There are several different angles I could have chosen to start this piece on my recent visit to the Cotswolds Distillery, but here’s what lingered the most.
An interesting thing I heard at the distillery concerned whisky filtration. When it came to bottling the whiskies, which are now at 3 years of age, they wanted to remove all of the bits and pieces from the cask that could cause the public to be concerned/splinters in the throat and so on. So they wanted to know how best to filter whiskies and approached a company to find out what was available. And they learned that there are machines that a great many distilleries are using to actively “brighten and polish” whiskies – to change their natural state. This is, they assure me, nothing to do with chill-filtration, although the same “brighten and polish” name is given to that process too. There are double-filtration techniques that achieve the same effect, removing the haze and consequently certain flavours – esters specifically. This is a thing, and it’s artificially enhancing many whiskies that you probably have on your shelves. (Brightening: has a whiff of the E150 colouring about it, doesn’t it?)
The Cotswolds Distillery declined this process when offered it, much to the surprise of the filtration company. They didn’t want anything messing with their spirit, so did the bare bones to filter away the planks of wood and leave the whisky in its natural state as best they could. If they get complaints, they’ll deal with them then. That attitude rather sums up their attitude to whisky-making: producing a natural product that shuns any trickery, in order to maximise real flavour creation.
There’s a lot to love about that philosophy.
I first visited the Cotswolds Distillery in 2014, not long after it had begun production. It was a different place back then. Granted it had only just started, but it felt a little more remote, quieter, with less going on. Now it was a curiously busy place, with tours washing through at a fair old rate, and a large team of distillers making quality spirit in a remarkably hands-on way. This tiny place was bustling. I recall similarities to Ballindalloch Distillery in Scotland – and particularly the comments of distiller Colin Poppy, who left a life at Diageo’s distilleries to actually make whisky. There’s also a curious philosophy for employing people at the Cotswolds Distillery with no previous experience of distilling, and also eschewing those who have official distilling qualifications, because this is a very different, hands-on, practical world, which isn’t about efficiency – but is about creating something for reasons of flavour rather than yield.
And yes, there’s lots to love about that too.
Let’s start at the beginning. The Cotswolds Distillery came from the head of Dan Szor. He’s a numbers man, selling financial derivatives in the City. These things weren’t real. He was “selling air”. After years of earning more money than most of us will ever know, Dan felt a little jaded by that life and wanted to create something tangible. He also liked whisky a lot too, and was heavily influenced by what went on at Bruichladdich Distillery since Mark Reynier resurrected the site in 2001 (he bought a cask not long after it reopened). Throw in a few other personal reasons, including a love of the Cotswolds, where Dan and his wife were spending many a weekend, and you have a pretty good case for setting up a distillery here.
And let’s think about this setting for a moment, a picture-postcard nook in a sleepy corner of England’s glorious back garden. A highly manicured landscape, with what Anthony Trollope romanced in his novels as honey and auburn coloured stone. It’s so picturesque it’s almost hyper-real. To say this is a world away from the raw, elemental, often grotty landscapes of Scotch distilleries is an understatement. This is a soft world, not quite the pasture- and orchard-cluttered West Country, but a distinct, heavy clay soil; sunken lanes and tall fruit-filled hedgerows. So Dan wasn’t interested in making anything vigorous or peated – he wanted that soft, fruity whisky that might be typical of this part of the world. All of the barley used for the Cotswolds Distillery’s spirit comes from within ten miles of the distillery – malted at Warminster Maltings, but grown locally.
A distinctly Cotswolds whisky, you might say.
There was one phrase, which I’ll paraphrase here, that cropped up time and time again. It was the notion that “we could do this to get more yield, but it wasn’t right”. The fermentation times were ridiculously long – 90 hours, over 4 days. There’s no real need for that unless you wanted to maximise flavour. Certain types of barley were being used – even discussion of an organic crop from the Highgrove Estate further afield; again, there would be less yield, but the flavours were better. Distiller Zoe leaned in, conspirational almost, to say that you simply wouldn’t do things like this on a large scale. They’re content with their 130,000 litres a year. And so they should be, because they’re making some very good things.
There’s one quibble, which is not so much a quibble with the Cotswolds Distillery, but more of a practice that a lot of new distilleries – particularly those who have been advised by the recently deceased Dr Jim Swan – and that’s to do with cask management. The Cotswolds Distillery use – among several cask types, including former Laphroaig Quarter Casks – a lot of STR casks, as advised by Dr Swan. Indeed, he pioneered the technique. STR stands for Shaved Toasted Re-charred barrels, which come from Portugal – I believe they’re former red wine casks, American oak if memory serves me correctly. They’re excellent for new distilleries as they give young whisky a lot of interesting flavours very quickly.
And my quibble is: won’t this result in a new cluster of similar flavours, so that many new distilleries will produce whiskies with similar profiles? Sure, what you put into the casks is equally important: good casks won’t turn shit spirit into good whisky. Perhaps we can put this down to a new whisky fashion shared by the young and good-looking distilleries. It’s how the youngsters are doing it these days. There’s plenty that can be done in the vatting to shake things up, and the Cotswolds Single Malt Whisky itself, the first expression, uses 70% STR casks and 30% Bourbon casks.
The inaugural whisky – and a celebration of it – was why I was here. I was invited – let’s not pretend anything else – and had a lovely lunch at Soho Farmhouse, as I remind everyone. That’s the nature of the game – brands have to pay to get coverage. But, actually, some brands deserve more coverage than they’re getting, and I tend to choose where I go based on whether or not things look interesting or different.
The guys and girls at this distillery deserve a lot of success. The whisky is on the way to being great (it’s already very good, the spirit of a very high quality) and with time will become some of the best in the UK. And yes, that includes Scotland too. I’m excited about this place. It’s charming. It’s vibrant. There’s an energy here. This place is a celebration of youth. They’re obsessed with doing things for the right reasons. Even at three years old this whisky is very good. I suppose, touching on the STR thing again, I’d much rather a vigorous STR cask or three, than the third and fourth-fill shit that’s plaguing Scotch whisky right now. (And those STR casks haven’t done much damage to Kavalan’s reputation as a world-class operation have they?)
Let’s drink some whisky.
Cotswolds Distillery Inaugural Release – Mark’s Review
Ex-bourbon (30%) and STR red wine casks (70%). Aged 3 years and 5 days – ish. Bottled at 46% ABV.
Colour: deep gold. That’s very dark for 3 years – and I should point out, has far more colour than half the Scotch I’ve consumed from the independent sector this year.
On the nose: creamy, toasted almonds, cranberries, and a slightly pugnacious note – almost cloves, but more woody, like pencil shavings. Sandalwood. Toffee fudge. Strawberry jam. Caramelised apples, yet the cranberries return. After a while, the husky maltiness of the spirit shines through (it’s a young one, after all),
In the mouth: gorgeously viscous quality to the spirit. Strawberry jam, with ground almonds, wholemeal toast (slightly burnt). Cranberries again, plump and tart. Malted Milk biscuits. Touches of ginger and nutmeg. Golden syrup, creamy vanilla. The maltiness lingers on a medium-length finish with nutmeg. But that oiliness is divine, and just goes on and on.
That’s seriously impressive for just three years. In fact, it’s got more flavour in it than a lot of whisky I’ve consumed this year – and aside from that, it’s also just very pleasant to drink. I actually quite like young whiskies when they’re made well – which this is – so think it’s definitely worth a punt.
Adam’s Bonus Tasting Notes
On the nose: Youth is apparent immediately; full of esters. But they are so plump, and their fruit so rich, that there’s no distracting spirity-ness at all. Raspberry and orange are the standout fruits for me. In fact, make that chocolate orange. (We are getting to that time of year, after all). Loads of maltiness too, as is to be expected from a well-made youngster. A little honey and pine resin to bind it all.
In the mouth: Just oily enough on the palate to retain that plump viscosity. Malt biscuit. Hobnobs and wafers. More honey and a touch of orange marmalade for fruit. Less of the red fruit characteristics than on the nose initially; maybe a little briar fruit knocking around in the background. Nice richness for one so young. The raspberries grow back in with time. Intense maltiness swells towards the finish, then fades back into pine resin. Ever-so-slightly short.
This may not be the finished article – it’s only 3 years old, after all – but you won’t find many more impressive British malts at minimum age than this. Can’t wait to see how Cotswolds whisky develops. They’ve been setting, and leaping over, increasingly high bars for themselves. Lovely inaugural release; both full of promise for the future, and full of tasty young flavours for the present.