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HomeEVERYDAY ETIQUETTEAn Interview with Dan Szor, Founder and CEO at Cotswolds Distillery

An Interview with Dan Szor, Founder and CEO at Cotswolds Distillery

 

We were delighted to visit Cotswolds Distillery earlier in the year to see how it produces its award-wining whisky and gin, and to meet its founder and CEO Daniel Szor. We sat down with Dan to find out what inspired him to leave the world of finance and set up his own distillery, gaining a fascinating insight into the practicalities, collaboration and hard work behind the initial ‘crazy idea’ that was sparked by the sight of a field of barley outside Dan’s Cotswolds farmhouse window. 

(Please note the interview and tour took place prior to current restrictions)

What first inspired you to set up the distillery?

I first discovered a love for Scotch whisky – particularly single malt – when I was living in France. Then on my travels in Scotland, visiting distilleries recreationally, one caught my attention, a distillery on the Hebridean island Islay called Bruichladdich. It was one of the few distilleries that was independent and the principle reopener was a wine merchant, so had a heightened appreciation for its sense of place.

Their head of production Jim McEwan managed to convince me to buy a barrel of whisky, which is like suddenly having your own football team – you’re then invested in the distillery. I was impressed by their marketing approach, which was imbued with this sense of romance and sense of place, as well as an emphasis on using local barley, which very few distilleries were doing at that point. Bruichladdich were bringing barley farming back to a place where it hadn’t been for years.

I looked out on a field of spring barley and wondered why, with barley growing all over the Cotswolds, no one had ever made any whisky from it.

This was all still in my mind when 10 years later I found myself living in a newly purchased farmhouse in the Cotswolds. I looked out on a field of spring barley and wondered why, with barley growing all over the Cotswolds, no one had ever made any whisky from it.

I managed to put it out of my mind for about four or five months and then in the spring of 2013 I was at a whisky fair in New York and first became aware of craft distilling as a concept. I realised that the Cotswolds was the perfect place to do this, not only because of the romance and the availability of the agricultural product but also because of the tourism – 32 million people come here each year.

The visitor centre with distillery mascot, Phaust.

Dan Szor walks Debrett’s head of sales Olly Walker through the production process.

The distillery produces gin as well as whisky. What has it been like to be involved in the reincarnation of gin as a popular and fashionable drink? 

I certainly used to think of gin in terms of the slightly sad G&T you get during the interval at the theatre – with a solitary ice cube and a slice of lemon. One of the big trailblazers was Sipsmith, who gave gin this fun character and freed up some of the laws around small-scale distilling, which paved the way for a whole new generation of smaller stills.

How has the coronavirus crisis impacted Cotswolds Distillery?

One of the benefits of being a small company and a start-up is that we are always adapting. To be small is to be nimble and flexible, and every day there’s some new challenge or something new to get used to. This situation has been a little bit more extreme, particularly because we are so attached to our physical contact with consumers – not only here but in our two additional shops in the Cotswolds.

Thankfully for us we were not quite so dependent on pubs and bars and already quite focused on a direct interface with consumers, either through e-commerce or through our shops. I like to joke that alcohol tends to find its own level – if you can’t drink a cocktail in a bar you’ll make it at home instead – so e-commerce and supermarket sales have come up, and those two channels have more than replaced what we’ve lost in the on-trade.

During lockdown, only our production area – the distillers and bottlers – at the distillery were still going, and other staff had to be furloughed or work remotely.

What does the ‘new normal’ mean for the drinks trade?

Particularly here in the UK, the pub has an important social role – it’s more than just somewhere to get some booze – and coming from France, that was something I really loved– that idea of a pub being the hub of a community. I also love having unfettered contact with end consumers. Currently we have to work through intermediaries so we’re focusing on getting our message out – whether through virtual tastings on Zoom or through grocers, because they’re the ones having the most contact with consumers.

Coming from France, that was something I really loved– that idea of a pub being the hub of a community

Wash still Mary (after Proud Mary) and spirit still Janis (after Janis Joplin)

The cask that started it all – the distillery’s first batch of single malt from 2014.

How has your background in finance helped you in this venture?

Probably through a lack of fear of big numbers! The numbers here got bigger much more quickly than I ever expected – it took on dimensions that I had never planned, largely because of the success of the gin. Because whisky takes a minimum of three years to age, we didn’t really expect to have much to sell prior to that, but with the gin we had our first listing, which was at Fortnum and Mason, one week after it came off the stills. That was followed by Harvey Nichols and then Majestic, and it all got us launched much more quickly and prompted us to double down – we needed a bigger still, a bottling hall, a visitor centre, a bigger team – so all of a sudden we found ourselves dealing with bigger numbers.

Luckily we were quite successful in our funding through local and private investment as well as a couple of crowd rounds, so we have a number of small investors who are really passionate about the brand. My previous job was essentially fundraising so I was back out there with my cap in hand.

Have you ever been involved in the production side of the business?

I took my place behind the desk pretty quickly because somebody had to go out and raise the money. I met our head distiller on a five-day ‘Fundamentals of Distilling’ course in Scotland when neither of us knew any more than the other. He has now just finished a dissertation and will probably be England’s first Master Distiller certified by the Institute of Brewing and Distilling – whereas I still know no more than I did after the course!

How did you manage to balance the sudden level of demand with the craft required to produce your whisky and gin?

I’d never been a manufacturer – I didn’t realise how much stuff, and how much room was involved in manufacturing. We didn’t have enough space to put everything: our bottling was done in a little cubby hole under the stairs in the distillery. I thought we’d be bottling a few bottles of gin once a month, but we were bottling gin five days a week, eight hours a day.

Our bottling was done in a little cubby hole under the stairs in the distillery

With the whisky launch looming, we had the challenge of bottling both whisky and gin, so that was what led to us building the bottling hall. It was a question of focusing on capacity and volume.

Craft doesn’t always mean small – it’s about attention to detail and quality of produce.

At any point in your career did you have a mentor who inspired you to achieve your goals?

Jim McEwan, the head of production at Bruichladdich who sold me that barrel, was the only guy I knew in the business. I was on one of my yearly pilgrimages to Islay and I asked to see him, and at that point Bruichladdich had just been acquired by Remy Cointreau for a lot of money, so Jim was a kind of rock star. Not expecting him to remember me, I asked to be shown to his office and told him about my crazy idea to build a distillery in the Cotswolds.

Jim, being the romantic that he was, told me I had to do it. He not only encouraged me but also put me in touch with his old boss at one of Scotland’s best distilleries, Bowmore, Harry Cockburn. Harry was the other mentor who helped us build the distillery and his name is printed on the barrels of our first ever batch.

Have you always had entrepreneurial aspirations?

There was always an entrepreneurial voice in my head – my dad set up and ran his own business, and the company I worked for in my 20s was in effect a start-up, but it was always the form rather than the function that attracted me to it. So when that ended I didn’t just want to stay in the city and go to the next hedge fund down the street and ask to be their sales guy. My interests had always lain in food and drink and travel – more sensual interests. Whether this was fate or karma, I don’t know.

What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

I’d like to say what I say to my own 20-something kids, which is be happy and follow your dreams, but I’ve realised that’s sometimes easier said than done. My father was a post-war immigrant to the States who had a hard life and didn’t see the world as being his oyster – it was a tough place and you needed a profession, a trade. I’m not like that at all, and I just want my kids to be happy, but sometimes it takes years to figure that out and I don’t know if I’d have had the means and the experience or even the guts at 20 to do what I’m doing now.

I live this 24-7 – I never stop living it. And it’s my life savings, so failure is not an option

I think there’s something to be said for what the New York Times called senior entrepreneurs – guys who are having their second midlife crisis (after the Porsche!) Some people do ask me if this is a hobby, and I have to say I’m working harder at this than I ever did at the hedge fund. I live this 24-7 – I never stop living it, and with 1500 investors you feel very responsible. And it’s my life savings, so failure is not an option.

Do you see yourself as a whisky traditionalist? Or more of a disruptor?

I think by its nature the whisky we are making is somewhat disruptive, while also being as traditional as it gets, because we’re returning to the way whisky was made before distilleries were bought up by big conglomerates and forced to become global luxury brands. Distilleries were originally what you did with your excess crop that you couldn’t sell – you’d brew it and turn it into beer and then distil that – so in a way we’ve returned to that tradition.

It’s disruptive in that it’s not Scotch whisky! But then you look at somewhere like Japan, which has been making whisky for the last 100 years, and now that’s happening in places like Scandinavia, Taiwan and Australia. I think we were maybe the second or third distillery in England making whisky, and now there are something like 25.

What’s coming up next for you at the distillery?

Right now, thanks to our investors, we’ve got the capacity to make over a million bottles and we’re still only about a quarter of the way there. We’ve got everything we need – the whisky ageing, great feedback from the market in terms of awards and coverage – so in football parlance we need to just drive it up the field and work on the next account and the next account, and let more and more people know about us.

We had a big moment recently with our gin and whisky going into around 300 Sainsbury’s stores, and we’re also listed in Waitrose now, so we’re gradually giving the product a bit more presence. The fascinating thing about consumer brands is how they grow, and the psychology behind that. We know that millennials are increasingly discerning about brand authenticity and one of the things that’s unique about us is that we are genuinely based purely on someone’s crazy idea – there’s an authenticity behind it.

We’ve come very far in six years, but we need to remember that like whisky itself, sometimes growth takes time.

If you were to share a bottle of Cotswolds Whisky with three other people, who would they be?

My best friend Dave because he was my partner in crime in the whisky tourism that led me down this path, and my two mentors, Harry and Jim, because their soul is in this whisky.

Enter our competition to win a bottle of Cotswolds Distillery single malt.

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