‘In the spirit of adventure, we left our jobs in the UK and set off for the freedom of travel in Australia. We returned a year later with a big idea – to build and run our own whisky distillery.’
Distilling gin and whisky from awe-inspiring ideas and adventures
Cooper King Distillery is a self-built, family-owned gin and whisky distillery in the heart of Yorkshire. Crowd-funded and self-built on the site of an old stable, the distillery produces award-winning sustainable spirits underpinned by craftsmanship, honesty and adventure. It is owned and run by Chris and Abbie and their journey so far exemplifies how pathways through life can diverge from the expected in extraordinary ways.
Dr Abbie Neilson is a former scientist and Chris Jaume a chartered architect. But in 2016 they founded Cooper King Distillery which is powered by 100% green energy and is going from strength to strength. Their degrees didn’t take them into the type of labs or design studios you might expect, but they did play a big, big part in taking them to where they are now.
Abbie obtained her PhD in 2013, a year after Chris qualified as an architect. Chris joined an architecture firm and Abbie Neilson was working as a research scientist after completing her PhD in cell biology. But the pair quickly became restless.
‘Before we decided to pack it all in and start again, we were settling in to our first “real jobs” after university: in an architectural firm and as a research scientist. We were living in Leeds, working long hours, and those around us were beginning to get married, have kids and buy houses. 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 bought one-way tickets to Australia, seeking sun, sand and adventure.’
Before we decided to pack it all in and start again, we were settling in to our first “real jobs” after university: in an architectural firm and as a research scientist.
Changing tunes (to the beat of a different drum)
While travelling around Tasmania, the couple visited the island’s small, handcrafted-whisky distilleries, one of which had just won an award for the world’s best single malt. This signaled the emergence of Tasmania as a world-class whisky producer and prompted a whirlwind tour of the island’s eight operational whisky distilleries.
‘What we discovered blew us away. Small and innovative operations run by passionate people making exceptional spirits by hand, many of whom had no industry background. We discovered that to set up a successful distillery, you did not need millions of pounds, nor did you need years of industry experience. We had found a challenging venture that we could both work on together, to indulge our love of flavour. With a mission to bring our discoveries back to Britain and armed with a wealth of knowledge gathered from across Tasmania’s now internationally acclaimed New World whisky distilleries, we returned to the UK to establish Cooper King Distillery in Sutton-on-the-Forest, North Yorkshire.’
We discovered that to set up a successful distillery, you did not need millions of pounds, nor did you need years of industry experience.
Abbie was struck by the simplicity of some of the operations they saw: ‘The first distillery we visited belonged to a farmer who’d grown too much rye one year and so decided to have a go at making whisky. He’d made his own copper pot still, using fallen power lines in an old shed out the back. Before going to Tasmania, we had assumed that making good whisky meant being in Scotland and spending millions of pounds. But seeing such resourcefulness and innovation got our minds whirring away about bringing the idea back to Britain.’
The first distillery we visited belonged to a farmer who’d grown too much rye one year and so decided to have a go at making whisky.
They spent the next 18 months travelling around Australia, learning how to start a business from scratch and Chris explained how their research led to a concrete plan: “we went to many talks and workshops at the Melbourne Business Festival and spoke to a great craft brewery near where we lived in Melbourne to get some tips. Then we came back to England armed with a business plan and had to try to convince friends and family that we hadn’t lost the plot, and that this was a viable venture.”
It all started with crowdfunding
Funding the distillery was the biggest challenge. Initial funds were raised through an innovative crowdfunding campaign, the Founders’ Club, to help finance the build of the distillery. Today the Founder’s Club has around 400 members from across the globe, growing the Cooper King community every day.
‘With the help of a small team of family and friends, we built Cooper King Distillery from scratch on the site of an old stable block. We were awarded an £18k innovation grant for our state-of-the-art cold vacuum gin still and a 900-litre copper whisky still from Tasmania, which is the only one of its kind outside of Australia or New Zealand.’
Taking inspiration from cellar doors in Tasmania’s vineyards and the Melbourne café scene, Chris and Abbie have created a cosy, rustic, timber-clad tasting room, with a bar and large hand-made oak table overlooking a window into the distillery production area.
Here they welcome tour guests, host events, sell spirits and engage customers with the hand-crafted nature of spirits. ‘The public tours have been a huge success, with people travelling from far and wide to sample the spirits and learn how they’re made. We’ve even had visitors from Tasmania!’
Gin: when flavours take charge
At Cooper King Distillery, they will mash, ferment and bottle their whisky, which takes three years to age, on site. And in the meantime, Chris explained, they’re making their own gin: ‘the more we learned about gin, the more we realised it’s a really exciting drink to distil. You can be so free with it. Focusing on flavour and provenance over volume means we source the best local ingredients for our premium products. Cooper King Dry Gin is cold-distilled with honey from our own beehives, lemongrass and locally-grown lavender. Distilling cold means we preserve many of the delicate flavours that would normally be destroyed by heat, creating a beautifully fresh, vibrant gin of exceptional character, described as a “game changer” by The Gin Fayre.
The more we learned about gin, the more we realised it’s a really exciting drink to distil. You can be so free with it.
Abbie, whose scientific credentials made her a natural distiller, explained how this has been taken up by a local restaurant: ‘we produce a range of bespoke spirits for renowned Michelin-starred restaurant, The Black Swan at Oldstead. Created using unusual botanicals such as marigold flowers and fennel pollen, the plants are picked fresh from their kitchen garden, distilled fresh the same day and served on their famous cocktail menu. More spirits will be distilled as other fruit, flowers and herbs come into season.’
The world’s best whisky: underway
The first Cooper King whisky won’t be available until 2024, but until then the business will continue selling gin and running events and tours at the distillery.
‘We’ve had so much interest from local bars and restaurants that want to stock us, and lots of online orders. The support has been incredible. It helps that we’ve been very honest and open about who we are. This is our passion and I think that’s coming through and people are connecting with that.’
The couple have plans to set up a smokehouse and a bakery on site, and hope to one day win the title of world’s best whisky with Cooper King. An ambitious target but one that Chris sees as having a wider significance: ‘An English whisky has never won that before. That would be absolutely fantastic for us but also for the English whisky industry as a whole.’ And, as Abbie pointed out, there are some perks to having a distillery in your back garden: ‘it’s my birthday soon and I’ll be celebrating with a gin and tonic made by my own fair hand. It’s going to be an amazing feeling!’
It helps that we’ve been very honest and open about who we are. This is our passion and I think that’s coming through and people are connecting with that.
A vision grounded in sustainable principles
‘Cooper King has a strong environmental focus too. The company was born from an adventure, travelling to some of the world’s most beautiful locations, so it’s only natural that we wish to preserve the planet so that future generations may enjoy it too. Further still, we want the Cooper King brand to exist decades into the future. That means making sustainability central to our business, not just environmentally, but financially and socially. All businesses have a responsibility – and the opportunity – to achieve sustainable growth and minimise harm.
We’re the only distillery in Europe to become a member of the global environmental initiative ‘1% for the Planet’, meaning we formally pledge to donate 1% of Dry Gin sales to our partner charity, the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust (YDMT). In fact, we go beyond our annual commitment, donating 2.5% to help YDMT make a positive impact in the local community, which translates to the planting of 1 square metre of native English woodland for every bottle of Dry Gin sold. We’ve planted over 3000 square metres so far.
We’re the only distillery in Europe to become a member of the global environmental initiative ‘1% for the Planet’.
As well as helping to reforest some of England’s most beautiful landscapes, we’ve planted our own on-site orchard too. Not only will this provide us with fresh fruit for seasonal batches of liqueurs and healthy snacks for hungry workers, it also bolsters the site’s biodiversity, supports pollinators, reduces our carbon footprint and helps to mitigate flood risks.
The distillery is powered by Britain’s greenest energy company, Ecotricity. This means that 100% of the electricity we use is guaranteed to be from renewable sources such as wind, sun and sea. It’s more expensive, but reduces the environmental impact of our operations, supports Britain’s energy independence and reduces reliance on fossil fuels.
We compost all our spent botanicals from the distillation process on-site, and use these to grow the next harvest of tasty ingredients. We’re one of the first distilleries in the country to offer a gin refill scheme. When anyone returns an empty bottle to us at the distillery, we refill it for a discounted price. Customers save money and reduce waste at the same time.
We’re one of the first distilleries in the country to offer a gin refill scheme.
Sustainability also involves keeping things as local as possible. We hold ‘craftsmanship, honesty and adventure’ at the core of the business. We work with the best local craftspeople; from local artist Emily Stubbs who created the marbling for the award-winning bottle design, to the last independent master cooper in the UK, Yorkshireman Alastair Simms, who is skillfully crafting our single malt whisky casks.’
The brand story
‘There’s a rich story behind the distillery, named after Chris’s great-great-grandfather, the Royal Marines Artillery Lieutenant Colonel Charles Cooper King, who traced the family back to Yorkshire and the year 1030. In 1389 one such ancestor, Thomas Pigot, was confirmed as Abbot of St Mary’s Abbey, York (located within the city’s Museum Gardens).
The Pigot family were also great benefactors to Ripon Cathedral, evidenced by the carvings of the Pigot shield adorning the inside of the building, which also forms part of the Cooper King logo, a stylised version of the Cooper King coat of arms.
There’s a rich story behind the distillery, named after Chris’s great-great-grandfather, the Royal Marines Artillery Lieutenant Colonel Charles Cooper King, who traced the family back to Yorkshire and the year 1030.
The company and brand origins are touched upon in our numerous and varied blog posts, which continue to draw strong engagement and interaction from customers and help build a loyal following. The blogs feature spotlights on local producers, discovery, learning, brand story and our sustainability efforts.’
A household name on the English Whisky map (and the Yorkshire Gin Map)
ing in the Financial Times. Similarly, The Yorkshire Gin Map, shared extensively on social media, was created to highlight Yorkshire’s gin producers and showcase the region’s many tremendous brands. The Founders’ Club continues to draw members and a strong following from the international whisky scene.’
Reflecting on the journey
Although setting up a distillery might seem pretty far from their old day jobs in an architecture firm and a lab, as Chris points out, their skills have come in handy: ‘we are still a scientist and an architect. Architecture is problem-solving and multitasking and understanding what your client wants, which in this case is the customer.’
We are still a scientist and an architect. Architecture is problem-solving and multitasking and understanding what your client wants, which in this case is the customer.
Abbie still brings a scientist’s precision to the distilling process: ‘I’m inherently critical and all about the details, whereas Chris is more creative and has the big, grand ideas. But together that really works, because we’re bringing different things to the business.’
Everyone thought we were mad but we could see a gap in the market for English whisky.
And they both see the way the challenges have strengthened them and their resolve to succeed: ‘everyone thought we were mad but we could see a gap in the market for English whisky. Working as a couple has had its challenges: it’s definitely had ups and downs. But we spent two years travelling and living in the back of a car in Australia. Once you’ve got through that, working together is an absolute dream.’
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