The Cotswold Distillery sits on a bucolic plot of land in Stourton, a village with a town hall, a few pubs, some modest accommodations, and a pottery store with vessels taller than eye-level arranged in an outdoor garden. It’s located in an Area of Natural Beauty, a governmental designation. Seriously. Stourton is a 40-minute train ride to London, but you’d hardly know it. The distillery buys its lavender from a family-owned farm nearby and a short drive away is the Broadway Tower, built in 1799 and later served as a lookout point for the RAF.
Isolated and modest though it may be, the distillery, founded in 2014 by Dan Szor, a former finance executive and New York expat, is turning heads in a big way. That impact was brought into focus in late June when distillers, blenders, owners, distributors, and an assortment of people whose businesses the whisky industry depends on (barrel makers, for instance), gathered here for the second World Whisky Forum, themed “World Whisky 20:20.” The nearly 70 attendees represented 14 countries and, though each distillery’s approach to its own businesses differed, their ultimate goal was the same: produce excellent whisky.
During the course of two days packed with presentations, panel discussions moderated by Dave Broom, and plenty of schmoozing, ideas were swapped, connections were made and, yes, spirits were tasted. You might call it a meeting of the minds. You might call it a town hall: a place for the community to ask questions, air grievances and solve problems. The optimal word here: community.
Ian Palmer, managing director of InchDairnie distillery in the Lowlands, kicked off the sessions taking up a strong position.
“Without taking a new view of the whisky world, we don’t have a business. You need to punch above your weight. You can’t do that in a crowded place. Our place can only be defined by our own whisky,” he said. “Working within the definition takes imagination, challenge everyone and everything. Working within a definition takes effort, time and a healthy hatred of dogma. You have to ask why?”
While hewing to the legal definition, he looks outside the country; outside the industry, even, for inspiration. As a result, InchDairnie, is making rye whisky and they are using seven different types of yeast, with two more strains coming this year.
But while distillers like Palmer are looking outside, Kalle Valkonen, distiller at Kyro distillery in Helsinki, is looking inwards. “We want to make whisky that couldn’t be more Finnish. It had to be 100 per cent rye,” he explained, noting that the grain was introduced to Finland in 500 BC and its popularity never flagged.
“If it could survive in Finland, it could survive anywhere.” But they’re also looking to source rye from elsewhere in Europe, as each one has its own distinct flavor. He and Kyro’s CEO, Miika Lipiäinen are hard at work to create an official Nordic rye designation.
But going off the rails has to be very expertly engineered. Transparency is supreme. The truth cannot be finessed. Trying to sell a fiction is simply a recipe for disaster.
“There are too many gimmicks going on. When people try to weave something like (an embellished backstory) into their brand story, it devalues it,” said Nick Franchino, head distiller at the Cotswolds. “If you only have one layer and someone scratches below it, you’re in trouble. You don’t have a coherent brand.”
Simon Coughlin, a founder of the cultishly popular Bruichladdich on Islay and chief executive officer of International single malt whisk(e)y for parent company Remy Cointreau, echoed that sentiment. Twenty years ago, he said, the industry was very risk-averse, and that, he said, was boring.
“You’ve got to be entrepreneurial in this business or you’ll never get through,” he declared.
The first few years were about survival, just getting through
He recounted how the brand’s experimental culture got them into trouble at first. Retailers didn’t know what to do with all the expressions and they also encountered resistance from the Scotch Whisky Association along the way. But they stuck it out because their diverse releases were diverse for a reason, for a philosophy. Their aim, to explore the effects of different factors on spirit, from aging techniques to peat levels to barley sources, now defines their brand.
Experimentation is a touchstone to distillers large and small. Lisa Wicker, a wine industry expat, former distiller with Limestone Branch Distillers in Kentucky and longtime consultant who’s now director of distilling and product development at Samson & Surrey, has worked extensively with heirloom corn.
A few years ago, it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. Today, everyone wants a piece of it. The issue, however, is a matter of access. It’s a catch-22: Farmers need to prove the worth of the crop before they can insure it and grow it in bulk, but they also must get it into enough producers’ hands so they can evaluate its worth. “The conversations are happening. The big guys are all interested,” she told me “We all saw what happened with craft brewers. They created new products, and suddenly they took a big share while colossal producers looked on from the sidelines. Everyone learned from that.”
Inevitably, debate flared around the word 'craft'. The topic ignites such fervor in people that I include it on the list of ‘Things Not To Discuss in Bars’: religion, politics, and the meaning of craft.
The Cotswolds’ Franchino said he prefers the term “wee distillery.” To him it’s a matter of production volume. Colin Spoelman, co-founder and head distiller at Brooklyn’s Kings County Distillery, similarly prefers ‘small distillery.’ He sees the issue as a matter of chemical profile: small producers’ spirits tend to be more ‘natural,’ he said, and have fewer cogeners at the beginning. Spoelman, whose talk virtually chronicled the rise of American small distilleries from 13 in 1980s to more than 2,000 today.
Franchino and Spoelman’s sentiments, however, were tossed out the proverbial window when Brian Nation, master distiller at Irish Distillers’ Midleton, which makes Jameson, stood up to speak. Yes, they’ve just installed an 80,000-litre pot still at the historic distillery, a magnitude that gobsmacked almost everyone in the audience, and they sold 6.5 million cases in 2017 and they’re projecting 12 million by 2020. But to say all that negates any ‘craft’ aspect to the brand would be folly.
In the throes of the present Irish whiskey renaissance, innovation keeps brands like Jameson, Powers, and the rest under Irish Distillers’ umbrella fresh and relevant.
Their size gives them access and resources to experiment in ways that small distilleries cannot
The audience appeared most gripped whenever a speaker delved into science. Dr. Don Livermore, master blender at Pernod Ricard’s Hiram Walker & Sons in Ontario, Canada, delivered an engrossing talk explaining how he developed an elaborate flavour wheel that links different compounds to specific flavours and aromas in aged whisky. He packed it with engaging explanations and analogies to clarify molecular complexities. Lignin, ‘the world’s most underappreciated molecule,’ for instance, is the cement that holds brick-like cellulose molecules together. He spoke of fermentation as the “heartbeat of production,” and gave yeast the praise it’s due. Fermentation is hardly addressed as regularly as, say, maturation, but Livermore drives home its enormous significance, declaring that distillers are brewers first.
Ian Chang, master blender at Kavalan in Taiwan, explained unique subtropical weather has a sandpaper-like effect on the whisky, but temperatures swing below 10 degrees Celsius thanks to the Siberian winds. The flux is a boon to the warehouses’ angels. His current challenge is to cut the angels’ share from the present 10 per cent rate to eight per cent, an undertaking he dubs Angels’ Share Reduction Operation.
“Heat becomes an advantage when it comes to maturation, especially with extraction,” he explained. “If you lower the temperature, you lower the angels’ share, but maturation time will be longer,” he explained.
Easily the most dynamic of all, Jota Tanaka, master blender at Kirin Brewery Company’s Fuji Gotemba Distillery, set heads spinning with a series of complex charts and graphs that illustrated granular details about age, filling strength, and flavour elements, all of which helps make predictions. The many aging factors were broken down to such micro points that it started to look like precision engineering, and, at least for this left-brain reporter, that level of nano-assessment slips into a theoretical — if not existential — realm. Tanaka summed up by blending the science and whimsy when he declared: “Age is just a number, maturation is to capture.” For now, all anyone can do is make a whisky that best suits them, a sentiment expressed by InchDrairie’s Palmer. “Dogma is only problematic if it’s someone else’s,” he declared. “Your dogma isn’t dogma. It’s the truth.”
Day two panel