On this site, I’ve spoken to the folks behind Wolfburn – now the most northerly distillery in mainland Scotland – along with the chaps from The London Distillery Company and Milk & Honey in Israel, the first whisky distillery there. I’ve also spoken to many others for a recent piece in Imbibe. The key trend amongst them all is the sheer interest in whisky that all parties bring to the projects, often borne out of a desire to do something the founders’ are really keen on as a way to escape a career in an industry they may have become slightly tired of.
Naturally, there will be many feeling skeptical at this boom in distillery building – how, for instance, will an ever-growing space be balanced with the increasingly competitive landscape for the oak needed for casks? How many of these distilleries will still be standing in four or five years time? How much more expansion can the industry take?
Questions aside, it has been with general excitement that I’ve watched the expansion globally and I love being able to tell people attending my tastings that there is such a huge amount of passion and excitement buzzing around the world of whisky at the moment.
The latest of these new distilleries to pop up on my radar here in the UK is the Costwolds Distillery.
Based, naturally, in the Costwolds the distillery is being set up by Daniel Szor, a former hedge fund manager keen to escape the grindingly long days that people in that industry tend to wrap themselves up in.
I spoke with him recently to get a look into the new distillery.
What made you make the leap from investment to whisky?
I started having this idea a year and a half ago but I didn’t do much then. I went to Whisky Live in New York in April and that was the first time I’d seen so many craft distillers as a ratio to well-known names. That’s when I found myself really starting to get into thinking of myself not as a whisky follower but as possibly wanting to be a part of this industry. I still thought I was nuts to consider it but I was going up to Islay last May and I was talking to my friend about Jim at Bruichladdich, and telling him about what Jim had done with the company and how emotive a brand ambassador he is. My friend said go talk to him and when I was up there to taste the cask I have in the warehouse, I went to him afterwards and said, “Look, I’ve got this idea…is this nuts?” He said: “Well what the bloody hell are you waiting for?”
Wow – so having one of your whisky idols in favour of your plans must have kicked things into gear…
Absolutely. He steered me to Harry Cockburn and it was the travels with Harry that really got me into it.
So why the Cotswolds?
My wife and I bought this place a couple of years ago. And even though we are city people – she’s a London girl; I’m a New York City boy – we just love it up here. And one day I was looking out the window here and I saw all this barley and that’s when I got the idea to do it here.
Now, looking at the timeline: you only decided to really pursue this a year ago, so how did it come together so quickly?
A couple of things happened in November. I managed to find and complete on the property where the distillery is. It was so perfect for what we wanted that we didn’t even have a plan B. It’s set on five beautiful acres and is very rural with two buildings that were half built, it had planning permission and it’s five minutes from home. Secondly, we really wanted to get our stills from Forsyths and Richard Forsyth Jr was at the craft whisky expo in the US in October where I met him and told him I wanted them from there. Now, obviously there is a huge wait-list but two months later the phone rang and it was Richard saying they’d had a cancellation on stills for 2014 so were able to get them. So we should be in production by late summer because our still is coming in, in June.
Good timing – how are you feeling about the speed of things?
It’s head spinning, it’s unbelievable. But equally it has been positive for me, it’s almost been therapeutic. I was in a breakneck non-stop job for 26 years and to have worked at that pace for so long and then not gone to anything would have been soul destroying. I launched myself at this with a lunatic fervour and am finding myself working 10 times as hard as I did in my old job but it doesn’t feel like work. And I think that’s when you know it’s right. I’m walking on air.
You’re obviously from a financial background and a whisky enthusiast rather than someone with experience working in the industry so how difficult has it been to learn the more technical aspects?
I started with the premise that I know nothing about anything; I’m just from a business background. But that’s not a bad thing because it means I need to find people to help me in every step of the way. Harry was the start of it all and he had a great engineering background and came at it from a very practical way. Then Craig Mackinlay has been great at helping develop a brand image. The architects we’re using locally are great and the woman who runs the MsC programme at Heriot Watt is sending some of their students to do recipe development with us. The whisky guy is still at large but the goal is to have everyone in the distillery by the time we’re ready to go so we can all work together.
One of the most difficult aspects of getting a whisky distillery off the ground is the sheer upfront costs. Has that been daunting?
I’m not as afraid of big numbers as others might be because I ran a £14bn hedge fund. What we’ve done is create The Cotswolds Distillery Founders’ Circle and we’re looking for 50 investors who will put up £50k each. The key thing is we’re looking for people who are interested in being involved and being a part of this story rather than just getting return on their money. Whisky may not have the most fabulous financials in the first few years but it is really like old-fashioned business building: in this case, you’re building value one cask at a time. I may be absolutely crazy but I’m hoping there’s some logic to this and if we can get past the first few years and get to that sweet spot with a good product, that’ll be the great bit.
We will be making a dry gin and the guy who’s going to be involved in that is a former micro-biologist and weekend distiller as a hobby so that’ll be his realm and the botanicals will be based on things we find in the hedge rows. Then on the fruit side, I think that’s tremendously underrepresented in the UK. I’m a big believer in oak ageing fruit. I remember once having an oak-aged apricot brandy that was just superb. So we’re going to create Cotswoldados, which will be based on Calvados.
So, finally, what are your goals for this distillery, where do you see it going in the next few years?
We’re doing this to make something we love, in an area we love, and to support one family business. We do need to actually live on it but what we really need to do is be in a place we love, do something we love and make something great. I’ve got a bunch of kids that I’m hoping will want to take this on to make it intergenerational and just do something kinda neat.
Thanks for taking the time to speak.