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The spirit of adventure

A scientist and an architect walked into a Tasmanian whisky distillery…
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
The spirit of adventure

This article first appeared in our Ethical Shopping issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 30 October 2020. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

In 2014 Abbie Neilson and Chris Jaume had built up some savings and could have put a deposit on a house, progressed with their careers and started a family.

‘Instead we decided sod that, let’s disrupt things’, Chris tells us. ‘So we bought one-way tickets to Australia.’

Chris had been working long hours as a chartered architect and Abbie, a scientific researcher for Leeds University, had just completed a PhD. ‘Embracing the adventure turned out to be the best decision we ever made’, says Abbie.

Big news in Tasmania

The travellers were in Tasmania in April 2014, when Sullivans Cove was named World’s Best Single Malt Whisky. This was a first-time achievement for a non-Scottish or Japanese distillery and big news in the whisky world, so Chris and Abbie decided to investigate. They visited every operational distillery in Tasmania and tried every whisky and spirit going.

‘What we found was simply astounding’, Chris reveals. ‘Small and innovative distilleries run by passionate people making exceptional whisky by hand. The whiskies were unlike any we’d had before; they had a unique character that could only be described as Tasmanian.’

The travellers quizzed the distillers on all aspects of production. They were captivated by the makers and their inspiring stories.

Most of the Tasmanian distilleries were tiny compared with their Scottish counterparts. ‘There was a focus on flavour and provenance, rather than volume and reach’, Chris explains, ‘and they were achieving international acclaim because of it. They inspired in us an absolute dedication to craftsmanship, honesty and transparency.’

Going it alone

Chris and Abbie realised that you don’t need millions of pounds (or Scottish roots) to set up a successful whisky distillery; the pioneers in Tasmania were thriving on genuine passion and a desire to make nothing but the best spirit from the ingredients around them.

The seed was sown. For the next two years, and while still abroad, Chris and Abbie read up on every aspect of distillation and starting a business from scratch. On returning to Abbie’s hometown of York at the start of 2016, they hit the ground running. They raised funds, self-built their own distillery and created Cooper King Distillery.

Champions of sustainability

The drinks brand champions sustainability; raw materials are sourced as close to the point of distillation as possible to support English farmers, reduce food miles and celebrate terroir.

‘Producing flavour-driven, sustainable drinks has always been at the core of what we do’, Chris tells us. ‘We built this business from scratch to be environmentally, socially and financially sustainable.’

The distillery is powered by green energy; coolant is recycled and for every bottle of gin sold, a square metre of woodland is planted in the Yorkshire Dales through a charity partnership with the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust.

Two years ago, Cooper King also became the UK’s first distillery to offer gin refills direct from a distillery. This ‘bottle for life’ scheme cuts £6 off the price of a new bottle and has understandably been very popular with customers – particularly this year.

All the barley and wheat used in Chris and Abbie’s spirits is now 100% Yorkshire grown, thanks to new relationships formed in 2020. The raw honey, lemongrass and basil are harvested from the distillery’s on-site beehives and polytunnel.

‘Sipping a drink in the very place it is made, talking to the person who made it and knowing exactly what’s in it is a hard-to-beat experience’, Chris tells us. ‘We love sharing our hands-on process with tour guests; our hope is that we can recreate some of the magic we felt in Tasmania back home in Yorkshire.’

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