It often takes an outsider to truly see the things we can so easily take for granted. Dan Szor, founder of the Cotswolds Distillery was born and grew up in bustling New York. He then spent most of his working life in two of Europe’s busiest cities – Paris and London. That’s enough to push even the most cosmopolitan and social seeking person into the countryside for a while for some peace and quite. And it was this escaping that led Dan to discover the Cotswolds, the quintessentially English setting. Rolling green hills and arable land, broken by sporadic hamlets and church steeples. Higgled limestone cottages huddled either side of narrow twisting streets still provide shelter and a strong sense of community for the inhabitants of the quaint villages.
The Cotswolds, largely in the county of Gloucestershire, is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so it is only fitting that a “destination distillery” is in keeping with this accolade. That may be easier said than done, but Dan has largely pulled this off with his sympathetically finished distillery just outside the village of Stourton, which is just north of the quaintly named villages of Moreton-in-Marsh and Stow-on-the-Wold.
Housed in a pair of newly constructed barns, and surrounded by green and golden fields, the distillery looks as if it has been there for hundreds of years. The whole distilling operation takes place in one of the open plan barns with the 2,600 and 1,600 litre whisky stills taking centre stage. Off to one side is the 500-litre Holstein pot and column still, gleaming away, determined not to let the whisky stills draw all the attention. It was one of the hottest days of the summer when I visited, and production had just been stepped up to two shifts. It was no surprise then that there was a sense of urgency just below the calm appearance of Nickolas Franchino, the distillery manager as he obligingly answered one of my questions while sweat dripped from his face. Following my leisurely tour of the distillery and a brief visit to the on-site warehouse, I enjoyed sampling some of the current gins and whiskies with Head of Marketing Martin Street, before putting Dan through my rather lengthy interview. I wanted to get to the bottom of what was behind the Cotswolds whisky, gin and other spirits and Dan was happy to patiently fill me in.
As an ardent Scotsman and sceptic of anyone trying to make our national drink anywhere south of the border, I have to say that I think what Dan is doing is great and I do wish him all the success that I’m sure will come his way. From making gin, almost as an afterthought and winning much praise for it, (and more importantly, strong sales of his early products) he will very soon be able to call his malt spirit Single Malt Whisky, and in so doing, complete the first milestone of every single malt whisky distillery operation.
In the 19th century, whisky consumers wanted consistency and assurance in what they were drinking, which resulted in the boom of blended Scotch whisky with a somewhat bland flavour profile that tasted the same – bottle after bottle. Increasingly people want the very opposite, seeking new tasting experiences and surprises, just as long as the quality is good. This more open-minded attitude is the driving force behind the emergence of craft and micro distilleries, which have largely been established by open-minded entrepreneurs. According to Dan, there is an intrinsic link between small ‘craft’ distilleries and the need to experiment, and he is certainly not shying away from pushing the boundaries. Experimenting and having fun, producing kooky and wacky spirits is a key motivator for Dan, so in addition to an ever evolving Cotswolds Single Malt whisky and Cotswolds Dry Gin, we can look forward to many interesting and delightful surprises from the little distillery in the heart of the Cotswolds.
For Dan, his distillery is about doing something fun and making people happy. The reward of knowing people enjoy what he makes and can join him in on the journey means far more than big profits and building an empire. Quality first, but unafraid to make mistakes, should lead to some terrific drinks coming out of the quintessentially English distillery.