Dr. Abbie Neilson is a scientist turned distiller, having set up production facilities for gin and whisky alongside her partner, architect Chris Jaume. The pair had the idea as they toured whisky distilleries in Tasmania as part of the trip of a lifetime, having abandoned the rat race in favour of a voyage of discovery to the other side of the world. They struck up a plan to bring their new-found skills back to the UK and their new brand, Cooper King Distillery, England’s smallest and first self-built gin and whisky production facility was born.
“…having confidence in yourself and your own abilities is key to conveying passion and enthusiasm for something you believe in…”
Swapping the daily grind for a daily dram
I achieved a first class honours undergraduate degree in biomedical science at Newcastle University, followed by a Ph.D. in cell biology from the University of Leeds in 2013. Following this, I completed a short stint working as a research fellow for the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine.
Worn out from the Ph.D. and faced with a fiercely competitive research environment, I realised my heart wasn’t in it anymore and decided it was time for a change. Having spent the entirety of our seven-year relationship studying and not content with ‘settling down’, buying a house or starting a family just yet, my partner and I decided to buy one-way tickets to Australia and start our own adventure.
Earning money from fruit-picking whilst backing in Tasmania, a distillery there won the World’s Best Single Malt accolade and being whisky fans, we decided to investigate! Together we visited all eight operational whisky distilleries and fell in love with craft whisky and the idea of starting our own in England (bringing the Tasmanian ethos back home), swapping the daily grind for a daily dram.
Backpack business plan
We loved the idea of working together and creating something that our friends and family could enjoy and be a part of. Neither of us had a business or industry background, but we researched intensely, made use of the numerous free courses and workshops available, attended distillery school and volunteered in breweries to gain experience. We wrote a business plan while still backpacking!
In 2016 we began the long process of creating a start-up business and self-building a distillery on the site of my parents’ old stable block in the North Yorkshire countryside. A team comprising of family, friends and Founders’ Club members have worked together to help Chris and I build the distillery over the past year, it has been a fantastic experience and we have now finally completed the construction and began distilling our gin last week.
There’s no typical day as a distiller
When running a start-up business, no two days are ever the same! One day I can be finalising the artwork for the gin labels and installing the distilling equipment, the next day I’m developing collaborations with other craft producers and meeting spirits bloggers.
Currently I’m developing the recipe for our signature gin and running a series of trial distillations to develop the flavours that will become our core range. It’s an exciting time for me as four years of hard work finally come to fruition and I can soon take that very first sip of our highly anticipated gin.
All our spirits are distilled, matured, labelled and bottled by hand within the distillery. Usually found in a laboratory, the cold vacuum gin still is an innovative piece of technology that allows me to distil botanicals under vacuum at a much lower temperature than traditional ‘hot’ distillation, meaning we obtain brighter, fresher flavours and preserve some of the more delicate aromas that can be destroyed by excessive heat.
My science background enables me to test, tweak and refine the distillation process to obtain the best flavour from each of the botanicals, creating a unique spirit.
On the whisky side of things, we’ll begin mashing, fermenting, and distilling malt spirit once the brewing equipment is installed in a few months’ time. This spirit will be laid to rest in small oak casks, skilfully made by a Yorkshire cooper, who’s also England’s last master cooper. Over the years this spirit will develop into a rich and fruity Cooper King single malt whisky.
Establishing a Founders Club
We established the Founders’ Club for two reasons. Firstly, because setting up a distillery is such a unique and exciting project, we knew early on that we wanted to invite people to become involved at a very early stage, to see the distillery grow, literally from the ground up, and to feel an integral part of it.
Secondly, the Club has generated vital early funding which allowed us to invest in the concrete foundations and developing the brand. In return, our Founders receive many rewards including first and special release spirits. Feedback has been astounding and people are enjoying different aspects such as supporting a local craft business, securing rare bottles, or simply being able to live out their own dream of starting a distillery, but without the sleepless nights!
Without a doubt I’d say that funding has been the main obstacle we’ve had to overcome. The distillery requires significant investment and it takes a long time for the whisky to mature before it’s ready for sale. We’ve ploughed our life-savings into the project and built the distillery with the help of friends and family. Bringing in shareholders and external investment was a daunting process, but taught me that having confidence in yourself and your own abilities is key to conveying passion and enthusiasm for something you believe in.
We also had to seek permission from the Cabinet Office to use the word ‘King’ in our company name. Any perceived link to the Royal Family needs justifying, so we needed to be able to stake our claim on the word! Inspired by Chris’s great-great-grandfather, Charles Cooper King, the name Cooper King has rich historical ties to England and Yorkshire.
Born in 1843, Charles, who was Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Marine Artillery, traced the Cooper King family history back to 1030, where he identified the Pigot family of Yorkshire, whose shield can still be seen today throughout Ripon Cathedral. Fortunately, Charles documented the family tree in two fantastic leather-bound volumes, written in the 1800s. These were excellent proof that we had a genuine claim to the name and we were granted permission to use it.
I’d also say getting to grips with all aspects of running a business such as accounting, intellectual property and employment law is challenging but it’s an enjoyable learning curve that keeps me on my toes. It’s taken much longer to get into production, but it’s still only the two of us, and it takes time to get it right first time. I’ve also become a lot more resilient. I’ve learned that set-backs are inevitable, but that it’s important to view these as challenges that can be overcome.
Why we must all #PressForProgress
On International Womens’ Day I’ll be celebrating the many great women who’ve contributed to science, art, politics and business, who’ve inspired me to follow my dreams and know my worth.
There’s a significant shift in the way the media is reporting issues of gender equality; #PressForProgress is just one of the many great campaigns calling out discrimination and increasing awareness. I believe that more people discussing openly the issue of inequality will spark positive action. Campaigns such as #PressForProgress are the catalysts for such change.
We’ve got a busy few months coming up! We’ll be launching the Cooper King signature gin in spring and we’ll also be helping to brew a collaborative botanical beer with one of my favourite Yorkshire breweries, as well as announcing an exciting partnership with a local charitable organisation.
We’ll also be firing up our whisky still soon and laying down our first oak cask to begin the long slow process maturation. In preparation for the public opening of the distillery this summer I’ll be developing beginner whisky tasting events aimed specifically at women. Thankfully, the view that whisky is a ‘man’s drink’ is dying out and there are many women keen to explore the wonderful world of whisky for the first time.