What makes a successful and enduring whisky event? Keep moving, keep changing and never settle.
It made a strange gurgling sound, but distiller Nick Franchino continued to palpitate the tube more gently than you would expect a former cage fighter to be able to. The liquid began to spurt (there is no other word, I’m afraid) along the plastic and into the bottle being held by Dan Szor.
The first splashes of the first legal bottle of Cotswolds whisky. Three years and a day after it was laid down. The fact that it was a public occasion might be not that surprising. That it was happening at Whisky Live in Paris (23-24 September), however, did give things a mildly surreal turn, but whisky is nothing if not a global phenomenon.
Glasses were passed around, followed by a slight silence as people nosed. That Man from Del Monte moment. There was no fear needed. This is a great whisky. I could tell that everything was going to be fine when I first tried Cotswolds at the same show – in fact, weirdly, on exactly the same spot – two years previously.
Now it was rounded and not at all prickly, the fruits had a light hint of honeyed ripeness and – despite Szor’s fears that the short time in the small cask they had brought across had taken effect – not wood-dominated. Franchino’s team had done their work well.
New liquid: Szor (left) and Franchino crack a cask to fill one of the first bottles of Cotswolds whisky
It had also proved Szor’s hunch right. One morning he woke up, disillusioned with life (or as disillusioned as you can get when you are in the Cotswolds), thinking about going back to work in London and had a ‘why am I doing this?’ moment.
We all have them. Not all of us then decide to build a distillery, but there again not all of us are at that point looking out at 600 acres of barley waving in a gentle breeze and thinking: ‘Why hasn’t anyone ever made whisky here?’
Now the distillery makes (excellent) gin, with a new genever style recently added, there’s absinthe and apple brandy ‘Cotswoldados’, but whisky is the main business. They also do things their own way – the staff are warned of crucial timings in production by various egg timers scattered about the place – part of its ‘why not?’ charm.
Take barley. It’s all local – which makes sense – and has been Odyssey, but the trials with the almost-forgotten Plumage Archer variety show great promise. It’s all malted close by in Warminster, aged in Jim Swan’s patented STR (shaved toasted recharred) ex-wine casks, first-fill ex-Bourbon, ex-Sherry and in time Calvados and, well, who knows what?
All of that continues another of these themes that seem to weave their way into the loom of whisky these days – that of place. As whisky evolves, so the importance of the local will grow. That could mean ingredients, or wood, or a deeper understanding of roots.
If it is real, it becomes a tangible asset. Location becomes not just a selling-point (and 21st-century whisky makers have to be hard-nosed marketeers, as well as dreamers), but a foundation which helps drive style and quality.
It’s one reason why Szor refuses to say that he is making ‘English whisky’. ‘There is no such thing,’ he argues. ‘We’re making Cotswolds whisky. We are a single distillery. The TOAD (The Oxford Artisan Distillery) is nearby and they are doing things completely differently to us. How can you say we both make the same thing?’
Whisky in England is a world of possibilities. By coincidence, that night I was chatting with Dhavall Ghandi, whisky maker at Lakes distillery, and the same topic came up. He too is taking his own path, one that if it pays off opens up new possibilities in the interface between science and art.
Cocktail focus: Whisky shows are moving beyond traditional drams to delight curious visitors
The fact that these conversations were taking place at a show which used to be pretty much the sole preserve of Scotch shows how far we have come in a short period.
In the early days you’d stroll past the rum room and there would be the Parisian equivalent of tumbleweed blowing through. Now it’s dramatically different. There’s as great a selection of Scotch as ever, but there’re as many whiskies of the world – and every stand was equally busy.
I got happily lost in the rum’s gentle embrace, particularly a Marsala cask from Jamaica’s Worthy Park which had the fortified wine’s decadent dark fruits in perfect balance with the punchy Jamaican pot. Strange how more Sherry casks seem to be appearing in rum, just as Scotch seems to be wholeheartedly embracing first-fill Bourbon.
Should Scotch be scared? No. It just needs to be aware and not arrogant in its belief that size means guaranteed success (for it) and failure (for everyone else). It should also be aware that today’s consumer – you guys – might love whisky, but they too are looking beyond Scotch and to other spirits.
After a day’s sipping and spitting it was time for an aperitivo, specifically a Nardini Mezzomezzo – the superb bottled blend of its Rosso and Rabarbaro. But only after a taste of its newly reformulated aged grappas: a softly spicy, cherry-accented seven-year-old, and a 15-year-old which, though dry on the nose, exploded in the mouth with a perfumed, fruity, cigar-tinged elegance. ‘One for whisky lovers,’ said the firm’s ambassador Sharla Ault with a grin. Point taken.
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