"The term we use is hedge funds to hedgerows," says Dan Szor, the founder and CEO of Cotswolds Distillery. "I spent 30 years in the city, first working in New York and then in Paris and then in London for a currency trading investment firm and I was their European marketing guy."
"It was in 2000 that I got invited to a meeting of the Scotch Whisky Society in Paris. And that's what got me into whisky and the French, of course, are really into whisky," Dan says. "I started doing yearly trips up to Scotland and that's how I started understanding not only how special the product was... I moved from Paris to London and got the house in the Cotswolds and the rest is history."
The distillery dream
Dan's distillery venture brought together his two passions, the Cotswolds and whisky. "The idea came to me when I was looking out the window of a little farmhouse my wife and I bought as a weekend place a couple miles away from where we are now," he recalls. "I saw a big field of spring barley blowing in the breeze and this thought came to me, which was 'all the barley that grows down here, why doesn't anyone ever make any whisky?'"
"We have this kind of really beautiful, gentle landscape, it's almost like an impressionist painting," Dan says. "I knew the Cotswolds had a tremendous number of visitors, over 30 million visitors a year. And I thought, why drive 10 hours to get that fun destination distillery experience where you can get it just an hour-and-a-half from London."
Dan's distillery is the first of its kind in the region. "I suppose even before being seen as English whisky we want to be seen as Cotswolds whisky which is pretty easy because we're the first and only making whisky in the Cotswolds," he says.
For Dan, establishing his team has been one of his proudest achievements. "We have now over 50 people and it's hard to put together such a great team anywhere, but in the middle of the North Cotswolds was a real challenge," he says. "We have great people who are passionate about what they do or who are committed to moving us forward and making us a success, and it's a pleasure to work with them every day."
Besides his passion, Dan recognised the need for experience to get his business going. "We were really lucky in that we had two Scots who between them had probably near one hundred years of whisky making experience and were legends in the business," he says.
The first is Harry Coburn, a former general manager of Bowmore. "Harry introduced me to the Forsyth family," Dan says. "Richard Forsyth and his son Richard who have a 150-year-old coppersmith business in Rothes in Speyside and who make the stills that you'll see pretty much throughout Scotland.... We have a turnkey distillery that they put in place for us including Forsyth stills."
Alongside Harry's support, Dan considers Jim Swan a pivotal influence. "Unfortunately, Jim passed away a few years ago but he was a chemist by training," he explains. "Jim was actually instrumental in all the processes that we go through to make the whisky, and most importantly, probably in understanding the impact of what the wood has on whisky and finding great casks."
Dan believes their process and high standards are essential. "What I really think sets us apart in all of the spirits that we make is the focus on flavour, on the quality above all else. It has to be great or else we don't want to do it," he says. "It is completely all about flavor and it's about the authenticity and the style in which they're made."
The gin boom
"We'd always planned on making other things besides whisky," Dan explains. "We knew that not everyone was a whisky lover and that there were a lot of other wonderful spirits that you could make."
In 2014, the team diversified into gin with plans to sell it in their shop and weekend fairs. "We ended up getting listed in Fortum and Mason two weeks after the first drop came off the still and then Harvey Nichols," Dan says. "We realized that you can make a gin with all the values that we put into our whisky and that's what we're most proud of."
"It was a huge surprise that our gin took off in the way that it did because I can't say that I really saw the gin boom coming," Dan says. "I was aware of obviously the success of folks like Sipsmith etc. Obviously we all owe a great debt of gratitude to Bombay and Hendrick's for really getting that sort of movement going."
Dan enjoys his gin in several ways. "My favourite way to drink our gin is probably in the G&T my wife will make me on occasion at the end of the day. She just happens to make a great Cotswolds and tonic," Dan says. "I think our gin makes a great gin and tonic but occasionally I'll mix up a Negroni or a Martiniand if I'm in a good bar, I'll see how they do my favourite drink which is a Corpse Reviver No.2."
"We are kind of in the middle of nowhere," Dan says. "First order priority was a cafe which we're very happy to have now. And also these wonderful mezzanine spaces where we can run masterclasses and more high level and more involved experiences, make your own gin, blend your own whiskies, away days, corporate entertainment, etc."
Without expectations, Dan and his team opened their Visitor Centre. "We had no idea if anybody was going to show up or how many. We started with one tour a week," he recalls. "Now we're running three tours every day, seven days a week and they're all running full."
"I'd like to hope that anybody who comes to visit us first of all feels like they've had a good time and they've had some wonderful spirits to drink," Dan says. "That they've been inspired a little bit to see what you can create out of love and out of passion and maybe we've served as an inspiration for some folks to go out and do what they love and hopefully love what they do."
After the team sold their single malt whisky before their stills had arrived, they saw an opportunity to welcome friends and supporters to the distillery. "For those people who were brave enough to put down £45 on a whisky that hadn't even yet been made we felt we needed to offer something special," Dan explains. "We did a festival which we called the Whisky Harvest Festival and I think we had nearly 2,000 people and everybody had such a great time."
"When they came up to me at the end of the day they said you're gonna do this every year right?" Dan says. "And last year, we actually did a World Whisky Forum - we did a conference for whisky distillers from around the world here at the distillery. We had about 100 distillers."
For Dan, his whisky is diverse. "I've had people make me amazing highballs with it. It makes a great Manhattan and a good Old Fashioned as well," he says. "Personally I'm whisky sipper. And my favourite moment to have a small dram of whisky is probably at the end of the day when I've hopped into bed with the wife, the dog, a bit of Netflix, and just you know enjoying the contemplative dram, as Jim Murray used to say."
With more growth to come, Dan focuses on the end game. "We are really looking forward to our whisky getting out there more," he says. "It's a slow business whisky, it'll take a while for us to have the amount of stock available to really make the impact that we think our whisky can."
What does the future hold for Cotswolds Distillery? "We will be coming out with a new whisky release every six months for the next 18 months," Dan says. "So, by 2021 we will have six (probably) whiskies available which will have a whole range of different flavours and characters. I'm really looking forward to that. I'm also looking forward to seeing just how big this wonderful gin of ours can go."