Nestled in the countryside of Shipton-on-Stour is a tiny and unassuming property, the Cotswolds Distillery. It was so sweetly hidden in the rolling hills and golden fields that only those with intention could find it. And what a reward for those who do, as these quiet buildings are hiding something truly magical.
I first met Jack Barnard of Cotswolds Distillery at one of Gin Festival.com‘s Festivals in Bristol. Now, one of the perks of my job as a Brand Representative for Tinker is that I get to work these festivals and rub shoulders with other gins, terrible stuff, I tell you…with a wink and a smile. I spent a little time talking to Jack and fell in love with their 1616, (more on that later), which had me quickly asking to visit and write up on them. It’s a fantastic drink, but I didn’t realise quite how much they had going on there.
We begin our story with Dan Szor, a New Yorker that had moved to London. The Cotswolds were a regular holiday away from the city. He decided to make the move and being a whisky fan, he looked into setting up a distillery. I have to say, I made one trip to that place and I can see how he fell for it. It is utterly stunning, and this beauty has become the ideology behind their range of spirits in everything between the initial concept to the final product.
Dan brought the two barn buildings and warehouse and set about renovating them. The first now houses the visitors centre and shop, the second is where every part of the production process happens and there’s also a warehouse housing one cask from each batch of malt spirit for them to check regularly. The rest lie in a specialist warehouse built next to the river Mersey. The whisky is ready soon, the 7th October, however the first batch is already sold out. Having tried the malt spirit, I’d say its a sound investment as it’s looking very promising that they’ll have created something very special. And, we need to thank this aging process, as the spirits they’ve created in the meantime are very special too. Unintentional and incredible, humble yet wildly spectacular.
To begin the tour we were sat in a room to watch a brief video giving an introduction to the distillery. The video opens with the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar and panning shots of the hedgerows and wildlife. The video covers the contributing companies including Warminster Maltings who supply the barley to make the Cotswolds malt spirit, and are local to the Cotswolds. There is a focus on the whisky as this was Dan’s primary intention however, it was the beginning of a path into lots of different spirits, included of course, the glorious gin.
As we find with some distillers, they distill a malt spirit but then start looking into other spirits while waiting for the aging process to make it whisky. Being that gin doesn’t require this aging process, many distilleries then turn to gin to keep “the lights on” until the whisky is ready. I am truly thankful that this is the case, as this has led to the production of some fantastic gins and other spirits to boot.
With Cotswolds, they wanted to create a classic London Dry “a gin that could stand up to tonic”. They began by distilling some 150 botanicals to create what they call ‘The Library’. Three distillers then set about creating a gin and they were blind tasted to chose a winner. The idea with the gin, as with the whole range of spirits, is that they are a taste of the Cotswolds, they evoke the peaceful countryside and the rich nature surrounding the distillery. Quality of process was paramount to evoke the status of the renowned landscape.
The botanicals in the Cotswold Dry are a heady mix with key botanicals lavender, bay leaves and pepper. Fresh zest of grapefruit and lime are used, requiring regular hand peeling as mechanical peeling includes the piff which gives the gin a bitter taste. When they originally thought up this plan they were making one batch every six weeks. Now however, they make two a day, every day. Has this changed their process? Of course not. This is a major part of the gins flavour and mouthfeel, so as Distiller Zoe Rutherford puts it “We’ve got to deal with it now”. This is a prime example of their attention to detail and their ‘roll the gloves’ up attitude to hard work.
The process of distillation is precise. The base botanicals juniper, coriander and angelica go in to the 96.3% NGS (Neutral Grain Spirit) overnight for 12 hours before the final 6 are added the next day before distillation. The still is steam powered and heats the mixture to temperatures under 100 degrees but above 78.5 as this is point in which alcohol evaporates leaving the water. They heat it slowly meaning a longer and more gentle distillation with 6-7 hours of heat. For each distillation they get 150L of hearts at 83% and they the leave this to rest for 5 days before watering down to the required ABV and bottling. As Zoe explains, its important to let all the flavours bind. “When we cook a stew or a curry it always tastes better the day after”. They’re quite happy to give the patience required to make a higher quality product. Even so, including the rest period the whole process of making a batch, from start to finish is still just a week, which in relation to the whisky, makes the gin a very practical staple.
And, the gin is doing very well. Since it’s launch in 2014 it’s won various awards, including the IWSC Silver in 2015 and the World Gins for Best London Dry in 2016. It’s now being stocked in Selfridges, and now in Waitrose’s around the local area. It’s also being exported to 23 countries around the world, which is impressive stuff for such a short amount of time. However, despite how far the gin is reaching, Zoe admits they “couldn’t have done” it without local support and that their core focus is still their backyard. The distillery prides itself on keeping business as local as possible and for operating in the most eco-friendly way. For example, all the waste, the heads and tails that come off each distillation get put into an effluent tank and taken to a local anaerobic digestion plant that turns it into bio gas.
After a look at the whisky process we are taken through to the warehouse by Ellie. We learnt some very interesting facts here. For example, the hotter the whisky is in the barrel, the quicker it ages (which makes sense) however more is lost to the normal 2% angels share, hence they are aged slowly at a lower temperature. The barrels are a mixture of American oak bourbon barrels from companies like Woodford Reserve and Jim Beam, giving warm vanilla tones and wine casks. For other projects a collection of wine casks, sherry butts and port barrels amongst other interesting casks.
Then, the exciting part. The tasting room. The tasting room is welcoming, a cosy front room, complete with log fire, sofas, tables and chairs and its own corner barn. There wasn’t one thing even slightly ‘business’ about this space. It was so comfortable and homely and had me immediately wondering how amazing it must be around Christmas. This for me, and most likely the others on the tour, was the grand finale. Because one of my favourite things about this distillery is the diversity of the other spirits that they produce. All of the other valuables that have come from their natural creativity and restless attention to detail.
First up the Dry. Dry on the nose with lavender, peppercorn and lime, there is a high quantity of a high quality botanicals, around 10 times more than some distillers. In tasting I found the lavender so well balanced with the lime and peppercorn dancing at the end. With ice it becomes creamy, the citrus oils giving a thicker feel and a louche, an effect where the gin becomes slightly cloudy and iridescent in colour. This generally happens when there’s a lot of citrus oil in the gin and it reacts with water. Louching has has mixed reviews in the past and rather than shy from this, Cotswolds are very proud of their ‘cloudy gin’. I’m really behind them looking to change this opinion to be more positive. I love the citrus flavour, you can taste the freshness and hard work put into hand peeling all of the fruit. If this comes as a slightly cloudy gin then I’ll take my gin cloudy. More information on the technicalities of louching can be found on their website here. Recommended serve of this is with grapefruit and a bay leaf.
Secondly the 1616. The 1616 is what made me fall in love with them from the start. It’s essentially a Genever, a malt based spirit with juniper, but being a locally protected term they still refer to it as gin. Cask aged in specially toasted and recharred wine casks, it’s a truly fabulous drink and with the addition of ginger beer it sets ablaze, a glorious taste alluding to hot cross buns. As far as I’m concerned, this drink is a triumph. A tribute to William Shakespeare on the 400th Anniversary of his death, their malt spirit is re-distilled with juniper, coriander, cassia, nutmeg and orange peel amongst other secret ingredients before going into the casks to mellow. This is one exquisite libation. As Shakespeare wrote in the Merry Wives of Windsor “Come, gentlemen, I hope we shall drink down all unkindness”.
They’ve made a summer cup. I tried this with ginger and it was a beautiful ode to the old English tradition. Made using their dry, homemade Vermouth a splash or Triple Sec and their Spirited Sherry, it’s just gorgeous. They’ve made some experimental gins, the Countess Grey Gin and Bahorat with cardomen chili, cuman and black pepper, a gin that starts with sweet fruits moving on a gentle spice.
Then we have the other drinks. There’s a cream liqueur, which I shall be using to make the most delicious cheesecake. There’s an absinthe, modelled on a 19th century recipe. Absinthe is an interesting drink, botanicals like wormwood are believed to hold the power to give the drinker hallucinations. Don’t panic, they’ve tried and tested this and have concluded that you would need to consume 20-30 glasses of absinthe to feel this effect and at 60% it’s highly likely that would hit you first. There’s a gorgeous and warming apple brandy and my favourite of the off shots, the Spirited Sherry. They first got the idea from the Sherry-seasoned barrels for maturing the whisky. They left Dan pondering that “if sherried whisky tastes great, then so should whiskied sherry.” A blend of Spanish Olorosso and Pedro Ximenez are used along with the single Malt spirit. This is on my Christmas list for sure. If you could keep a note of that, Jack and Zoe, I’d really appreciate it.
Just in case this has wet your appetite somewhat, all of the delightful libations can be purchased through the Cotswold Distillery’s online shop, here.
When I write, I like to go into detail. And, the Cotswolds Distillery have so much detail, it’s almost easy to get lost in it. For this reason, this article needs a sum up, a conclusion at the end. My conclusion is this: that The Cotswolds Distillery has my respect. It’s a distillery that doesn’t cut corners, that tirelessly works to produce spirits to shine as a testament to their beloved local area, from the hard work of farmers plowing the fields of golden corn, to the beauty of the sunset after the day of work, to the light fragrances and soft sounds of wildlife that drift around in the evening; to the Cotswolds themselves. Their creativity has produced a large and varied range of spirits, wild and free, that still share a similar nature, a certain magic that can be found there and only there. And as harvest season is upon us, I raise a glass to everyone who works those beautiful fields and those whose imagination allows me to drink such an evocative thing and to imagine I’m sat amongst those fields myself.
Many thanks to Jack Barnard and Zoe Rutherford for hosting, for your assistance and the photos – courtesy of Cotswold Distillery.