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Cooper King Distillery: Making the Old World, New Again

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Inside a disused stable block just north of the historic English city of York, is a space reserved for a shiny copper still unlike any other within 17,000km. Designed and constructed in Tasmania, Australia, this still will soon travel from the opposite side of the world to become an integral piece in Abbie Neilson and Chris Jaume’s Cooper King Distillery; an extraordinary endeavour to undertake considering the amount of copper still manufacturing experience to be found in the UK. So why source a copper still from somewhere that wasn’t even settled by British explorers at the time the first whisky distilleries began to appear in Scotland? Well, to understand that, you need to retrace the steps of not the first settlers but those of Abbie and Chris, who set out for Van Diemen’s Land some 111 years later.

In 2014, Abbie and Chris, a successful scientist and an architect, set out across the seas in search of adventure and a break from the stresses of professional life.
Abbie and Chis on Tasmania's Overland Track.
Their journey led them to the island of Tasmania at the southern tip of Australia, where they visited each of the state’s whisky distilleries at the behest of a whisky blogging friend. At that time, Tasmanian Whisky was just emerging onto the world stage with relatively unknown Sullivan’s Cove Distillery having recently taken out the World’s Best Whisky for their French Oak Cask single malt at the prestigious World Whiskies Awards. The Tasmanian whisky industry was abuzz at the prospect that whisky from their little island could beat the traditional whisky producers at their own game. Who then wouldn’t be caught up in this excitement and think they could perhaps take something of this new world back to the old one?
We fell in love with Tasmania instantly,” says Abbie, “the welcoming people, the rugged landscape and of course the phenomenal food and drink we tasted thanks to the state’s many small-scale producers. 
Our visits to the whisky distilleries in particular, blew us away,” Chris adds, “we were meeting folk with incredible passion, relatively little industry experience, and an infectious Tassie ‘can-do’ attitude. They were approaching the challenge of producing whisky from all angles: we saw all manner of distillery buildings, stills, grains etc being used, and the end results were stunning. We came away from each distillery with a ton of questions which the next distiller would then answer. Though the more we found out, the more we wanted to know. We began to realise that to start a distillery you didn’t necessarily have to have Scottish roots or a £10million bank balance; it could be done on a small scale, on a limited budget, without compromise of flavour. The hands-on production techniques used by these guys, coupled with the limited volumes produced, was yielding some of the best whisky we had ever tasted. 
The seed was sown!” Abbie continues, “we had been whisky fans ever since our first trip to Edinburgh, we both enjoyed a challenge and we loved the thought of working together to craft a delicious spirit for us and others to enjoy. Over the next 18 months while away from home, we undertook training with Dean Jackson and Bill Lark of Redlands and Lark Distillery fame, visited countless other distilleries and tasting events, and wrote up our business plan. We were ready to hit the ground running when we returned to England late 2015. 
Tasmanians are a proud lot, island folk, fiercely independent of the ‘mainland’ but at the same time exceptionally accommodating.

There are few secrets in the Tasmanian whisky industry and everyone knows everyone; often not just on a professional level, but also on a personal one. Being a ‘local’ goes a long way when looking for help to start your own distillery, but that doesn’t mean you can’t become an honorary local if you show the same drive and passion for whisky as the local producers. Bill Lark, affectionately referred to as the Godfather of Tasmanian whisky, recognised the drive and passion in Abbie and Chris and took them under his wing, helping to impart his own knowledge and experience of which they would need plenty when they got back home.
Bill Lark and others in the Tasmanian whisky industry taught us a lot,” Chris revealed. “We learnt never to compromise on flavour, to not be afraid to challenge tradition and to go with our gut instinct. 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, well-marketed product. 
Bill Lark gave us lots of sterling advice,” adds Abbie, “especially around the business model and how we could potentially grow. He said to follow our instinct and that’s stuck in my mind ever since. Mark Nicholson, Dean Jackson, Peter Bignell, Casey and Jane Overeem, William McHenry, David MacLennan… All these fine fellows helped shape our distillery, offering at the time (and continuing to do so) fantastic advice and guidance. 
That was nearly 18 months ago and construction work at Cooper King Distillery is now underway.
Chris with Belgrove Distillery's Peter Bignell.
The copper still may be destined to become an integral and highly visible Tasmanian influence on this fledgling distillery but Abbie and Chris intend to implement much more of what they learned from their Colonial teachers. Tasmanian distillers are acutely aware of the ecological strengths of their beautiful island and they aim to both utilise the pristine natural resources and protect the environment that produces it. Tasmanian distillery Belgrove sets a benchmark for sustainable craft distilling. Founder Peter Bignell grows his own rye, made his own copper still from scratch, collects rainwater from the roofs of his sheds, heats it with biodiesel that he makes himself from waste oil (which also powers his tractors, forklift and truck), feeds his livestock used whisky mash and recycles waste water for irrigation. This focus on sustainability was not lost on Abbie and Chris as Chris explains:
We’ve sourced local barley (some of which we are hoping to have grown in the field next to us), partnered with the country’s last master cooper whose workshop is a 30-minute drive away, and are self-building the distillery. Much like the Tassie distilleries we visited, we want to produce a craft spirit with genuine provenance, in a space that we’ve designed. We’ve also been on a steep learning curve regarding the funding and running of a business. We’ve successfully applied for an innovation grant, a tree-planting grant, and for another to research into how we can reduce and reuse our distillery waste. We’ve also been pitching to investors and bought on a select few to part-fund the build. All of this has been completely new to us, incredibly challenging, all-consuming, but ultimately very rewarding! 
Comradery is something we have been trying to foster amongst the emerging English whisky distilleries,” adds Abbie, “inspired by the Tassie scene back in 2014. We produced an English whisky map to help inform the public of the fledgling industry and have been on a couple of 1000mile road trips around the country in our tiny Renault Clio, purposefully to visit as many of the other distilleries as we can and strike up a friendship. There’s still a few more to visit yet, and I hope our visits will lead to some exciting collaborations. 
Cooper King Distillery launched their Founders’ Club in May.

The Founders' Club is designed to provide the last piece of the funding puzzle which will allow Abbie and Chris to fire up the stills and get spirit flowing by autumn/winter this year. Members will be rewarded with first-release products, rare bottlings, distillery merchandise and lifetime membership. Abbie had this to say about the Founders’ Club:
We can't wait to welcome other fine fellows into the Cooper King family to share in the exciting times ahead. Our Founders make this whole project worthwhile; they will be the first to reap the rewards when the stills start flowing with our unique English spirit. 
Cooper King Distillery will be offering numerous Founders’ Club reward tiers ranging from £30 upwards, which will make great gifts for whisky and gin lovers. Memberships are limited and are on a first come, first served basis, so those who want a piece of the action are encouraged to act quickly. You can sign up to the mailing list here for more information and be informed of future developments.

The student becomes the master.

Australian distilling would not be where it is today without the influence, expertise and investment of early settlers and immigrants, but the local industry Down Under has matured into something much more than a mere clone of its European ancestors. It is now at the stage where unique Australian lessons and successes are being exported back to the UK and in a serendipitous turn of events are making the Old World, new again. There are certainly exciting times ahead and I look forward to visiting Abbie and Chris at Cooper King Distillery next year when I travel to the UK.

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