Cotswolds! There’s a distillery whose mention always gladdens my heart a little; smooths out the furrows of my miserable Malt-scribe brow. They’ve been a little off my radar in the last year – though, saying that, I’ve written a whole article for Distilled Magazine about them – mostly because I suppose my attention, in English whisky terms, has been seized by those rather talented Bimber folk making all that noise in North London.
I’m not the only whisky lover, within these pages or without them, who’s been dazzled by the new kids. We’ve reviewed some half a dozen Bimber whiskies in the last seven months or so, and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and occasionally loved, every one.
Nip back two and a half years (and I cannot believe it’s been that long) and Cotswolds were the newly-bottled bright young things of the English whisky scene. In fact their first bottling coincided almost exactly with the building out of Malt as a multi-contributor beast, and the Cotswolds’ debut was my first collaborative tasting with Mark. We both liked it – and have liked pretty much everything they’ve bottled since.
In those two and a half years they’ve consolidated their 90-hour-fermented, two-yeast flagship, added the Founders Choice STR cask and the Peated Cask and bottled a handful of other special and limited editions besides. From conversations with their founder, Dan Szor, they’re just a couple of bottlings short of creating their full core range now, and they’ve even found time to host the World Whisky Forum and build a rather swanky visitor centre, the busy bees.
The point is, enough water has now flowed under the Shipston-on-Stour bridge that we should be able to start putting our finger on what it is that makes a Cotswolds whisky. Dan has been pretty clear from the outset that the ambition was something rounded, fruity, reflective of its place. (I’m not using the t-word, you understand; terroir doesn’t apply to this manner of building a house style, it’s a different concept entirely, and one it’s important not to muddle).
What I’ve always loved about Cotswolds (among many things) has been their openness in the methods they use to achieve this profile. It’s on their website, their social media and in the press releases they send out: these are people who want to show their working, to engage with and enthuse you about the various steps they take to arrive at what’s in your glass. They’ve made it clear that their fruit comes from a 90-hour ferment, from their two varieties of yeast (Anchor and Fermentis) and from taking a high, ester-filled cut. This isn’t privileged information; it’s not for the eyes of the press only, it’s something that they’re eager for you to know. “We have to show customers the little things we do that make us different” was how Dan put it when I visited last year.
Of course another way to layer fruit into your whisky’s profile is through your choice of oak. Indeed for many distilleries, those who opt for a 48 hour-or-less fermentation that produces a thin, grassy wash, it is the only way to layer fruit into your whisky. And bizarrely, even some distilleries who do put extra miles into their production, still choose to more or less only talk about their oak. Because wood is what beguiles the modern whisky consumer most, and is therefore all that most PR agencies can be bothered to talk about.
The casks that Cotswolds have used for this whisky are described as “French Oak barriques seasoned with Sauternes wine”. So we’re talking very fruity indeed. Sauternes is one of my favourite things; luscious, dazzling dessert wine made in one tiny nook of Bordeaux, at the point where two rivers meet. Does that geography matter? Yes. Because one river is much colder than the other, and so where their waters collide, a great deal of mist is prone to form. Come September, if the days are characterised by misty mornings and bright, sunny, middays and afternoons, the grapes will develop something called botrytis cinerea, noble rot. This works effectively as a hypodermic needle into the grape skin, through which water evaporates, concentrating the sugars inside, and layering its own flavours of orange marmalade and other wonderful things. If the afternoons aren’t sunny, it won’t work. You’ll get grey rot instead, and the grapes will be useless. If you don’t get the misty mornings, you won’t form rot of either kind, and whilst you can still make sweet wine, it won’t have the same marvellous “botrytised” aromas, flavours and complexity.
Now that I’ve bored you about wine, let’s move back to this new Cotswolds creation. Because as sweet and fruity as a Sauternes cask might make a whisky, I’ve found whiskies aged in them to be of dramatically varying quality. And the flavours they impart, especially in a full maturation, which this is, rather than a finish, are often so insistent that a distillery’s character is completely swamped. Which would be a tremendous shame after all that effort to create it.
Let’s have a taste and see how Cotswolds have managed.
Cotswolds Sauternes Cask – review
Colour: Erm … well … Sauternes, actually.
On the nose: Huzzah and hurrah! That’s Cotswolds, that is – packed with ripe, juicy orchard fruits and red berries. There’s a good bit of spice, too; black pepper, ginger syrup, cloves and polished oak. Oh – and honey. Lots and lots of honey, all slathered on wholegrain toast. Plenty going on.
In the mouth: Really viscous, mouthcoating texture, and whilst there’s obviously some heat, it’s very well-controlled. Tangerines, peaches, golden syrup and a blossomy, floral note give way to the cloves and peppers and baked bread. It’s one of those whiskies that comes at you in waves, if not to the same pronounced degree as, say, Millstone 1996 American Oak. Not too sweet at all; the wood and alcohol lend structure and savouriness, all softening into stone fruit and honey on the finish. The wood has perhaps a smidgen too much of an edge to get this into the Eight Club.
Very nice. Certainly not overwhelmed by the Sauternes – if anything there’s more influence from the wood than there is from the wine. It has that often-elusive complexity; the distillate is absolutely there, but the casks are talking in equal measure. I’ve certainly had previous Cotswolds that have been more in one direction than t’other.
This costs £75, and if you like Cotswolds whisky you should probably get it. It’s a limited edition (the first in a series that celebrates arts and crafts, apparently) so I’d hurry if I were you. There’s a more “complete” sense to it than I’ve had from a couple of Cotswolders – the distillery isn’t a new kid any more, and its whiskies seem to be developing nicely to reflect that. In the era of the new, of the inaugural, of the English whisky, these folk are starting to feel like a much-loved part of the furniture. Long may they continue to do so.
Image and sample kindly provided by the Cotswolds distillery, but such things don’t affect our scores.