GIN is big news these days – gone are the minimal choices in pubs, off-licences and on supermarket shelves. Nowadays, you can be baffled by the variety and you certainly don’t have to settle for a boring generic gin and tonic, tasting of nothing much unless you add some fresh lemon. You have not only a great selection of fine quality gins from big producers, but an exciting array of artisan gins created by individual enthusiasts, like Dorset’s Rupert Holloway with his delicious Conker Gin, launched earlier this year, and small companies, like the Cotswolds Distillery.
Cotswolds Dry Gin has just celebrated its first birthday and the team can look back on a successful first year, including receiving five stars and an Outstanding rating from Difford’s Guide, a platinum medal from the American SIP awards, and being voted Drink Product of the Year at the Cotswold Life Food & Drink Awards.
Company founder Daniel Szor says: “I can’t believe how far we’ve come in just a year. This time last year (July) the finishing touches were being made to the buildings and the stills weren’t even hooked up.”
I first tasted Cotswolds gin at the Kingham Plough near Burford on a tour of Cotswolds producers with the Guild of Food Writers. Our lunch started with a Cotswolds gin aperitif, served with tonic, lots of ice, fresh pink grapefruit and a bay leaf. The significance of these unusual garnishes became clear after our visit to the distillery later in the afternoon. Suffice it to say that even those of us who were driving and who initially thought we shouldn’t have an alcoholic drink, could hardly resist at least tasting this citrussy fresh drink, which positively zinged with its cocktail of botanicals. So we didn’t resist. We tried and were all converted to instant fans. This is a gin that lingers fragrantly and gently in the mouth and manages that special feat of being simultaneously warming and cooling.
The visit to the distillery was not only to learn more about the gin and its production but also to hear about the distillery’s single malt, which is still maturing and will not be ready for several years. Our guide was Alex Davies, the head distiller and brand ambassador, who has a complete passion for his work and the products. He knows his stuff thoroughly and imparted the most amazing amount of technical information at a speed that would rival the late Patrick Moore.
Cotswolds Distillery was founded by Daniel Szor, a successful businessman and chief executive who decided in 2011 that he wanted to move out of the city. “He wanted to do something he could be passionate about,” says Alex. Daniel loved the Cotswolds and he loved whisky so he decided to start the Cotswolds’ first distillery, near Shipston-on-Stour. He wanted the whisky to be a reflection of the Cotswolds so the barley is grown locally and is malted at Warminster, close to the southern border, at the country’s oldest surviving floor maltings.
“So much of whisky is about the wood in which it is matured,” says Alex. About 240 casks are currently being aged in four types of cask – former bourbon barrels from Kentucky Cooperage, ex American oak red wine casks (some of which were used by Taiwanese single malt whisky maker Kavalan to age their World’s Best Whisky), oloroso sherry butts and PX sherry butts. There will be very different types of whisky from these different casks. There are now 136,000 bottles slumbering in their casks and the first batch will be ready for retail in November 2017, with the majority held back for further ageing.
Historically there were four English whisky distilleries, the last of which, Lea Valley, closed in 1905. Whisky distilling returned to England a century later. The best known name is St George’s, produced by the English Whisky Co, founded by farmer James Nelstrop in 2006. The first single malt was released in 2009. There are also whisky distilleries at Southwold, in London and in the Lakes.
In the meantime there is the gin. And that is plenty to be going on with. Cotswolds Distillery gin has a distinctive fragrant, herbal, citrussy flavour, thanks to the unique quantity and combination of botanicals, nine in all – juniper berries (Macedonian), coriander seed, angelica root, Cotswolds lavender and bay leaf, fresh pink grapefruit and lime peel, black peppercorn and cardamom seed.
One nice little anecdote about the bottling process – you’ve heard of the angel’s share in whisky (the portion that is lost to evaporation during the long maturing process)? Cotswolds Distillery has bottling angels! When time comes to bottle the gin – a job needing a lot of people – the distillery team gets onto social media and invites volunteers to come and help. The “angels” have fun as they work, go home with a bottle of gin and help to spread the word. A heaven-sent solution to a practical problem.
Incidentally, it’s not just the quality of gin that is now much better. Tonics also have improved – Alex recommends the excellent Fever Tree. Take his advice – these new gins, whether Conker or Cotswolds, deserve the best mixer you can get. And serve them very cold – pile in the ice and you will get the full chilling thrill of a really good gin made by people who combine passion with expertise. It’s a winning recipe. FC
Gin and botanicals – a cool cocktail at the Kingham Plough
Alex Davies standing between parts of the Scottish-made whisky still explaining the whisky-making process.
Pure gin and ice – the gin clouds as the ice is added.
New flavours – Alex is constantly experimenting with different botanicals and new drinks, including absinthe.