The beauty of the Cotswolds is known throughout the UK and to millions of foreign tourists for its rustic villages, its yellow limestone houses and its rolling fields of golden grain. One day some seven or eight years ago, foreign currency exchange specialist Daniel Szor gazed out the window of his Cotswolds house at one of these fields. He sat mesmerized by the beauty, particularly the hypnotic, wave-like motion of the barley blowing in the country breeze. In his hypnosis, Dan’s thoughts turned far from forex and the career to which he had dedicated thirty years to a passion he had developed over the previous fifteen: spirits, particularly whisky. “Why with all that grain,” he wondered, “isn’t anybody distilling it?”
That question burrowed itself in Dan’s brain. For six years it bore deeper, pervading his psyche, pushing for the dream to become reality. Eventually it bore too deep. The question borne from the blowing barley needed to bloom into the Cotswolds Distillery and Cotswolds Dry Gin, your Craft Gin Club Gin of the Month this April.
THE GIN THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY
The breeze blowing the barley that day was not the only to inspire Dan. The first was an easterly wind that brought the American trader from the towers of New York to the Eiffel Tower of Paris where he spent eleven years building the European business of the forex firm for which he worked. While becoming a Parisian, Dan fittingly fell in love with one of Scotland’s largest exports, whisky; fittingly because the élixir écossais complemented the fine French fare that had quickly grown on him and because France is the largest per capita consumer of Scotch whisky in the world.
The second breeze hit Dan from the shores of Islay where after regular visits to Scotch distilleries he eventually bought a cask of whisky at the Bruichladdich Distillery. “That’s when the obsession really began,” reminisced Dan. “When you own a piece of a distillery you become passionate about it.”
Little did Dan know at the time that Bruichladdich would hold a significant influence on him and his decision to establish the Cotswolds’ first distillery. Every May, Dan visited the distillery to taste the whisky aging in his cask to see if it was ready. During these trips he would speak with Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich’s Master Distiller that has worked in the whisky industry for over fifty years.
After a visit to a Whisky Live expo in New York, Dan realised that the craft distilling revolution was in full swing in the States so he asked McEwan flat out if the blowing barley question bothering him those six years was completely insane or if launching a distillery in the Cotswolds could actually work. McEwan’s answer said it all. “What the bloody hell are you waiting for?”
THE JUMP TO GIN
On the path to making what is the Cotswolds’ first whisky, Dan took a few pages from the Bruichladdich bible. Just like he did with the Islay malt, Dan gives whisky lovers the chance to purchase a cask and own a piece of his distillery. He also sources local products when making Cotswolds spirits as does Bruichladdich.
But the most crucial inspiration that Dan took from Bruichladdich comes in the gin that you are drinking this month. Bruichladdich makes The Botanist Islay Dry Gin. In 2010, the struggling whisky distillery launched The Botanist, made with 31 botanicals with 22 of those foraged directly on Islay, in an attempt to boost sales and increase cash flow. The gamble worked. The Botanist has revived the Bruichladdich brand and grew them enough for French alcoholic beverage company Rémy Cointreau to purchase them in 2012. Although he’s a whisky man by nature, McEwan is very thankful for the clear spirit “you can make in the morning and sell in the afternoon.”
Dan sought to distill a classic London Dry with a local twist. As he lined up the distillery team which began working on July 1st, 2014, he had been enjoying Berry Bros. & Rudd’s highly regarded No. 3 and used it as a benchmark. That July, the distillery team distilled over 150 botanicals one at a time on 1-litre stills with the purpose of finding the right mix of plants, herbs and spices with the Cotswolds connection. During this search, they created what is believed to be the world’s largest single botanical spirt library, a library that is proudly displayed in the distillery’s lab today and which acts as the foundation of the constant experiments the staff undertakes.
In August, after creating the library and familiarizing themselves with the characteristics of each single botanical spirit, the staff set to finding the recipe for what would be Cotswolds Dry Gin. Every week, Head Distiller Alex Davies, Operations Manager, Nick Franchino and Head Brewer, Shaun Smith would create a number of recipes that the entire staff would taste each Friday at lunch. After some sixty recipes and variations thereof as well as lots of enjoyment and constructive criticism from their colleagues, the three distillers took four of their favourite recipes to Campden BRI, a food and drink research specialist, for a blind tasting.
For the first step in this tasting, the experts at Campden BRI tasted each of the twelve recipes, eliminating three from each distiller’s choice so that three gins from Cotswolds remained. Then the three were pit against four industry heavyweights in order to see which of the gins the tasters preferred. In seventh place came Bombay Sapphire. Tied for first place came Alex’s gin and Berry Bros. No. 3, Dan’s original ginspiration. The Cotswolds Distillery’s gin had been found.
MAKING GIN BY THE RULES OF WHISKY
In all the botanicals his team tested and in working with a local botanist - the Chief Botanical Officer - Alex found that the lavender from the Cotswolds brought the sought after flavour with the local kick. The lavender combines with a classic London Dry base of coriander, juniper and angelica root which are left to macerate overnight in the still full of a neutral wheat spirit before the addition the next day of grapefruit and lime peel, bay leaf, coriander seed and black pepper.
What is particularly unique about Cotswolds Dry Gin is its adherence to the processes that make the world’s best whiskies, which isn’t surprising as Dan Szor set out to make whisky. The gin is bottled at 46% ABV, higher than most craft gins on the market. For whisky, 46% is the lowest alcohol level you can get away with without having to chill filter the spirit. It also turns out that it’s a great level for gin according to Alex because any lower and you begin to lose the heavier botanical flavours.
In the same spirit, Dan decided to stick to the whisky “gospel” as he calls it, “buy your whisky naturally coloured and non-chill filtered.” “So we thought to ourselves, ‘Why should we treat our gin any differently,” laughed Dan. By non-chill filtering their gin, the Cotswold Distillery ensures that all of the flavour agents - the fatty acids, esters, and essential oils - remain in the spirit giving the gin a fuller flavour. The flip side to that is the gin can appear cloudy with a light bluish-purple tinge when ice is added, a characteristic that Dan likes to call his unique selling proposition.
With that USP, Cotswolds Dry Gin has been selling so well since its first batch was bottled in late September 2014 that Dan believes his gin could become the distillery’s flagship product instead of the whisky lying in wait in the distillery’s aging cellars. That first batch, for instance, sold out in two hours at a local fair. With such success, the Cotswolds Distillery is on a path to quickly grow its brand beyond its region. But one thing is certain: its connection with the Cotswolds, where Dan first found inspiration in a mesmerizing field of blowing barley, will remain at its core.