Cooper King Distillery
Cooper King Distillery is a latecomer to the Gin scene, not having launched until February 2018. As such, it’s got to make some pretty long strides to catch up with the rest of the pack. Longer still, to overtake. This is something that cannot be done on juice alone, no matter how good a Gin is. No – this is going to take some real outside the box ingenuity.
Luckily, co-founders Chris and Abbie Nielson have a trick or two up their sleeves. Chris explains: “We are a crowd-funded Whisky and Gin distillery, one of only a handful of distilleries in the country to run on 100% green energy, and the first European distillery to join the international environmental initiative – 1% for the planet – which means we donate at least 1% of all Dry Gin sales to charity.”
Straight away, we’re invested. The whole world is going to hell in a handcart but anyone making an effort to help make things that little bit better deserves a spotlight. Crowd funding also means that all of the people who chucked in a tenner or so are also invested, right from the start. They’re a part of the brand’s story straight away, and they’ll champion it widely.
The distillery was built on the site of Abbie’s grandmother’s old stable block, almost entirely by the duo and their friends and family. In May 2018, just three months after laying the final brick, Cooper King Dry Gin was unleashed on the world.
If all of that sounds a little fast paced, it’s only because the gin was a long time coming. Abbie and Chris were buried in the quagmire of work, and watching as their friends began to get married, have kids and buy houses. After seven years of studying, the duo weren’t quite as ready as everyone else to settle down, so in 2014 they quit their jobs and bought one-way tickets to Australia.
They ended up in Tasmania, which was – at that very moment – on the cusp of becoming revered for its whisky production. After growing fully in love with the spirit, the duo managed to convince their friends at Master of Malt to pay for them to go on a distillery tour, and once they saw the full behind the scenes magic of distilling, they were enthralled.
“What we discovered blew us away,” Abbie said. “Small and innovative operations run by passionate people making exceptional spirits by hand, many of whom had no industry background. Their products were unlike any we had tried before; they were so characterful.
“I had explored brewing and distilling as a career option post PhD, but found that I needed a specialist degree or years of industry experience in the UK, so I’d rule it out. But these distilleries taught us that to set up a successful distillery, you did not need years of industry experience, nor did you need millions of pounds. We had found a challenging venture that we could both work on together, whilst indulging our love of flavour.”
You’ll notice there’s no mention of Gin, so far, and that’s with good reason. When they started, Abbie and Chris had no intention of creating a gin. Whisky was the passion, so Whisky was the plan. They didn’t really know what they could bring to a market that was already saturated, and were quite underwhelmed with the idea until they discovered the dark magic of vacuum distilling.
Abbie explains: “This discovery of cold distilling sparked a wave of ideas for a potential Cooper King Gin. When exploring botanicals, a few became naturally apparent early on. My father’s a beekeeper, so it was important to us to incorporate the family honey in the recipe, and world-class lavender grows a stone’s throw away from the distillery. With this natural pairing as our foundation, we soon realised we could offer a bright, fresh and floral cold distilled spirit full of flavour, bringing something different to the table.”
The full botanical bill is a mouthful; juniper, coriander, angelica, lemongrass, lavender, honey, cubeb, cardamom, lemongrass, and fennel all add their fresh, crisp weight to the gin. The botanicals are macerated in diluted alcohol ahead of distillation and separated into various groups, depending on the type of heat and treatment each individual item requires. It’s a complex business, but once one has a handle on how certain things behave and react, it all becomes fairly by the book.
After distillation, the various distillates are married together and blended with a dose of copper pot distilled malt spirit (also known as New Make Whisky), which adds a cereal character and a bold signature to the undercurrent of the Cooper King Gin. At present, the distillery buys in both spirits, but in time – once their whisky is underway – they’ll use their own, adding in their own new make spirit as a sort of extra botanical. We’re really excited by this notion – it will be such a unique and personal touch and one only a handful of distillers are doing anywhere in the world.
After the malt spirit is added, the gin is diluted down to its bottling strength of 42% ABV and rested for one week to allow the flavours to come together and for the spice to mellow. Then, it’s poured into Cooper King’s extraordinarily beautiful bottles (we’re talking swirling kaleidoscopes of colour, here) and shipped out.
Cooper King Gin to taste…
Lemongrass and the tiniest smattering of cardamom flicker up the nose, joined by something a little cumin-y. It’s a very spice cupboard smell – calm and lightly sweet. Once a little dilution comes in to play, be that via water or tonic, the cardamom smell steps up a notch, amplified by the lower ABV. It plays beautifully with that rich, malty undercurrent, with cubeb and lavender conspiring to add a bright purple dimension to the overall impression.
To taste, lemongrass is once more first through the gates, but this time it’s a great deal sweeter, with a distinctly honeyed cardamom clawing at the tongue towards the finish. It rises to a crescendo as a flavour profile, reaching greedily for the spiced botanical as though desperate to heat up the tongue. It’s really quite great – there’s so much going on that while all that’s happening over there, another tussle takes place at some other spot on the tongue, with the malt spirit and honey combining to create a soft, sweet complexity.
Our only point – and it’s a bit of a stickler – is that the juniper arrives for such a brief interval that you can barely enjoy it as a flavour in its own right it at all. Same goes for the citrus and florals – the cardamom and cubeb just take hold. They’re aggressive, dominating and a little tiring at times. You can hone in on the detail, spot the fennel for a second perhaps, but within seconds it all descends into a cacophony of spice. Furthermore even if noticeable, once its own flavour peak passes, lemongrass actually just adds to the eucalypt note of the cardamom. Everything seems geared to build towards that note.
We’re not exaggerating this, either; once the drink is drunk and the glass is empty, bring it back to your nose for a sniff – it’s curry.
Tonic dispels this somewhat, with the sweetness helping the floral pop of lavender to stand up and shout for a little longer. The balance of flavours performs much better when the gin has been diluted into a G&T, which – given that gin is very rarely designed to be sipped neat – is no bad thing. We’d double down on that if you are looking for garnish advice, adding a big twist of lemon or lime to up the citrus, which has been given a bit of a seeing to by the spices.
The fact that this does require a serve to bring out its potential begs a question: what is the point in going to all of that extra effort with multiple group botanical distillation to apply specific heat profiles, when the florals and citruses get so lost anyway?
It’s a big spirit, rich and spiced. It’s also lovely – and we mean that sincerely. It is super tasty and we’ll definitely keep coming back for more, but given the utter dominance of cubeb and cardamom with the clear backdrop of maltiness, we have to wonder quite what is the point in using all of that modern distilling equipment.
Chris and Abbie grew so fond of the cold distilling method and the sheer flavour alchemy that Gin making entails that they’ve now built up quite the collection. It was a very quick romance – they went from ambivalence to full-blown love in a matter of minutes, so they were never going to settle on just one gin, no matter how good that gin is. The duo is currently working on a collaboration with That Boutique-y Gin Company, and they’re all set to release Valour – a new herbaceous gin featuring artwork designed by former Mulberry director Scott Henshall.
There’s also another hugely intriguing Limited Edition gin in the line-up, this time created in collaboration with Michelin star restaurant Skosh. Smoked & Spiced Gin is a wild, smokey adventure of a gin designed to perfectly complement the restaurant’s menu. Collaboration has been entirely key, here. “Collaborations challenge us, push us out of our comfort zone and ultimately lead to gins and other spirits that bring something totally new to the market. Whether that be in flavour, concept or design. They fuel our creativity, keep things fresh and develop and strengthen relationships with like-minded individuals and businesses.”
Perhaps collaboration was ingrained in them from the start; after all, it was in Tasmania, under the tutelage of Bill Lark amongst others, that they got their first taste of distilling. Many of their days in Australia were spent volunteering at breweries and distilleries, but it was Bill that really fostered that co-working environment. “Another nugget we took from him,” Chris explains, “was to open our distillery doors and always make time for people. With this in mind we designed a rustic and cosy tasting room with a window into the production area – it’s the perfect space for hosting distillery guests and connecting them with the process.
Open door distilleries are an important part of the Gin community and Cooper King Distillery has done well to heed this advice. The transparency inspired trust, and intrigue, and there really is a lot to be inquisitive about. The distillery was inspired by adventuring to beautiful places, so part of the ethos was always to preserve the planet for future generations to enjoy.
The environmentally friendly stance is at the core of everything Cooper King Distillery do; They’re signed up to the 1% for the planet initiative, with a percentage of their sales going to the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust (in fact, they go above this, giving 2.5%). This translates to roughly one square metre of native English woodland being planted for every bottle sold.
The distiller is also powered by green energy, and all of the spend botanicals are composted. Cooling water is recycled, and the eventual goal is to run entirely off of solar power. Cooper King also offers a Gin refill scheme, whereby people who return bottles to the distillery are offered a 15% discount. They go above and beyond and are well and truly leading by example.
To say something feels a bit paint by numbers is to suggest it’s safe and boring. This is far from that, but Cooper King does somehow hit all of the marks we’ve been calling for over the past few years. It’s made with integrity and heart, it’s got a fantastic story behind it, it’s collaborative, it’s charitable and it places huge emphases on terroir and process. Sure, we might have been a bit nitpicky about the spice dominance, but if this team go ahead and release another gin – this one with more balance between floral, citrus and juniper soul and with less fire, we’ll be all over it.
Cooper King Distillery may have been one of the last to join the race, but it’s already the kind of momentum that will have it lapping many of its competitors in the year to come.
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