In what turns out to be a surprising story, we meet the founder of Cotswolds Distillery, a native New Yorker who relocated from the world of finance to this picturesque part of England to follow a dream.
Most people have romantic associations with the concept of The Cotswolds, a region in south-central England that seems to have cornered the market in charming villages, idyllic woodlands, and the green rolling hills lined with stone walls that always seem to feature in TV series set in the countryside. The founder of Cotswolds Distillery, Daniel Szor, also fell under its spell.
But there’s a big difference between being a whisky lover and suddenly deciding you want to be the Cotswolds’ first whisky distiller. It was a lightbulb moment that occurred to Dan in the summer of 2012, a year or so after he and his wife Katia bought their dream home, a weekender they would initially commute to from their flat in London’s West Hampstead, three miles from the current distillery site. Cotswolds Distillery now hosts over 100,000 visitors a year and its gins and whiskies are highly acclaimed the world over. It’s a huge achievement from one man who turned his back on a 30-year career in the finance industry to follow his heart on a whim, or as he puts it, “a guy who basically loved the visitor experience of distilleries he visited enough to want to build one.”
Capturing the Magic of The Cotswolds
“I call this the Vermont of the UK,” says Dan. “The reason I thought this thing might have a chance of working was because The Cotswolds gets 30 million visitors a year. It occupies this important, green, happy place in the hearts of lots of people.”
A longtime whisky fan, Dan had made previous trips to Scottish distilleries with friends and was struck by the passion of the producers. “Anything that didn’t involve selling derivatives was inspiring to me.” Apart from visiting distilleries on his days away from the finance world, he had zero experience of the drinks industry and, since that day in 2012 when he wondered why no-one had thought to make whisky from all the barley growing in the Cotswolds, he has essentially figured out what to do as he went along. However, he had some important mentors. “The only thing I could do was try and surround myself with the best possible people,” says Dan.
Jim McEwan of Bruichladdich was an early supporter who told Dan to follow his dream, and set him up in May 2013 with Harry Cockburn, an expert on the operational side of opening and running a distillery.
He also needed to learn how to make whisky. “I knew as much as anyone who had gone on 20 or 30 distillery tours,” says Dan. And that’s where (the late) Dr Jim Swan has been instrumental in steering Dan’s epiphany of being the first to make a spirit from local barley (Warminster Maltings, 70 miles away, supply them with their key ingredient of Cotswolds malt) into a delicious reality.
Often known as ‘the Einstein of whisky’, Jim imparted his knowledge of the entire production process to Dan. Of course, while they were waiting the necessary years for their whisky to mature, there was gin to enjoy.
“I call it our unexpected lovechild,” says Dan, “which we now love every bit as much as our whisky. We tried 150 different botanicals and 60 prototype gins. It’s the kind of gin a whisky drinker would like.” But the experimentation doesn’t stop there. “I used to live in France, and I loved Calvados, we started making what we call Cotswold-vados. We’ve done two amaros, we’ve done a vermouth, I’m hoping we go bigger scale with rum.”
It’s clear Cotswolds Distillery is on the cusp of even bigger things. What started as an organisation of just seven people, is now home to around 50 staff. They picked up 1,500 investors along the way, and can make around 350,000 bottles of whisky a year.
A New Visitor Experience
Cotswolds Distillery created a new visitor centre at the end of 2019, as a result of the increasing popularity of the distillery tours.
“The [original] shop was so small that people couldn’t fit in there,” says Dan. “And after doing their nice 90-minute tour, they didn’t particularly want to leave and most of them had made a day of it. They weren’t in any rush to go home but there was nowhere for them to go.”
Dan hired an architect and, inspired by the aesthetics of nearby Soho House, created a visitor centre that was more like a clubhouse and a brand home “where they could hang out all day if they wanted”. If you visit now, there’s the Still House Café with an open fire, a cosy wood-burning stove in the tasting room, and more space to do bespoke masterclasses.
Brand new distillery in 2023
On 5 January 2023, the Cotswolds Distillery became part of English whisky history, opening a new £3 million distillery (four times the size of the original) on an extra six acres of land. It’s now the largest producer of English whisky, with capacity to churn out 500,000 litres of pure alcohol a year, allowing it to meet increasing demand, globally and in the UK. “Our ambitions have grown,” Dan says. “If I think about how I want to leave this place …the visitor centre…
I’m so happy with it…it’s the way it ought to be. And if we’re in the middle of this beautiful, really breathtaking part of the North Cotswolds, surrounded by hills and fields…then why don’t we, in this country that values gardens more than any other country in the world, make a stunning place so that your outdoor time can be as nice as your indoor time.”
So, even if you’ve had the pleasure of visiting Cotswolds Distillery before, now there are even more reasons to return.
Dan’s Food and Accommodation Tips in The Cotswolds
A self-confessed foodie, Dan needs little encouragement to share his favourite finds in the North Cotswolds region:
The Old Butchers:
“What you typically get in the English countryside is either ‘pub’ or ‘posh’. If you want seriously good food but without a starched napkin and a lot of people hovering over you, this is one restaurant that I think pulls it off really well. They’re in Stow-on-the-Wold, which is about 15 minutes away from us. It’s one of the only places where you can get really good langoustine or a really good lobster and actually really good shellfish and oysters. They also have really amazing charcuterie, some of it’s homemade and really good grills and meats. It’s simple food and not overly pretentious.”
The Red Lion Inn:
“I certainly love my pubs as much as the next person. One of the closest villages to us is Long Compton and this is a nice country pub, which has what you’d expect from one: good food, good ales, good beers, good gins and good whiskies. It also has nice rooms.”
The Bower House:
“Owned by Andrew Knight, former editor of The Economist , now just a local who likes to be in the foodie scene and owns an amazing food store called Taste of the Country in nearby Shipston-on-Stour; right next to it in an old listed building, he’s made this very nice little restaurant. It has nice rooms too.”
“At the top of the restaurant heap within 10 minutes of us, in a town called Moreton-in-Marsh is this new-ish place [opened June 2021] that only has six tables and 14 covers. I went there with my wife for dinner and we were completely blown away. It has a prix-fixe seven course meal at what I think for that quality food and that number of courses and that originality and creativity, is a pretty decent price. It’s unpretentious but seriously well thought through, it’s great.”
The Old Kiln House:
“This B&B in Shipston-on-Stour, about 10 minutes from the distillery, is owned by a couple who built it a few years ago, the rooms are nice, they’re nice people, if you’re looking for a B&B, you can’t go wrong there.”
If you’re looking for something closer to the distillery that you can toddle back to on foot, and particularly if you’re into golf (but not necessarily), there’s a local golf club bought by a businessman who made it into a mini resort. He built about 25 rooms, they aren’t way over the top, they’re modern, clean, bright, with nice views; some of them are in a copse of trees. I’d unreservedly recommend it.
Ettington Park Hotel:
“If you’re willing to go with the traditional English country house hotel, which is slightly eccentric, there’s this place. We did a whisky makers’ conference in 2018 [World Whisky Forum], where we put 50 whisky makers from around the world here. It’s maybe 20 minutes away and almost Agatha Christie-like, a huge old mansion pile with a beautiful wood around it. The rooms have been renovated, no two are alike, and in tune with the architectural features of the place.
Text by Karyn Noble