the shed shows their experimental side, there is peated whisky, sherry, madeira and rye casks. But this is just a large shed, as mentioned earlier there are thousands of barrels stored around the Cotswolds and some in Liverpool. There are a wide range of different styles being produced with some limited runs being launched. As we leave Dainel says with an excited grin ‘I have bought some maple syrup casks! Plus wait to see the rum we are making, it's made with Tate and Lyle Black Treacle!’ That’s right the original distillery is going to be used for rum as whisky production has outgrown and is moving to the larger site.
The English whisky movement is an exciting place and the Cotswolds Distillery is one of the producers at the forefront. The spirits that they are producing are fantastic and with time they will only get better with the whisky displaying flavours beyond its years.