Cotswolds Distillery founder reflects as English whisky maker turns 10

Cotswolds Distillery founder reflects as English whisky maker turns 10

As the Cotswolds Distillery, one of England's oldest whisky makes, reaches its 10th anniversary, its founder Daniel Szor reflects on the fulfilment of a dream to "make a whisky I would want to drink"

News | 11 Jul 2024 | By Alwynne Gwilt

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When Daniel Szor first had the idea to set up an English whisky distillery in the heart of the Cotswolds, a national tourism hotspot, he didn’t envisage what it would feel like celebrating its 10th anniversary.


But through grit, determination, and a bit of luck, Szor now finds himself looking to the next 10 years of what can be achieved for a little distillery that has grown in both the physical sense but also in the hearts and minds of whisky consumers in more than 50 countries.


“The older we get, the more our perception of time changes. When you’re a kid, 10 years feels like a really long time and now it goes by in the blink of an eye… And it was sort of the same with the whisky making. Time goes by really slowly when they are young because everything is keyed off of hitting that magic three years and being seen not as a hopeful whisky maker, or a future whisky maker, but as someone with whisky on sale,” he says over the phone from Greece, where he is taking a rare few days away before the big celebrations kick off.


Szor initially became interested in whisky after buying a cask from Bruichladdich. He fell in love with the idea of building a distillery, taking time away from his work life in finance to travel to distilleries across the US — where he’s originally from — and Scotland to learn more about the processes.


When he and his wife found an ideal spot in the Cotswolds near to where they used to go on holiday, he decided to make his dream a reality.

Cotswolds Distillery 10th anniversary celebrations

The distillery was a small set-up at first, with everything housed over two floors in one room. There was a gin still and a pot still, with the idea that they would make a bit of gin to help carry them through the period when the whisky was maturing and waiting to be bottled.


The Cotswolds Distillery opened in July 2014 to a small crowd of journalists, curious to see the latest English distillery on the block. Production was only just getting underway at that point, with the team trialing the stills and getting their heads around the process. It wasn’t an easy start.


“The first bits that came off the still were pretty terrible. I reached out to Jim Swan and he agreed, saying it’s really feinty. But he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be down in a couple of weeks and we’ll fix it,’” recalls Szor.


Industry legend Swan spent a few weeks in the autumn of 2014 helping the team get things right in what Szor describes as a “knowledge transfer of 30–40 years in just a short space”.


“He taught us how to ferment, how to mash, what wood to use. He was so clear and there was such an alignment of belief. I think he understood what we wanted before we knew what we wanted,” says Szor, adding that when a whisky tasting group visited that December, tasted the new make, and declared it was really good, he “broke down in tears”.

Daniel Szor at the Cotswolds Distillery 10th anniversary celebration

Over the next decade Szor has seen it all: from Covid 19, Brexit, and a cost of living crisis to wars which have bumped up the price of all raw materials, he says he never envisaged how much they would have to adapt to and live through. It wasn’t just outside factors that meant the team had to learn on its feet, but the sheer fact of being one of the early players in the English whisky market as well.


“When you’re trying to build your own brand in a nascent category it’s really hard to do that on your own. I didn’t in my wildest dreams imagine that there would be 55 distilleries in England to make whisky now,” he says, adding that the formation of the English Whisky Guild has been a real highlight of the work he has contributed to over the years. 


Building a brand was not something Szor had knowledge of in his previous line of work and he quickly learned that when launching a whisky or gin, there are many things to consider around a brand. “The product is front and centre, but without a brand, it doesn’t sell,” he adds.


That brand has gone on to win numerous accolades (including Best English Single Malt at the 2023 World Whiskies Awards), but one of the awards Szor is most proud of is being named the Most Popular Whisky Distillery in the UK and Ireland by Cask Connoisseur in March this year.


“100 per cent of what we do here at the distillery is direct to consumer and it’s the part that makes me happiest,” he says, reflecting on the fact the team now gets more than 100,000 visitors every year.


Today, the distillery has grown substantially in size, a decision that Szor says came partly after a visit to see his friend Ichiro Akuto, owner of Japan’s Chichibu Distillery.

“His distillery was [a] similar size to ours and he asked me if I wanted to go see his new project, and when he showed me his new space which was huge that put the idea in my head that we needed to go big,” Szor says.


The distillery has quadrupled, the work done in a very innovative way by Scottish coppersmith Forsyths, with the team building the entire distillery in a huge warehouse in Scotland before dismantling it into 12 pieces and bringing it to the Cotswolds before snapping it back together like a giant set of Mechano.


“I remember feeling my knees go weak when I saw the size of it just sitting in a huge shed in Scotland all completely done — it was enormous compared to what we were used to,” says Szor, adding it is one of only three distilleries in the world that Forsyths have built in this way.


The new distillery is not yet running at full capacity, but Szor has learned that it’s better to have that option and scale up when you need, or are able to afford, to do so.

Cotswolds Distillery 10th anniversary celebrations

As part of the celebrations for the first decade, Szor and the team are planning a number of limited-edition releases. These include a collaboration with Israel’s Milk & Honey on a Jim Swan tribute bottle to honour their mentor, who passed away in 2017, and a very small batch release of rye whisky made with the neighbouring Hook Norton Brewery, itself celebrating a big 175th milestone this year.


On 31 July 2024, the distillery will be inaugurating its wetlands, which sees a new entranceway to the site opened up to the public; the new route will now take guests through wildflower meadows and wetlands that have been created to dispose naturally of 100,000 litres of effluent every week.


Looking back, Szor says one of the things he is most proud of is the fact that the spirit running off the stills is still very drinkable early on.


“If your entire life savings is on the line, you’re on the lookout for this all the time. My main goal was making a whisky that I would want to drink, and a big highlight is that the whisky we are still the most in love with is our youngest and that’s quite disruptive,” he adds.

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