In 2016 the development of English distillery sites was outpacing those north of the border. The number of English spirit distilleries has risen by 413% over the last 6 years - and shortly, England will have 14 separate sites dedicated to producing single malt whisky. But, English whisky has not just appeared overnight – indeed, back in the 19th Century, brewing and distilling historian Alfred Barnard wrote about visiting four English whisky distilleries. One of the sites he visited was located in Lee Valley, London – for those still scratching their heads, it’s where the Olympic Stadium was built in 2012. Riding the crest of the wave of new English distilling is Chris Jaume and his fiancé Abbie Neilson from Cooper King distiller ylocated in rolling hills close to the historic city of York.
Chris and Abbie were once an architect and a scientist, but now they’re spearheading a renaissance in whisky distilling in Yorkshire. We caught up with Chris to learn more about the distillery, their inspirational trip to Australia, and what Cooper King has in store for us all shortly.
When did you join the world of distilling and what were you doing before this?
My fiancée Abbie and I joined the world of distilling back in spring 2014 as we embarked on the Redlands Distillery training program, following our inspiring three-month tour of Tasmanian whisky distilleries.
In January that year we left our hard-earned careers in the UK to travel to Australia. Worn out from studying for four degrees between us and fed up of the long working hours and miserable commutes post qualification, we saved up our hard-earned pennies, filled our backpacks and left the rat race in search for adventure.
Not long after arriving in the southern hemisphere we found ourselves in Tasmania, being caught up in the thriving Tassie whisky scene and both thinking, “we want to be part of this.”
What happened during your time in Tasmania that inspired you to come home and build a distillery from scratch?
Simply put, we met incredibly passionate people making exceptional whisky on a scale we had never seen before.
Visiting (back then) all 8 distilleries on the island, we were blown away by their innovative and varied approaches to distilling, and the real love of their craft. Many of the distillers had no industry background, yet were making stunning whiskies, by hand, in quirky buildings ranging from residential garages to remote farm buildings! They were also incredibly open and honest about their production techniques. We openly discussed barley types, yeast strains, casks and water sources. Abbie and I embraced the chance to learn and get stuck in, and soon found ourselves planning the opening of our own distillery back in England.
We learnt that you do not need millions of pounds to set up a whisky distillery, nor do you need Scottish roots! We have now established a small, independent distillery that will focus on flavour and provenance over quantity and reach. Like many of the distilleries in Tassie, we’ve chosen to use local barley and good quality casks to produce small batches of whisky, by hand.
What's the origins of Cooper King as a brand?
My great-great grandfather Charles Cooper King liked an adventure and a challenge. In his 55 years (1843 – 1898) he sailed to the China seas and Japan with the military; published several literary works and academic papers; produced paintings that have since been auctioned at Christies; lectured in diverse topics from geology, magnetism and electricity to food and foraging, and painstakingly produced detailed volumes of the Cooper King family tree.
The volumes trace the Cooper King ancestry back to the year 1030, with his earliest known ancestors the Pigot family of Yorkshire. In 1398 Thomas Pigot was confirmed as abbot of St Mary’s Abbey, York (in the city’s Museum Gardens), and the Pigot family shield can still be seen today throughout Ripon Cathedral.
Given the rich historical ties to England, Yorkshire and the reference to a barrel-maker, coupled with my great-great-grandfathers approach to life, the Cooper King name fitted perfectly with our family venture.
Your still is coming all the way from Australia - what is special about it, and why did you decide to import it from such a long way away?
Our whisky still is a 900 litre copper pot-still made by the laid-back and talented still-maker Peter Bailly, based in Tasmania’s capital, Hobart. The shape of the still, and the way in which it heats its liquid charge, influences the final character of the spirit. After tasting whiskies produced from Peter’s stills (Redlands, Overeem, and Lark Distilleries), and visiting Peter’s workshop, we knew we wanted one of his stills. His designs are unique, and the external electrical heating element an innovative approach we’d not seen before.
For us our still choice was about character of spirit. It also felt right to source our still from a Tassie craftsman, as a reminder of where the story began. It just so happens that our still will be the only one of its kind in the UK.
You're one of a raft of new distilleries across England. What are your thoughts on the current distilling renaissance and the rapid expansion of whisky production across Great Britain as a whole?
This is an exciting time to become a part of the English whisky story. There are currently 14 whisky distilleries in England at various stages of development, and over the next five to ten years we’ll see a wide array of English single malt and single grain whiskies coming of age. We produced an English whisky map which can be seen here: http://www.cooperkingdistillery.co.uk/blog/the-english-whisky-map
The future of English whisky holds incredible promise. We are not bound by the Scotch Whisky Regulations, nor tradition. We have the freedom to experiment and to break away from the Scottish in this regard. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Scotch in all its incarnations, but its success and wide reach has led to expectations from the market, making it hard to break from said tradition. As yet, there are no expectations for English whisky.
At the last count there are 20 new distilleries due to open in Scotland in the next 2-3 years. This potential glut of Scotch entering the market in the not-too-distant future may threaten the success of our emerging whisky distilleries here in England. However, with our spirit ageing in smaller casks with a quicker turnaround and smaller stock reserves, we can easily adapt to changing market trends, diversifying and exploring new grain varieties, wood types and finishes, to meet the demands of the whisky drinker.
England has the potential to carve a name for itself as a world-class producer of distinctive whisky. It’s a pleasure to be a part of this movement.
You first batches of gin are produced using cold-vacuum distillation - can you tell us about that process and how it'll affect the character of your upcoming releases?
Cold vacuum distillation is a technique which allows us to distil our delicate botanicals without excessive heat using equipment usually found in a laboratory, not a distillery. The result is a distillate with amazingly fresh aromas. The harder, more robust botanicals will be distilled in a tiny 10 litre copper-pot still, as this traditional method is better suited to extracting their flavours. We are the first distillery in Yorkshire to combine these two approaches to make gin.
Finally, we’ll marry our own rich Yorkshire malt spirit with the distillates from our vacuum and copper-pot gin stills to create a unique gin with a character unlike any other out there. Our gin will be juniper-led as all gin should be, and beautifully balanced with botanicals foraged from our own site. We have an abundance to choose from, including fresh lemon grass, green gooseberry, apple blossom and warming chamomile, not to mention our own honey.
Our whole operation here is powered by 100% green energy, making us one of only a handful of distilleries in the world to run on renewable power. Production of gin starts this winter, with our first-release bottles going to members of our Founders’ Club.
Your first batch of whisky will be matured in both wine and ex-bourbon casks - why the combination?
We’ll be maturing in a range of carefully selected casks coopered by the last master cooper in the country, Alastair Simms. We have sourced wine and bourbon casks, and have a few partnerships up our sleeves too. We’re aiming for a rich, robust and fruity spirit with tons of character. We’ve just secured our potential cask #001, and it’s an absolute gem, though we will have to keep its origin under wraps for now I’m afraid! Again, all bottles from our first cask are reserved for our Founders’ Club members.
How is the development of Cooper King being funded?
To date we’ve funded this venture through a combination of our life savings, EU grants in recognition of our innovative approach to distilling, equity investment, and a start-up business loan. Our crowdfunding campaign, The Founders’ Club, will provide the final funds to kickstart the distillery into production. We’ve worked hard to put together 4 great lifetime membership options, from £30 upwards, with rewards for both whisky and gin drinkers alike.
Our Founders’ not only become part of the Cooper King story, but get their hands on whisky from our first ever cask (including bottle #1) along with first-release gin, and a whole host of pretty special rewards. We’ve had a great response from the public and the press, with Founders signing up from all over the world. At the moment it looks like we will sell out by Christmas. You can read more about the Founders Club here: http://www.cooperkingdistillery.co.uk/founders-club/
Do you have any spirit drinking/whisky drinking moments which will stick with you forever?
I will never forget cracking open a bottle of Overeem’s port cask whisky whilst sitting in sleeping bags in the back of the estate car in which we were living while backpacking in Tassie! It was a gift from a friend and an absolute treat of a whisky. It had intense Christmas pudding flavours and was a complete luxury; it was such a contrast against our otherwise frugal life as backpackers and farm labourers! My girlfriend Abbie (now fiancée and business partner) were blown away. It opened our eyes to just what an incredible spirit whisky is, and got us thinking about opening our own distillery back home in Yorkshire.
If you could only take one bottle of whisky to a desert island, which would it be?
I was lucky enough to have tried Karuizawa’s single cask 15 year old Noh Whisky a few months back. I currently can’t summon the words to truly do it justice. This bottle would come with me to the island, and I’d spend my time trying to express just how delicious a whisky it is.
You can find out more about Cooper King at their website: http://www.cooperkingdistillery.co.uk/
With thanks to Chris, Abbie and MacComms (Yorkshire).