“Rather strangely, my first experience of hands-on distilling was in Sweden. Although I love all kinds of whisky. From Chichibu in Japan, Seattle’s Westland to Holland’s Millstone, and, of course, Scottish, my favorite go-to everyday, premium whisky is English. It hasn’t anything to do with me owning the distillery!”
Two Americans are behind a craft whisky revolution and an award-winning distillery in the quintessential English countryside of the Cotswolds.
Cotswolds Distillery’s founder and CEO, Daniel Szor, was born and raised in New York City and worked in Wall Street, London, and Paris, specializing in the sales & marketing of currency investment management services. He was a member of senior management of New York-based Currency Manager FX Concepts for over 25 years.
“I was living in Paris and trying lots of different wines, as Americans tend to do in France. I got invited to a Scotch malt whisky event and fell in love with a single malt. A friend and I began driving around visiting distilleries and that’s how I got into whisky and became a whisky geek.”
Having bought an old farmhouse in Stourton, near Shipston-on-Stour, a hundred miles west of London and nine miles from Stratford on Avon, and, inspired by the phenomenal growth of interest in craft spirits in the USA, Sozr decided to combine his two loves – whisky and the Cotswolds. “ One day, in 2012, I looked out of our window in south Warwickshire. All I could see was barley and I thought, ‘why hasn’t anyone made whisky here?’”
Founded in 2014, the distillery at Phillip’s Field in the Vale of the Red Horse now employs over fifty people. Including Morristown, New Jersey-born production director Nick Franchino whose Italian relatives in the Tomes River area used to make their own liqueurs. He lived for four years in Memphis bit moving to the U.K.
Nick and the man who was to become his boss met on a distilling course in Edinburgh. Their distillery won the World Craft Producer of The Year at The whisky Awards.
Daniel bought his first whisky cask in 2002 at the newly re-opened Bruichladdich distillery on Islay where he met and was influenced by master distiller, James McEwan. “All of our whisky is made using locally grown, Cotswolds grown barley. Our idea was to make a whisky that was truly 100% Cotswolds and using Cotswolds grain. We use a fifth-generation farming family, the Greens. who are tenant farmers in Coombe on the Blenheim Estate.
“I first visited the Cotswolds for a friend’s wedding over twenty-five years ago. I never imagined then I’d end up living here, building a distillery, and making my own whisky!
“Given my exquisite lack of experience in making whisky, I was lucky to get the help of Harry Cockburn who, after running the Bowmore Distillery in Islay, had retired but was helping start-up distilleries as a consultant. The late, great Jim Swan, was our chemist and flavor guru. We have him to thank for helping us to create a whisky, which we hope is a real reflection of the Cotswolds.”
“I worked on an algorithmic currency trading system, but now I’m communicating the values of something that I really believe in and love. To be an entrepreneur takes a rare combination of courage and complete ignorance. I just wanted to make a whisky that I’d be proud of and that I would want to drink. That’s harder than it sounds because I had visited a lot of craft distilleries in the States where craft, small-batch distilling took off ten years before the UK.”
Financially opening a distillery is something Sozhe says he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. “How do you make a small fortune out of distilling? Start with a big one! You’re making stuff you won’t be realizing the benefit of for years. We brought out a gin and that helped while the whisky was maturing. Locals helped with the bottling! Our first listing was from Fortnum & Mason and we are now sold in forty different countries.
“ Making gin is a one to two-week process. We used local Cotswolds lavender in ours. It’s botanically intense. To be a whisky, under English law, the whisky must be three years and one day old. We keep our gin stills, Lorelei and Dolly, as busy as our two whisky stills, Mary and Janis! During Co-vid, our website has had very, very strong sales.”
The distillery’s visitor center was crowd-funded by benevolent enthusiasts. Tours are one of the area’s most popular tourist attractions.
Continues Sozr: “ Our whisky is what they call NAS – No Age Statement. On every bottle, it says established 2014. English whisky is part of the world whisky boom. Basically, whisky not made in Scotland, Ireland, or Kentucky.”
“Our locally-grown barley is traditionally floor-malted at Warminster, Britain’s oldest working maltings which go back to 1855. We only take the purest part of the spirit run – the ‘hearts’. We use ex-Bourbon barrels from Kentucky and shaved toasted and re-charred American oak red wine barriques to mature our flagship Single Malt.”
“Some of our whiskies will undergo full-term maturation in Madeira, rum, Calvados, and Pineau des Charentes casks. From 2021, we’ll start releasing a couple of limited edition bottlings from these casks each year. You can make an excellent three-year-old whisky. And a very English one made the same way as they did in Scotland fifty years ago.”