Dr Abbie Neilson is the co-owner of Cooper-King Distillery, which she owns and runs with Chris Jaume (discover his story here).
This certainly wasn’t the place she planned to get to, and during our interview, there was one anecdote she told that seemed to me, when I reflected on our conversation afterwards, to be a kind of turning point, even if only in psychological and philosophical terms. I’ll come to it shortly but first, I asked her about her motivations and plans leading up to her entry into Newcastle University to study science.
When life takes control (and all the right decisions)
‘At school, I excelled in Art and Science, and no one told me about the field of medical artistry, so I was faced with a choice between the two. In the end, I chose science for practical reasons – everyone knows how hard it is to make a living in the world of art – with strong encouragement from my science teachers. I wanted to go into medicine and become a pathologist. I had become totally focused on that alone and although I was rejected when I applied for that, I knew I could still get into the field through another route: Biomedical Sciences. This is closely related and allowed students to side-step into medicine after the first year. I chose Newcastle because it had a highly rated medicine faculty.
My desire to pursue that course hadn’t died down in that first year: it was still just as strong. My sole purpose was to study medicine and to pursue a career in pathology.
So, at the end of my first year, I was eligible to apply for medicine and I had achieved the grades I needed to get in. But there was such huge competition that I wasn’t offered an interview for a place. There were five spaces and probably between 60 to 100 people chasing those places. My desire to pursue that course hadn’t died down in that first year: it was still just as strong. My sole purpose was to study medicine and to pursue a career in pathology. To have that suddenly stripped from me was crushing. I was devastated…
But then a friend of mine, another student, pointed out that because I had pursued that career for so many years and it hadn’t happened, it might mean that it was just not meant to be, and I should probably accept that. He helped me understand that if I kept pushing for something that wasn’t happening, I could be wasting my life… That was a pivot point for me because it made me realise that I had been focused one hundred per cent on something that I think I probably knew wasn’t going to happen, and I hadn’t considered other options which might have been much better for me.
It was such a turning point: I went from this almost obsessive drive for one thing to thinking, let’s enjoy life and see where it takes me and just go with the flow.’
A complete change of direction
I wondered what it was about this person that made him so influential in helping Abbie to make this dramatic turnaround in viewpoint after so long following one train of thought.
I came to realise that by being totally focused on one goal, I was missing out on many other opportunities and interesting experiences.
‘He was one of those characters who seemed to do everything and was good at everything. His course was just one thing; he had a hundred different hobbies and he was part of ten different societies. So, he had many, many strings to his bow. To him, if one of those strings was to snap it didn’t matter. Whereas I had one string at that point and it wasn’t a very wholesome existence. I came to realise that by being totally focused on one goal, I was missing out on many other opportunities and interesting experiences. I joined the salsa society in my second year, as a result of that conversation.’
Abbie went on to complete her degree in Biomedical Sciences at Newcastle University, obtaining first-class honours, before going on to do a PhD in cell biology at the University of Leeds in 2013. Learn more about her time at Newcastle here.
Exploring new avenues
She also met her partner, Chris Jaume, at Newcastle in her second year, which was clearly a life-changing event since they travelled the world together and are now in business together running an award-winning distillery in Yorkshire. Abbie is not a doctor now and is not working in biomedical science, although there is a strong science element to her distilling of spirits, along with a certain artistry, which produces something unique. I asked her to look back on the sequence of events leading up to this current place in her life and found that it arose in large degree from her travelling experiences.
‘One year into my PhD, I began to dislike being in a laboratory and eventually lost my mojo for the work. Although the science was interesting, there was a little outlet for self-expression and creativity and I felt something was lacking. I no longer wanted to pursue a research career and I almost quit the PhD. Family and friends persuaded me to continue, but I began to look at alternative careers.
Although the science was interesting, there was a little outlet for self-expression and creativity and I felt something was lacking. I no longer wanted to pursue a research career and I almost quit the PhD.
A PhD gives you a multitude of transferable skills: public speaking, resilience, self-awareness and self-direction. I didn’t want to waste the skills I had acquired after seven years of study, so I explored more creative jobs, such as museum curator or my (then) dream job, medical artist. To pursue the latter, another degree was required but I didn’t have enough energy to go back to study. Instead, I decided to take a step back from career-hunting for the time being and continued with my PhD, graduating in 2013. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I was thoroughly worn out at the end of 4 years.’
When plan B becomes plan A
‘I was living in Leeds with my partner at the time I graduated and those around us were buying houses and starting families. After so many years of study, we weren’t ready to settle just yet. We were ready for a change. So, we quit our jobs and spent our savings on one-way tickets to Australia in search of an adventure!
It was the trip of a lifetime! For two years we visited some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes. Backpacking was interspersed with fruit picking to earn dollars and we volunteered on homestays via HelpX, experiencing some lifestyles very different from our own. Being among the great outdoors and living a nomadic lifestyle away from textbooks and deadlines, I was able to step out of the rat race and find some headspace. Chris and I talked about working together and dreamed up weird and wonderful business ideas to pass the time.
While working a stint on a Tasmanian orchard, a nearby distillery won the sought-after accolade of producing the World’s Best Single Malt Whisky.
Being among the great outdoors and living a nomadic lifestyle away from textbooks and deadlines, I was able to step out of the rat race and find some headspace.
As whisky lovers, this prompted us on a journey of discovery which led us to visit all the operational distilleries on the island on a fact-finding mission which was to become an 8-part blog series on Tasmanian whisky.
We met passionate people running small and innovative operations, and the whisky was some of the best I’ve tasted. I asked one of the distillers how he came to work in the industry. He was a backpacker with no experience but quickly learnt on the job.’
The English Whisky distillery: it was written in the stars
‘During my PhD, I had explored brewing and distilling as an alternative science-related career but was put off by the need for a formal degree or years of industry experience. A brief encounter with this backpacker changed everything: it showed me that I could find my own way in the industry. The idea for our own English Whisky distillery was born. We had found a challenging venture that we could both work on together.
A brief encounter with this backpacker changed everything: it showed me that I could find my own way in the industry.
For the duration of our travels, we educated ourselves on starting a business from scratch and sought expert training from Bill Lark, the godfather of Tasmanian whisky. A whirlwind distilling dream snowballed into reality, and in 2016 we returned to the UK to self-build and crowd-fund Cooper King Distillery.
On our travels, we were lucky enough to experience some of the world’s most beautiful places and we wanted to preserve these places for future generations to enjoy too. So, we adopted many environmentally sustainable practices into our business operations. For example, the distillery is powered by 100% green energy and every bottle of gin sold funds the planting of one square meter of woodland in the Yorkshire Dales.
The distillery has gone from strength to strength. Since the official opening 10 months ago, our gin has won two international awards, is being sold in over 100 stockists across the country, and has been described by one critic as a game-changer.
The distillery has gone from strength to strength. Since the official opening 10 months ago, our gin has won two international awards.
We’ve had national press coverage in the Guardian and the Financial Times, and are currently working with chef Tommy Banks and his Michelin-starred restaurant The Black Swan at Oldstead to develop a range of spirits for them, using fresh produce grown just 20 minutes from the distillery.
We collaborate frequently, whether it be with high-end chefs, fashion designers or other drinks companies – they are a great way to meet new people, challenge ourselves and our business, and have enabled us to launch innovative new spirits to market. Additionally, we plan on working stints of travel into the business, with trips abroad to source new ingredients and learn techniques from producers and experts from around the world. We have a lot of hard work ahead and it won’t be easy.
But the surprisingly convoluted path my career has taken has equipped me with such a broad range of skills and life experiences that I’m ready to take on anything. Wonderful opportunities can arise when you balance grit and determination with not being afraid to change direction.’
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