I’m giving up cynicism for Lent. No, really. I am. Or at least I’m going to try. Though I’m cynical about my chances. Not half as cynical as the geophysicist, mind you, who flat-out disbelieves me, and looks as though for two pins she’d ask “what will you do with the spare 24 hours a day?”
Cynicism is a barren, infertile thing that lurks, oozing and spitting, in the twin shades of contempt and laziness. Don’t mistake it for scepticism. Scepticism is searching; inquisitive; cynicism is suppurating, paralytic. It is the difference between “oh yes, and how are you going to do that?” against “well you’ll never manage that, will you?”The questions of sceptics play a role. Cynics sneer impotently from an armchair. One of the original cynics was a man named Diogenes. He sneered at Plato from a barrel, turned every bodily function into an opportunity for posturing, and when Alexander the Great offered him anything, Diogenes asked him to get out of his sunlight.
Cynicism begets cynicism, and sprouts like weeds from every cranny and crevice of whisky’s modern visage. Marketing is cynical, pricing is cynical, the ploughing stampede for production efficiency is cynical, the crack-papering, cover-up platitudes that follow are certainly cynical. And, yes, much of the subsequent commentariat backlash, not least from yours truly, is cynical too.
For those, like me, in need of a “cynicism patch”, I commend to you Cooper King Distillery. You’ll find it filed in the bucolic cabinet immediately north of York amongst villages so still they’re like apocalypse film sets writ in honeysuckle and thatch. Every other house sells eggs from an honesty box, and those that don’t are flogging home-made chutney. If you don’t own a dog I imagine you’re barred residency.
I admit it. When I first heard about Cooper King, my reaction was cynicism. Two millennials, Abbie and Chris, disenchanted with the Excel spreadsheets, chain coffee and lunch al desko of the bleak-faced nine to five, chucked in their office jobs and scuttled off to Australia on a one-way plane ticket. An unspecified degree of self-discovery and Instagram later they fetched up in Tasmania and encountered the “garage” whisky culture. One thing led to another, and (doubtless over a well-oiled Friday evening) the inevitable “well what if we” conversation happened. My first (uncharitable) thought was pfft.
Well, I’ve been there now, and I don’t think pfft any more.
The first, serious thing you need to know about Cooper King Distillery is that they built it. Not as in: they paid some men and women to build it for them; as in: they wielded the hammer and drills. The distillery is tucked behind Abbie’s parents’ house (“Come and join the adventure”, beams a sign by the driveway) and every stone of it is soaked in their own blood, sweat and tears. Which, for hygiene reasons, they have since washed off.
They already make a gin; “people kept asking us why we weren’t”, explains Chris, though from my own perspective gins are the near-inevitable outriders of new distilleries. As for the whisky itself, the “switch on” is imminent, but at this point I want to rewind back a few paragraphs and a few years and take you to Tasmania.
Almost every so-called “world” distillery in existence has looked, for better or worse, in the direction of Scotland or America for its inspiration. Certainly every English distillery has (whether or not they trot out the ubiquitous “ah, but we’re not constrained by the rules” line). But Cooper King takes their inspiration from the Antipodes, and that marks them out to me as not only one of the most interesting of the new English crop, but as one of those whose quality I expect ultimately to be highest.
It’s something about the Australian attitude. If it can be dreamed, it can be done. And done well, and done with flavour. Mark tweeted recently that he was impressed by the Australian whiskies he’d been sent for a tasting competition, and I agree. One of the best whiskies I tasted last year was the Starward 10thAnniversary, and even that isn’t the best thing I’ve tried from that part of the world.
Where Tasmania can’t compete is on size. When I visited, two years ago, The Tasmania Distillery, home to Sullivan’s Cove, was the second biggest on the island with a grand total of 18,000 bottles per year. (For reference, the “limited edition” Highland Park Ice, released around the same time, was a run of 28,000.)
But what you do find at Tasmanian distilleries is interest. Provenance. Control. Innovation. Quality. Which sound like the buzzwords slathered across so many press releases, but in this instance they ring true. It’s a rare Tasmanian distillery that doesn’t use local barley – or know the fields their barley comes from. Their wood policies tend to high quality, first fill barrels – often from local wineries, and their fermentation times are long. Yeast experimentation is widespread, and not just for one-off special editions. And if they want something doing, they’ll generally make it happen.
A common complaint I’ve heard from English distilleries is “we’d love to do peated barley, but the maltings in England say no”. No such problems in Australia: Lark Distillery built a sort of tiered peating oven to satisfy their needs, whilst Pete Bignell, at Belgrove, peats his rye in a reconstituted tumble drier. And before you scoff too loudly, his peated rye wallops everything in Laphroaig’s current official range.
Such is Cooper King’s dedication to their Antipodean theme that they’ve had their still made in Tasmania and shipped to Yorkshire; the first, I believe, to have ever left Australia. Not without its complications. When first switched on for a “dress rehearsal”, part of the support system put in place by the engineers Cooper King hired melted beneath the heat of the elements. There’s a joke in there somewhere about the British melting under Australian heat. “If it had happened at the start it would have seemed massive”, grinned Chris, “but by this stage it was just another thing to deal with.”
Almost all of my visit is spent talking about flavour, and tellingly, Scotch doesn’t come up much. Chris and Abbie aren’t interested in the light, delicate whisky style championed by so many modern distilleries. Their conversation is of big, punchy spirit, long-fermented (they mention six days) and housed in barrels specially sourced from Down Under. Apera, wine, the stuff Australians incongruously call “Port”. That sort of thing.
They’re even interested in the creation of big flavours in their gin. Slow vacuum distillation; less broilingly violent than the norm; enables them to make the most of the botanicals they use. I don’t have much respect for gin, I’m afraid – it’s just another flavoured spirit with added modern hoitiness – but the samples I smell are certainly more intense and defined than usual.
What’s really impressive though, is how open Abbie and Chris are about it all. Cooper King is far more visible than many of its English counterparts – indeed its modern counterparts from anywhere – because they do social media well. They do their blog well. We’re not just talking cutesy photos of bottles perched on stumps; we’re talking twitter, facebook, Instagram used as a tool for showing their working. For reaching out to customers and saying “look at what we’re doing, and at how we’re doing it”. This doesn’t merely have the feel of a distillery with nothing to hide; it has the feel of a distillery that doesn’t want anything to be hidden. A distillery you can engage with, ask questions of, have those questions answered by. They do transparency well.
Gosh, what else? I could tell you that they’re the only European distillery signed up to “1% for the Planet”, donating a minimum 1% of sales to planting trees in Yorkshire. That they use a particular strain of Yorkshire-grown barley – Maris Otter – that is lower yielding, but likely to deliver more flavour. I could tell you that they grow most of their own botanicals for their gin or that they’re working with England’s last (conveniently local) cooper, but there’s really not much more I can tell you that you can’t learn in just as much detail from their website and blog. How refreshing is that?
Talking about these new, fresh-faced distilleries is a finnicky, arcane exercise in futurology. And anyone who has been around whisky for more than five years knows that the loveliest, most exciting distillery is perfectly capable of changing direction, of over-reaching on inaugural price, of alienating customers, of under-delivering on product. Of – let’s admit it – not being as good as you hoped they might be.
The proof of the pudding will, of course, be in the eating, and the eating here is at least three years away yet. At the time of writing, they’re four weeks from switching their whisky still on “in anger” for the first time. “The fun part”, I comment to Chris. (A line I stole from Mark, when we visited White Peak). But yes. Why not? I’m optimistic for Cooper King. They’ve built their distillery from the ground up, they’ve put their own money where their mouth is (far more than they expected to at the start) and they’ve asked the right questions of the right people. I recommend you visit them sooner rather than later. I suspect that they will do rather well.
Cynicism begone. For now.
Many thanks indeed to Chris and Abbie for taking the time to show me around – and for opening a bottle or two. Return samples will be in the post imminently chaps!