Christopher Jaume is the co-owner of Cooper-King Distillery and I’ve known him a long time, so it’s an indication of how busy he is that whenever I catch up with him, he has a lot to relate about his life.
I first interviewed him in March 2019 to get the latest on his distilling business and his life in general. This time, I got him to go back a bit so we could trace the pathway to his present situation – not the situation that he, or anyone else, could have forecast either from his interests or his education.
A dream come true (from the get-go)
‘I wanted to be an architect from a really young age. I always wanted to design, create and build. My study choices were all aimed towards it, and when it came to uni, that was the only option on my list. That was despite every architect I spoke to telling me not to do architecture (including an architect relative I spent some time doing work experience with!). But I had a strong image of what the job involved: being able to design and build something and make your mark on the world, and change the way people live their lives for the better through architecture.’
‘I went to Newcastle University to do my degree because it had one of the top architecture courses in the country at the time, and the reputation of the city as a place to live and study was renowned.’ For more on Chris’ experiences at Newcastle University, visit his University Profile.
My time at Newcastle involved lots of life-changing events. I met Abbie there, my partner, which is obviously top of the list.
My interviews with alumni very often highlight how expectations change, surprising choices are made and unexpected destinations are arrived at. Chris is a classic example of this. I asked him how his degree contributed to the very unusual outcome of becoming a distillery owner. ‘Apart from the course, my time at Newcastle involved lots of life-changing events. I met Abbie there, my partner, which is obviously top of the list. We are now running our own distillery in Yorkshire, of which more later.’
“Another major one was travel. In the Easter break, in my first year, my flatmate wanted to do the Morocco hitchhike, an event run by a charity called Community Development). We hitchhiked from Northern France down to Morocco. It was my first proper stint doing independent travel and we were hopelessly underprepared for the challenge. I had a £15 tent and we ended up sleeping in petrol stations, we ran out of food and money several times, but it was great fun and definitely changed my outlook on things. Travel remained a big part of life.
In my second year, we went out to Tanzania to do some work with a brilliant charity called COCO (Comrades of Children Overseas). We climbed Kilimanjaro, lived with the Maasai and taught their children Swahili, and worked on some outreach projects in some pretty remote villages.
I got to put my architectural skills to use, drawing up plans and elevations for the renovation of a vocational training school in a rural village, run by a local charity called Hoja.
My drawings went on to be approved by the government of Tanzania! The renovations transformed the school, and it has since gone on to be one of the top performing schools in the district.
It is so rewarding to use your skills, time and network of friends and family to benefit those in need, and is something I strongly believe in. Whether it’s organising a fundraising event whilst at university, running a marathon to raise money for charity as an architect, or planting woodland for every bottle of gin sold through the distillery, it’s important to try and make a positive impact and benefit the lives of others when you can.’
The trip that changed everything
Chris finished his degree in Architecture at Newcastle University in 2008, and did his professional qualifications at Manchester University, finishing in 2012. His partner, Abbie, finished her PhD a year later. At this stage, the apparently obvious choice was to start their respective careers and their prospects in the fields of architecture and science were good. But it didn’t quite turn out like that.
With a desire to leave the rat race, we both quit our jobs and used our savings to buy one-way tickets to Australia.
‘We were living in Leeds, working long hours, and those around us were beginning to get married, have kids and buy houses. We had also been saving money towards buying a house. But we both felt there must be more to life than that so we decided to disrupt things. With a desire to leave the rat race, we both quit our jobs and used our savings to buy one-way tickets to Australia.
While we were living and working in Tasmania, a nearby distillery won World’s Best Single Malt Whisky, a feat never accomplished outside of Scotland or Japan. Ever an opportunist, I contacted friends of mine at Master of Malt (whom I had carried out some freelance design work for in the past), to ask if they would like us to visit a couple of distilleries on a fact-finding mission to provide content for their online blog. They leaped at the chance, so we set out to visit all operational distilleries on the island.
One day we would be apple picking…the next we were staying in nice hotels.
Abbie and I had three amazing months leading a bizarre double life. One day we would be apple picking, sleeping in the boot of our estate car, eating cup-a-soup for dinner and living the true back-packer lifestyle. The next, we were staying in nice hotels, learning about all things whisky and meeting up with distillery owners and head distillers. We were treated to delicious food, and of course, sampling a stunning array of whiskies and spirits from these exceptional distilleries.
What we found was simply astounding: small and innovative operations run by passionate people making exceptional whisky by hand. The whiskies were unlike any we had tried before, with a unique character which could only be described as Tasmanian. We soon became hooked.
It was at this point that we realised to set up a successful whisky distillery, you did not need millions of pounds, nor did you need Scottish roots. The seed was sown. For the next two years and while still abroad, we educated ourselves on every aspect of whisky distillation and starting a business from scratch. We received expert training courtesy of Bill Lark (Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame) and Dean Jackson at the Redlands Distillery School. We enrolled in business and accounting courses, tasted hundreds of whiskies and, importantly, trained our noses. Our aim was to hit the ground running and establish our own whisky distillery when we returned to England in late 2015.’
The last 3 years since returning from Australia have been an absolute whirlwind. We arrived back in England with a cracking business plan, but no cash! So, we spent the first year fundraising.
Listening to Chris’s account of their travel experiences, it was obvious that the description ‘life-changing’, so often used too lightly, was genuinely the case for him and Abbie. The setting up of their business began in earnest on their return and their momentum has taken them to an extraordinary point in a remarkably short space of time. I asked Chris to take us through this exciting period and bring us up to the present.
‘The last 3 years since returning from Australia have been an absolute whirlwind. We arrived back in England with a cracking business plan, but no cash! So, we spent the first year fundraising. We launched a crowd-funding campaign – The Founders’ Club – which to date has raised just short of £100,000, and has attracted members from across the world. We successfully applied for several grants, including a large £20,000 EU innovation grant which helped us buy some of our unique distilling equipment. Also, we set up a limited company and sold a small number of shares for equity, which raised vital funds to get the building underway.
Building a new life (on a shoestring)
We built the building ourselves from scratch. Putting my architectural and project management skills to use, we drafted friends, family and founders to pitch in and help us complete the project. It was a steep learning curve, but an amazingly rewarding process to watch all our hard work materialise into a fully-fledged, working distillery.
The official launch event in June 2018 was a wonderful day, with 200 guests joining us to consume our gin and officially open the venture to the public. Abbie and I gave a speech, and I was hard pushed to contain my emotions that day!
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.
Since the official opening 9 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. 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.
Abbie and I have been working flat out on our business for three years, and have many years of hard work ahead to ensure its success and longevity. Our time at university, the skills we learned, the people we met and the experiences we had, have without a doubt shaped who we are, and have enabled us to strike out on our own, creating and working on something we both thoroughly enjoy. It is incredibly fulfilling, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds.’
Chris’ enthusiasm, energy, intelligence and altruism make up an enlightened individual and it has always been a pleasure to spend time with him. Listening to his account of life so far, it is impossible to come away with anything other than a sense of hope and excitement. I wish him the best of luck for the future. And will raise a Cooper King gin and tonic to that sentiment!
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