OX visits the Cotswolds Distillery
"Whisky is a long-term business, so we're looking forward to 10 years from now when we have a 10-year old whiskey"
At OX and OX Country we have quite an affinity for high-quality liquor. Over the course of the last season we’ve met London’s finest gin distillers over at Sipsmith, championed the one-man operation at LAM Brewing, learnt the finer points of bourbon whiskey at Oxford Alcademics, toured the labyrinthine stairways of Hook Norton, sampled bramble whisky liqueur at Demijohn, discussed the purpose of a good bottle of wine with Tim Hampson and been berated for being a lager-drinking wimp at Wychwood Brewery.
This might not have done any favours for our collective health, but we like to think of ourselves as fairly well-versed in the art of having a drink and then talking about it.
There is one thing we love even more than booze, though, and that’s local business, and when an opportunity comes along to combine our two greatest passions we jump at the chance. So, when Daniel Szor invited us to come and visit his operation at Cotswolds Distillery, we sent our militant gin fanatic Jack Rayner to see if their liquid elixirs are up to scratch.
The Cotswolds Distillery is a beautiful set of buildings. Set in the rolling countryside just outside of Stourton village, the golden stone barns, gravel driveways and lush fields where the business is based live up to the very best bits of the area that’s namechecked on their bottles. The real beauty, though, comes from inside the barns, because this is where the team concoct a growing array of fine gin and single malt whisky. Founder and owner Daniel explains how he ended up at such a fine location:
“We were extremely lucky because when I had this idea, I started looking around and, as I'm sure you're aware, property isn't the easiest thing to come by in the Cotswolds. Amazingly, we were able to find something that's only 3 miles from where I live, so the commute is great and the story behind the property is actually an interesting one. It was an old chicken farm, apparently, that the developer had purchased and claimed that he was going to build an office and a workshop, and then he proceeded to build buildings that looked to all intents and purposes like they were meant to be homes, which is I think what he was really hoping to do. He wasn't able to get a change of use through to make the buildings residential so they sat vacant for about 10 years while the developer fought it out with the council. Along we came, and we made the council happy because they had this 10-year war with the developer, and we made the village happy because the developer had walked away from the project halfway through and it had fallen into disuse. Only 2 years ago, the place was a complete tip; it had become overgrown and covered with graffiti. It was a win-win, really.”
Acquiring the buildings may have been a stroke of luck, but the products themselves are the result of years of preparation, planning and graft. Daniel elaborates:
“I had always been interested in distilleries and I'd always been a big single malt whisky fan. I'd done a number of trips up to Scotland with friends just touring the distilleries and loving the whole experience. The tradition, the heritage, the visitor experience... I thought to myself, "The Cotswolds is the perfect area to do this". 15 minutes away from us you have Daylesford, and they were to me a great example of something that was well-marketed and well-presented, and had a lot of authenticity and local prominence. On top of this, I became aware in 2013 of the whole craft distilling trend that was at that point much more prevalent in the US. There's something like 800 new distilleries that have come into existence over the last 10 years in the USA, and they're all doing variations of the same thing which is focusing on using local produce and ingredients, and focusing on the visitor experience and on the story. The whole scene is trying to take something back which has over the past few years been dominated by large corporations doing things on a much bigger scale, the Diageos and Pernod Ricards of the world, and making it more accessible and more real. That's basically what happened with craft brewing, which started in the states, in Colorado, and then spread to the UK in a big way, so my belief was that the same thing would happen with distilling in the UK, so it seems like all those things were coming together and the time was right.”
Dan’s gin recipe uses the usual trio of juniper, coriander seed and angelica root alongside fresh grapefruit and lime peel, bay leaves, cardamom, and the unique addition of black peppercorns and Cotswold lavender.
The result is a powerful burst of flavour, much more intense and nuanced than your usual London dry. I ask Dan whether the locality of the botanicals was important in choosing his singular spirit recipe:
“Well, it was but I'd say that it was important to us in a general sense in that we wanted something that we felt was a reflection of the Cotswolds, and that's equally important in the way in which we make the recipe for our whisky, but for both of those spirits, what we're looking for is something that smells very much like the Cotswolds in your glass. When I think of the Cotswold in terms of whisky, we have no peat here, no cliffs, no ocean, no mountains, there's no reason to have a heavy Islay-style or Western-style single malt, it should be something that's sweet, floral, grainy and fruity and reflect that kind of gentle, rolling hills of the Cotswolds, and the same thing was true of the gin: we wanted something very aromatic, very pleasurable and have a great mouthfeel. The first priority was to come up with the right mix of botanicals to give us that, and we started with a London dry recipe, but then gave it our own twist. It's got quite a lot of notes of citrus, fresh pink grapefruit and lime. Unfortunately, pink grapefruits and limes are hard to grow in the Cotswolds, as are black peppercorns and cardamom, but we did hit upon one of the nine botanicals that we use that we thought was specifically evocative of the Cotswolds, which is Cotswold lavender. We're about 15 minutes away from Heathcote, a very famous garden which gave the world a particularly popular variety of lavender. More importantly, we're only 20 minutes away from what I believe is the largest culinary lavender farm in the UK, so the addition of lavender as our signature botanical gave both a very nice, light, floral undertone, but also ties it back to this part of the world, so we're really happy with that.”
As the distillery was only established last year, their cask-aging spirits cannot yet be called whisky (‘whisky’ has to be aged for a minimum of 3 years to be described as such). Cotswold Distillery’s single malt whisky will be ready for bottling in October 2017, and Dan can’t wait to get the product out.
“The plan is just to keep making more of it. Whisky is a long-term business, so we're looking forward to 10 years from now when we have a 10-year old whiskey, and in the meantime we're looking to make a whole broad range of spirits. We're now making a cream liqueur, an espresso martini, a spirited sherry, maybe next year we're looking at the possibility of absinthe from the Cotswolds. The idea is to create a whole range of spirits, to improve the visitor experience, to give the Cotswolds something fun to do, really, and to put us on the spirits map.”
October 2017 can’t come soon enough. For now, why not give the distillery a visit for yourself – tours run at 11am and 2pm daily, so you’ve got no excuse.
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