The Cotswolds is a scenic grassland region in southern central England, and Cotswolds Distillery is in the north-east of the region near the town of Stourton, around two hours drive north-west of London. The distillery was established in 2013 by former banker Daniel Szor, who decided that he'd had enough of finance and wanted to produce something more physical. While staying in the area he noticed that there was an abundance of good quality barley in the region, which when combined with the scenery and a couple of attractive but run-down vacant stone buildings gave Szor the idea to start a distillery. He also enlisted the help of former-Bowmore manager Harry Cockburn and the late Dr. Jim Swan, who was also instrumental in the development of Kavalan Distillery in Taiwan and Penderyn Distillery in Wales, among others.
Like many young distilleries Cotswolds also produces gin and a few other products, but in late 2017 they released their first single malt whisky, preceded by a few small releases of "in progress" bottlings. The inaugural release of 4000 bottles was well received, with a couple of subsequent batches released since. So far all bottlings have followed a similar recipe, and that recipe is quite a different one. There certainly seem to be shadows of Springbank and Bruichladdich in the distillery mindset, who are keeping things as local as possible. The barley is sourced from local farms and is malted by nearby Warminster Maltings, which interestingly only uses traditional floor malting methods, rather than the modern and more efficient drum or Saladin box methods used by most commercial maltings facilities. So far all batches have been distilled from Odyssey barley, which tends to be favoured more by brewers than distillers (who mostly use Optic or Concerto). You'll find the name of the farm responsible for the barley printed on the whisky's label and packaging, which is a very nice touch.
Once at the distillery the malted barley is milled, mashed and fermented for over 90 hours in eight small steel washbacks. That 90 hour fermentation is considerably longer than most, and is thought to be crucial to the light, sweet, fruity flavour of the wash. That wash is then double-distilled in a pair of small copper pot stills that were built & installed by famous Scottish coppersmiths Forysth's, with downward-angled lyne arms, and the spirit cuts are quite narrow to help achieve the desired light & fruity character. Once distilled the new make is filled into a variety of casks, mostly first-fill ex-bourbon barrels and shaved, toasted & re-charred (STR) red wine barriques (hogsheads). That STR process is essentially another term for rejuvenated, but rather than being used on tired old casks to squeeze more life out of them, in this case it's first-fill casks that are undergoing the procedure. This maturation technique was a favourite of the late Dr. Swan, who also put this into practice at Kavalan Distillery, and it seems to give a lot of cask influence quite quickly, and also change the character of that influence. There is one 200-cask warehouse on site at the distillery, while the majority of casks are matured in a commercial storage facility in Liverpool in England's north-west. All single malts are bottled at 46% ABV and are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, plus the filters used for the barrier filtration are unusually coarse to preserve more of the natural texture. The bottlings don't carry an exact age statement, but all so far have been between three (the minimum age) and four years old.
On that note, I've noticed something a bit concerning lately that I'd like to address, which is people (including some inside the industry) referring to non-age statement (NAS) whiskies as simply "non-aged". While I'm sure this is just a shortening for convenience's sake, it's inevitable that some whisky novices, and basically anyone not familiar with the three year (or less, depending on the country) minimum maturation period, are going to assume that to mean that those whiskies haven't been aged at all. And I've already witnessed this happening. There's enough confusion and misinformation in the whisky world already, so let's try to stop this one before it gets too far!
Getting back on track, the Cotswolds Single Malt bottling we're looking at today is from Batch 01/2018, but it's still only three years of age, and was distilled from Odyssey barley grown on Barrington Park farm in the Cotswolds. It was matured in 30% first-fill ex-bourbon barrels and 70% shaved, toasted & re-charred (see above) red wine hogsheads. Like all releases it was bottled at 46%, without chill filtration or added colouring. Batch 01/2018 consisted of 7,150 bottles, which I believe is the largest batch to date, but it's still small by most distilleries' standards. The bottle for this review was generously supplied by Cotswolds Distillery's national brand ambassador for Australia, Steve Magarry. So let's see how it goes!
Cotswolds Single Malt, NAS, 46%. Stourton, England.
Batch 01/2018 (not pictured), Odyssey barley, 7150 bottles. Approx. 3 years of age, matured in 30% ex-bourbon barrels & 70% shaved, toasted & re-charred red wine hogsheads. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.
Nose: Soft for such a young whisky, with a little vanilla, a little minerality, dusty honeyed malt and some wine tannins. Some fresh ginger, spiced pears, black pepper and caramelised oak.
Texture: Light-medium weight, lightly oily. A little heat, but not too much for the age and strength.
Taste: Big spicy and lightly bitter tannins, both oak & wine tannins. A little dry honey, more dusty malt, and a little creamy vanilla. More fresh ginger & black pepper as well, and a hint of bitter orange peel.
Finish: Short. More caramelised oak & more of those tannins. Light spent coffee grounds, a pinch of cinnamon & hint of aniseed. Then the fruit returns with honeyed pears behind some bitter dark chocolate.
Score: 3 out of 5.
Notes: For what is essentially a work-in-progress bottling, there's more character here than plenty of older whiskies can offer. It's also an impressively drinkable whisky for just 3 years of age, with plenty of flavours to find inside without anything too outlandish or overwhelming. To be honest, I'm not sure if I like the assertive tannins that are presumably coming from those shaved, toasted & re-charred red wine barrels. But they're not quite the heavy, bitter tannins that I find in heavy red wines, they're rather more a combination of lighter wine tannins & oak tannins, which I'd say is a result of the re-charring. I've experienced these STR barrels before, in Kavalan whisky, but those tannins were quite different to these tannins, and obviously they're very different whiskies. Although I'm not a red wine fan by any stretch of the imagination, so if you are then it's probably best to take all that with a grain of salt.
That said, I do like the rest of this whisky. The finish is a little short and perhaps a little light, but again for a 3-year old un-peated whisky that's nothing surprising and can't really be considered a negative. This Cotswolds single malt certainly is different to the norm, which is always refreshing, and I can't wait to see what the distillery comes up with in the future. They clearly know what they're doing, and they're also doing things differently to most, which should be commended. Stock of this bottling is finally expected to arrive in Australia in May after a very long wait, and it sounds like it will be reasonably priced and quite widely available. The anticipation is high for this one, and it's well worth tracking down a dram.
Thanks to Steve for the sample bottle, much appreciated mate. It will be shared & enjoyed!