Since Cotswolds distillery opened its doors in 2014, it has been part of a burgeoning whisky scene across England. But even with expansion on the cards, founder Daniel Szor says there’s no need for Scotland’s distillers to start worrying about this developing market. Tom Bruce-Gardyne reports
When they make “Cotswolds Whisky: the movie”, it might open with its founder and chairman, Daniel Szor, scurrying across a Parisian street one dark winter’s night in 2001. He’s on his way to a whisky tasting hosted by The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. As an American expat financier, he has been seduced by all the local, terroir-driven food and wine, but says: “That night, the Scots completely out-terroired the French. With those single cask whiskies, I was blown away.”
An alternative opening might feature the Cotswolds, 11 years later, with our hero, now a confirmed whisky lover and owner of a weekend barn to escape to from London, staring out at billowing fields of malting barley. This part of Gloucestershire is famed for its bucolic landscape, its honey-coloured stone and, if you’re a fan of Jilly Cooper, its crackling undercurrent of lust. Daniel was keen to bottle some of its beauty.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
He did have a whisky-making epiphany gazing at those fields, but there were plenty of other steps and characters involved, not least the career councillor who spent six months helping to wean him off the world of finance. “It’s almost like being deprogrammed, having been part of a cult,” he recalls. Then there was Jim McEwan on Islay who sold him a cask of Bruichladdich, and introduced him to his former boss at Bowmore, Harry Cockburn, who became his mentor in whisky.
“Harry just looked at it like process engineering. If you have good process, good kit and you really work at it, you can make it anywhere,” says Daniel.
“But it finally hit home at Whisky Live in New York in April 2013. I looked around the room, and realised I didn’t recognise half the whiskies there, from Oregon, Washington, Mexico …” In other words, dreaming of being a craft distiller wasn’t totally mad. And if it was, there’d be plenty of others in the asylum.
However, the man he really credits is the late Dr Jim Swan, who in 2014 helped perfect Cotswold’s new-make spirit, of which 40 per cent was filled into the STR (shaved, toasted & recharred) casks Jim had created especially for Kavalan in Taiwan.
“By the summer of 2015, we were selling what we could only call single malt spirit in our shop,” says Daniel. “It was toffee dark and tasted absolutely delicious.”
A LOVE CHILD AND THE NEED TO GROW
A single malt whisky followed in 2017, by which point the distillery was also producing a popular gin. “I sometimes call our gin the love child,” he says. “An unexpected arrival, but something you love every bit as much as its sibling.” Both spirits sold well during the pandemic, and with the whisky now in the supermarkets, it became clear that more capacity was needed or else stocks would run out in about five years.
Unfortunately, there was not space in the building to squeeze in the equipment required. So, like his friend Ichiro Akuto at Chichibu in Japan, he decided to construct a whole new distillery. Luckily, he had a nearby building with the necessary planning permission – all that was needed was more cash.
“I had resisted the urge to go to the banks for seven years,” he says. “Of the £15 million of funding, all but 10 per cent has been through private investors as long-term, unsecured debt.” This time he approached Santander, which has “a dedicated, specialist whisky sector team”, according to its relationship director, Chris Evans.
Daniel sees it as “asset-based lending”, not unlike a mortgage, and from a bank’s perspective, “what’s the difference between a house and a whisky barrel?” he asks. Having shown that his distillery is able to turn a good profit, he reckons: “If you can get a bank to help you fund those returns, it seems like the right thing to do.”
But you have to hope that Santander’s dedicated whisky team appreciate just what a long-term business this is, and that they don’t take fright when, like now, things turn stormy.
ABOVE: the 2017 release of Cotswolds single malt
As Daniel likes to tell people: “It’s nothing like the seventies, when the whisky dam burst. There was an energy crisis, high interest rates and inflation, not like today.”
Of course, he's being ironic. The response tends to be nervous laughter, and some joke like: “Oh, but it’s different today. Back then it was all blends, and now it’s all single malts.” Personally, he is not convinced that it really is so different, or that the industry has somehow shaken off its cyclical rhythm of boom and bust.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
The new Cotswolds distillery is now up and running, and the first casks are currently being filled. Over time its capacity will ramp up to 500,000 litres of pure alcohol per year, which is pretty boutique by Scottish standards. According to Daniel, of England’s 41 distilleries producing whisky “what they are making or planning to make would be less than one small distillery in Scotland.”
It is this sense of scale which sets the category apart, in his view. “What English whisky has particularly going for it, is that it’s not PLC whisky, meaning there are no multinationals here,” he says. Thinking of the latter, he adds; “For me, that could be the death of whisky if they become what I disliked about cognac, with a homogenous product where innovation is fake or not meaningful.
“From what I can see from small guys in Scotland it’s in rude health, from Raasay to Dornoch to Ardnamurchan. So, I think the story here is more about ‘small vs big’ than ‘Scotland vs England’.” That is a subtlety lost on a media intent on pitching this as a war, with the Scots quaking in their boots.
Either way, Daniel Szor has few regrets. “What I did in my previous life was the kind of thing you’re forgotten five minutes after you leave,” he says. “I never thought of myself as a legacy guy, but it’s kind of cool that some of these casks are going to outlive me.” And with that our film fades on a whisky barrel as the music starts and the credits roll.
Whisky Talk caught up with Daniel Szor back in June 2020 to chat about how he turned his passion for single malt whisky into a radical career change. Tune in at https://whiskytalk.fireside.fm/17