Lockdown can be a long-drawn-out affair, without the usual social gatherings which bring the Livery together. Thankfully, the third of the lockdown trilogy has been punctuated by a series of inspiring virtual distillery visits and spirit tastings. The first, in March, took us to the Hayman’s Distillery, where we were welcomed by Past Master Christopher Hayman. A month later we boarded the Zoom charabanc, expertly guided by The Master, and headed west from Battersea to the Cotswolds, where were greeted by Liveryman Daniel Szor at The Cotswolds Distillery.
The distillery first opened its doors in July 2014 and has become a must-stop on any tour of the Cotswolds. A canny location which attracts thirty million visitors a year, who keep the team in the visitor centre thankfully busy in more normal times and spread word of the whiskies and gins far and wide.
The wonders of technology allowed Daniel to take us on an informative and inspiring tour. “Stood” by the milling machine, he explained the importance of local and traditional foundations. The barley is all sourced from nearby farms and is floor malted at Warminster, Britain’s oldest working maltings. With expansion projects complete, the maturing barrels are being rehoused onsite from their current home in Liverpool; although there was a clear air of trepidation as he contemplated seven years’ worth of production being transported down the M6.
A native New Yorker, Daniel reveals his American heritage in the naming of the stills. We were introduced to Dolly, a copper pot still, who due to the burgeoning success of Cotswolds Dry Gin, is having to work her “nine to five”. Then, turning to the whiskies, we met the wash still Mary, named after the Tina Turner hit “Proud Mary”, and finally the spirits still, Janis, who by then needed no explanation.
We continued to the warehouse and bottling hall. Here, surrounded by ageing spirit, Daniel explained how, in shaping his plans, he sought counsel from the late Dr Jim Swan, whose inspiration and understanding of wood is evident throughout the whiskies. We were also told the wonderful story behind Cask Number One. Filled in September 2014, Daniel’s wife bought it for his birthday “spending money we didn’t have on something we already owned.” But her gift showed great foresight; Daniel proudly explained it was the one part of the distillery he still owned one hundred percent.
Tour complete, we turned to the tasting. As a lively opener, we started with White Pheasant, a new make spirit which introduced us to the fruity notes characteristic of the Cotswolds whiskies. We then embarked upon a flight of single malts: the signature Cotswolds, eloquently described as the perfect breakfast whisky; the Founder’s Choice, award-winning and aged in Daniel’s favourite American oak red wine casks; the Sherry Cask, matured in Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez seasoned casks; and finally, the Peated Cask.
The last was whisky Daniel never intended to make, the Cotswolds not being famed for peat, but an insatiable curiosity meant he had to give it a go. This reflects the knowledge and passion Daniel has for whisky and which suffused the event. We even learnt of an experimental rye whisky, tucked away in the warehouse, created in collaboration with the nearby Hook Norton Brewery, which is sadly not yet available for general consumption.
Having been tipped off on how to make a short-cut Tom Collins at Hayman’s, Daniel shared with us his solution were any spirits left from the generous measures in the tasting bottles: pour them together into a separate glass to be enjoyed later. As such, we became blenders for the evening, creating our own unique Cotswold solera and learning about the growing popularity of “infinity bottles” among the whisky community.
After the formal proceedings, “breakout rooms” were introduced, worryingly corporate in description, yet delightfully convivial in practice. Screens momentarily went blank and then a smaller gathering of old friends and new acquaintances appeared. We compared tasting notes, unanimous in the quality, divided on a favourite. All too soon, we were ushered back – videos “on” mute buttons “off” – for a lively questions and answer session, as if upstairs in the distillery blending room or the bar at the Vintners’ Hall.
Of course, Zoom distillery tours are not the same as the real thing. They are different and in some very positive ways. For one, many more of the Livery were able to attend. I did not count the total participants, but it was surely more than would have been feasible on site. Not to mention the journey home from the Cotswolds was a breeze. That said, it was clear many of us were eager to breathe the aromas of fermentation and distillation in the distillery itself. These are harder to replicate online and before the evening was out plans were already afoot once we are unshackled. But, in the same breath, I will miss the excitement that came with the reassuring plod as the beautifully packaged tasting kit dropped through the letterbox. As we all learn new ways of doing things, perhaps hybrid tastings are the future, lead by The Master live, but not unplugged.
The evening closed with resounding Zoom applause and a heartfelt thank you to Daniel and his team for hosting us and providing some wonderful lockdown inspiration.