Picture the scene – in a rural location some 10 miles north of York, nestled on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, a new distillery is born. The brainchild of Dr Abbie Neilson and Christopher Jaume – a biomedical scientist and chartered architect, respectively – Cooper King Distillery promises single malt whisky with a difference. Hospitality F&B’s Paul Farley discovers how the couple plan to fuse Tasmanian expertise with modern crowdfunding techniques to create a rich, fruity and authentic English whisky …

Ideas can strike in the strangest of places. Archimedes’ bathwater overflows, Newton is struck by a falling apple, and Fleming finds a dirty dish in his laboratory – whatever the truth to these tales, there’s something to be said for the creative potential of a mind unclouded by the mundane.

Not unlike Newton, orchards figure in Chris and Abbie’s eureka moment. Tired of academia, the pair, down under in search of adventure, found their calling whilst apple picking in Tasmania.

The demand for clean, original craft spirits with demonstrable provenance is a governing trend in today’s F&B environment. Inspired by Tasmanian distillers, Chris and Abbie formulated a concrete business plan to put English whisky firmly on the map.

Despite all the enthusiasm and expertise they could bring to the project, one element remains out of reach. With start-up costs totalling around £350,000, the couple have taken to social media to promote their Founders’ Club, a crowd-sourcing platform belonging to the couple which offers investors various reward tiers.

Hospitality F&B caught up with Abbie and Chris to hear their story as they were preparing to launch the club back in May, and looking to make gin this winter and lay the first casks next spring ...

How did a holiday in Australia become a business plan for a distillery?
Abbie: 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 January 2014.

Chris: While apple-picking for income in the beautiful state of Tasmania, we were lucky enough to be invited to visit all eight operational whisky distilleries at the time (we were carrying out research for a whisky blog for friends back home).

What we saw blew us away – people with little or no industry experience but lots of passion, making it by hand in tiny distilleries. And crikey, it was good stuff! This small but growing industry was convincing the nation to swap mass-produced cheap spirit for hand-crafted premium whiskies. The ingenuity and have-a-go attitude of the Tasmanian distillers was contagious. Perhaps the same could be achieved in England?

Abbie: Two years, several countries and many, many whiskies later, that idea had snowballed into a solid business plan. In January 2016, we returned to the UK, hitting the ground running to establish a truly independent whisky distillery right here in Blighty. We hope to lay down our first cask in the summer of 2017.

What were the most important elements to put across?
Abbie: The key was to focus on the quality of the spirit, not the quantity. For us, this meant keeping our production volumes very small – we initially aim to produce around 2500l of spirit a year. Our copper pot still is only 900l capacity, which is tiny compared to the large distilleries in Scotland, some of which produce over 1,000,000l a year. Not forced to produce and supply on a mass scale means we can focus on sourcing premium barley and the very best casks for ageing our whisky. This also allows us the freedom to produce one-off, experimental batches.

Chris: Our production process is very hands-on, so it was important for the distillery to be open to the public to allow people to see this first-hand and to learn about whisky – even to get involved themselves. We plan on running tours as well as hosting events in our tasting room, complete with log fire and a selection of world whiskies for all to try.

What did you learn from those early distillery visits?
Chris: We expected to find intense competition between the distilleries we visited, but were surprised to discover strong camaraderie instead. There were exceptions, of course, but most worked together to support and promote each other, and the upshot of this is that Tasmania is now highly regarded on the global whisky market.
If a similar collaborative approach can be adopted here in England, we can all work together to produce exceptional spirit, raising the profile of English whisky to put us firmly on the map as a New World whisky producer.   

Abbie: We also learnt the importance of provenance. People want a genuine story to get behind, and being able to visit the distillery, meet the makers, see the casks maturing and taste the whisky in the place where it’s made makes that bottle so much more than just a well-designed label.

What were the biggest challenges, and how have you overcome them?
Abbie: There have been many! To make whisky you need a licence to distil from HMRC. This is made very difficult by the fact that they won’t grant a licence unless they inspect the premises and equipment. Yet we couldn’t commit to such a huge initial outlay without the guarantee that they would grant us a licence at the end of it!

It’s a daft chicken-and-egg situation. This meant that even before we had any equipment, we needed to outline every minute detail of our intended process – from how much we were going to make and where it would be stored, to who our suppliers were and why we were setting up the business.
It was like writing another thesis. Fortunately, we’ve had a very positive experience with HMRC so far and have been given the thumbs up to continue as planned.

Chris: One of the biggest challenges is that we’re doing it all ourselves. We’re certainly not wealthy and we don’t have a big bank loan to throw at the project. We’re learning as we go. The complexity of the distillery design has also been testing – it is unlike any project I have worked on before.

We are getting there, though – planning permission and building regulations approval have both now been granted, meaning all that is left to do is to raise the required funds to get the building off the ground.

Abbie: The most amusing challenge so far has been convincing people that we were serious about starting a single malt whisky distillery. We were met with blank faces or incredulous laughter in the early days – people thought we were making it up. My parents thought we were joking for a long time.

Who did you turn to for support?
Chris: We received a lot of guidance from Bill Lark – the founder of Lark Distillery, who’s heralded as the godfather of Tasmanian whisky – during a week-long intense distilling course at Redlands Estate Distillery whilst we were in Australia. He helped us shape our business model and gave us some sterling advice.

We’ve had ongoing technical distillation advice and encouragement from Dean Jackson, the head distiller at Redlands, and some great ideas from a couple of friendly distillers we met in Austria. All the distillers we’ve met so far have been a nice bunch!

Abbie: For the business side of things, local business support groups have been valuable, linking us with the best accountants and solicitors and helping us find funding through regional and national grants.

There’s lots of financial support available to businesses starting up, especially in rural locations. We were lucky enough to benefit from a European Regional Development Fund grant that enabled us to work with the Biorenewables Development Centre to explore sustainable end-routes for our distillery waste.

Chris: We also received a grant from The Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust to plant over 400 trees in a new native woodland and orchard to support the diverse wildlife at the distillery, and to provide fruit for our seasonal products. So, it’s worth businesses exploring how they can improve their green credentials through grants and other support.

Abbie: In addition to the Tassie guidance, we’ve taken on the expertise of a local brewery consultant who’s helped establish over 170 breweries across Yorkshire and beyond. He’s very well connected and has helped us source equipment for the brewing side of things. We’re also partnering with like-minded companies for a number of our other products, the details of which we’re keeping close to our chest for now!

Chris: We’re funding the project through our own life savings, a small start-up loan, equity investment, and, finally, the public, via our private crowdfunding campaign – the Founders’ Club. We didn’t like the idea of borrowing a huge sum from the bank and instead wanted to raise the bulk of our capital through family, friends and the public.

We wanted to give people the opportunity to get behind something a bit special, shun mass-produced bland spirit and be a part of the English craft whisky movement. Not being tied to one investor/funder allows us to be truly independent.

Please outline your whisky-making process, and explain how it differs from the norm …
Chris: The first half of the whisky-making process is similar to that of beer production, and uses the same three basic ingredients – malted barley, yeast and water. Locally-grown Yorkshire barley will be malted (germinated then kiln-dried) using traditional techniques at Britain’s oldest working maltings, Warminster Maltings. Their slow and labour-intensive floor-malting process gives a superior malt character.

Abbie: All their barley is fully traceable back to the farm of origin too, which is important to us. We take the milled malted barley and add hot water to produce a mash, which is akin to porridge. The hot water extracts the sugars from the grain, giving a clear sugary liquid called wort, to which yeast is added.

We ferment this for considerably longer than the norm to produce an alcoholic liquid called wash, which is then batch-distilled in our 900l copper pot still. Ours has been custom-made in Tasmania to our specification, and is the only one of its kind in the UK.

During distillation, the flavour and alcohol evaporate off and condense to a colourless malt spirit called new-make. This is filled into oak casks to mature in our on-site maturation warehouse for a minimum of three years, after which point it can legally be called whisky. The cask imparts most of the flavour to the whisky and all its colour.

Being able to mature 100% of your own whisky on-site is pretty rare these days – it is often sent off to large centralised maturation warehouses.

Chris: We’re maturing in small 100l casks. Although these are more expensive than the large ones used by high-output distilleries, the higher wood-to-liquid ratio means our whisky will be fully mature in three to five years and full of rich, fruity flavour. We’re lucky enough to be 20 miles away from the only master cooper in England, Alistair Simms of White Rose Cooperage, who will cooper the casks to our required size.

Abbie: Many large distilleries carry out chill-filtration of the whisky, an industrial process that removes certain esters in whisky before bottling, that may otherwise cause the whisky to go cloudy if bottled below 46%. Unfortunately that process removes some flavour, and colour too. Caramel colouring is then added to enhance the appearance, and the flavour component is lost for good!

Chris: Our whiskies will be non-chill filtered single cask expressions, bottled above 46%, with no caramel colouring. They’ll retain all their natural complex malty character, texture and colour, developed through the production process and many years of maturation.

Abbie: Water needs a mention here. People are often surprised to hear we’ll be using filtered mains water to make our whisky. Although a natural spring source is a useful asset to distilleries in remote locations, it is certainly not essential for creating excellent spirit (despite the best marketing efforts by the bigger distilleries). Some of the world’s best whiskies are made using mains water (Sullivan’s Cove is a good example).

Chris: In summary, for our single malt whisky, we’re after a flavour profile that will offer rich stewed fruits, Christmas pudding and soft oak tannins.

How close is the project to fruition, and what is the long-term plan?
Chris: Due to winter the major build work has been delayed, but once spring is here we’ll start up again, get the building completed and the equipment installed. The winter period gives us valuable time to seek out private investors and promote our public Founders’ Club. If all goes well, we should be ready to start making gin this winter and laying down casks next spring.

We’ll target the regional market first as the demand for authentic, local produce is growing, especially in the craft-spirit sector. We’ll sell our gin and other spirits direct through the distillery via our on-site and online shops, as well as through speciality distributors and spirit retailers. We have already had interest from a national retailer. This will help establish the brand in the run-up to the whisky hitting the shelves.

How are perceptions of whisky drinking changing?
Abbie: Whisky is for everyone to enjoy, yet there’s a certain mysticism surrounding it, with the often-associated image of bearded middle-aged men in leather armchairs putting some people off. Many brands are still pushing this image, and they have a very loyal following, but thankfully there’s been a huge shift in recent years and now many more women and younger people are enjoying a decent dram.

Chris: This is partly due to brands like Bruichladdich who have adopted more modern and bold branding. Our approach to whisky is very much no-nonsense, open and honest – we want to appeal to drinkers who are just getting into whisky as well as those who are avid fans. This will be a tough challenge, but an exciting one.

Today, provenance, authenticity and sustainability are top of many people’s agenda when buying, so it’s important that we can talk about these things frankly. So many products these days are mass-produced with unfathomable and untraceable ingredients.

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of this and asking questions about where their stuff comes from, how it’s made and why it tastes the way it does. This is great if you’re a genuine craft producer who’s not prepared to take shortcuts – you can sing the answers to these questions truthfully and provide the information your customers want.

Finally, can you describe a couple of the most memorable moments in the process?
Abbie: We had to seek permission from the Cabinet Office to use the word ‘King’ in our company name. Fortunately, Chris’ great-great-grandfather, Charles Cooper King, had traced his ancestors back to 1030 in two stunningly handwritten volumes of the family history. These provided excellent proof that we had a genuine claim to the name, and the office granted us permission to use it.

We may well use motifs from these volumes in our branding, which is currently in development. The look of the website, business cards, etc, will be intentionally understated.

Chris: Our most memorable whisky-drinking experience was when we were poor backpackers working as fruit pickers on an apple orchard in Tasmania. We couldn’t afford the local accommodation, so we slept in the back of our clapped-out old estate car in a lay-by for many weeks.

It was -2°C one evening so we cracked open the £150 bottle of Overeem Port Finish that was gifted to us from one of the distillery visits. It was the best whisky we’d tasted at the time, and the memory of us drinking such amazing whisky after our dinner of tinned veg and Cup-a-Soup is still very amusing!

Cooper King Distillery aims to raise its start-up costs through the Founders’ Club. Anyone interested in becoming a founder member should head here for details, or follow the couple’s journey on social media via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.