Cooper King Distillery

Abbie Neilson and Chris Jaume of Cooper King Distillery

Raising a glass to Yorkshire whisky

Chris Jaume tells BQ how a backpacking trip to Australia inspired he and his fiance Abbie to launch their own whisky distillery right here in Yorkshire.

Proving you don’t need to be in Scotland or Japan to make good whisky – Abbie Neilson and Chris Jaume are on a mission to put Yorkshire on the global whisky map.

After deciding to launch their own distillery last year, the couple have since raised hundreds of thousands of pounds and are now on track to start distilling their first batch of Cooper King whisky later this year.

Chris caught up with BQ to tell us all about their business journey so far…

For those who don’t know about Cooper King, tell us how the company came about, what was the lightbulb moment which inspired you to launch the business?

In 2014 Abbie and I left our hard-earned careers in the UK to travel to Australia. I was an architect, Abbie a scientist, and despite 14 years of further education between us, and both qualifying just the year before, we were keen to leave the rat race and embrace our adventurous sides.

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 leapt at the chance, so we set out to visit all operational distilleries on the island.

Abbie and I had an incredible three 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 incredible 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.

At 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 on business and accounting courses, tasted hundreds of whiskies and importantly, trained our noses. We aimed to hit the ground running and establish our own whisky distillery when we returned to England in late 2015.

How did you get the company off the ground, did you bootstrap it yourself or source finance elsewhere?

Upon returning to England, funds we had once destined for a deposit on a house became our distillery start-up pot. Abbie’s parents kindly offered us some of their land to build upon, and through generous support of friends and family, we were able to progress with the project.

We have raised further funds over the last six months on the back of our innovative approach to whisky and gin production, and a strong business plan which we wrote while we were still in Oz. We secured a Government backed start-up loan, three EU grants, and completed a round of equity investment.

We have just launched our Founders’ Club – a crowdfunding campaign to provide the last piece of the funding puzzle, which will allow us to fire up our stills and get the spirit flowing by the end of the year.

The Founders' Club is our community of adventurous people who hunger for something a little different. It offers craft spirit lovers a unique opportunity to become part of the Cooper King story and help make English distilling history. In return, our Founders are rewarded with our Inaugural Release whisky from cask #001, limited edition Founders’ Gin, lifetime membership and a host of other rewards.

Have you received any support since launching the company? If so, how important has it been and how important is it that we continue nurturing our start-ups?

We utilised free local support from Make It York, How’s Business and local networking group, the YO61ers, to all of whom we are incredibly grateful. Up until very recently we had received no structured support, relying on our own research and ad hoc advice from friends, family and others in the industry.

This changed last month, as we successfully applied for a space on the Entrepreneurial Spark programme. We learnt of the scheme through local entrepreneur, Rachael Dunseath of Myroo Skincare, who we met at Venturefest Yorkshire last winter. The wealth of support and wisdom provided by the other entrepreneurs on the Spark programme, its partners and those who run it has proved invaluable so far.

We would not be where we are now if it had not been for the rich and accessible support system that exists here in Yorkshire. It’s now a pleasure to be in the position to offer advice to others based on our own experiences.

What challenges have you had to overcome since launching the business? How did you overcome them?

There have been endless challenges!

  • Securing planning and Building Control approval for the project, and now self-building the distillery itself. Despite being an architect, I have never worked on a project as complex as this.
  • Obtaining the licence from HMRC to distil alcohol. This was an incredibly tough application, with very little information available online or through HMRC themselves as to the application requirements!
  • Raising equity investment. Selling ourselves and the business to outside investors was a completely new concept to us both. Managing the expectations of 13 investors and navigating to completion date was incredibly challenging.
  • We had to prove to the Cabinet Office that we had a genuine claim to the word ‘King’ (it is part of my grandmother’s maiden name), in order to be granted permission to use ‘Cooper King Distillery’ as our registered business name. Trademarking was also a minefield. We carried this out ourselves, contacting a list of multinational companies to arrange agreements that would allow us to trade using the name without treading on any toes.

Why did you choose Yorkshire as the distillery’s home? What benefits does being based in Yorkshire bring?

Abbie was born and raised in Yorkshire and her parents have a great plot of land here which is proving to be a perfect spot to establish the distillery. We’re building the distillery on the site of the old stable block and it has views over a newly-planted native woodland and orchard. We’re a stone’s throw from York and nestled between major attractions such as Castle Howard, the Yorkshire Dales and Yorkshire coast, so we’re looking forward to opening to the passing public for distillery tours and tastings.

All the elements for making good whisky are right here in Yorkshire. Some of the country’s finest barley is grown in Yorkshire and we are incredibly fortunate to have England’s last master cooper a short drive away in Wetherby. The cooper, Alistair Simms of White Rose Cooperage, will craft the oak casks in which we will age the whisky. We’re keen to support as many Yorkshire businesses as possible, by working with local designers, sourcing ingredients close to home and collaborating with local brands.

We have received a huge amount of support from the public and other Yorkshire businesses. There is a great demand for local, hand-made premium produce and we are constantly receiving messages of encouragement and sales enquiries. There’s a strong sense of community between the local producers too.

How did you choose the name Cooper King?

We wanted a family name for our family business, though neither of our surnames (Jaume and Neilson) seemed to fit. Looking to my family’s past for inspiration, I came across the story of my great-great-grandfather, Charles Cooper King (1843 – 1898).

He liked an adventure and a challenge. In his 55 years he sailed to the China seas and Japan; produced paintings that have since been auctioned at Christies; lectured in diverse topics from geology, magnetism and electricity to food and foraging; published several literary works and academic papers, and painstakingly produced detailed volumes of the Cooper King family tree.

His earliest known ancestors, dating back to 1030, were the Pigot family of Yorkshire. In 1398 Thomas Pigot was confirmed as abbot of St Mary’s Abbey, located within York’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.

Given the rich historical ties to Yorkshire and the reference to a barrel-maker, coupled with my great-great-grandfathers approach to life, the Cooper King name fitted perfectly with our venture.

Taking things one step further, we’ve chosen to use the Cooper King shield to represent us and the distillery. Abbie worked closely with our York-based designer LazenbyBrown to give the historical shield a modern twist that could be incorporated into the logo.

What is the company’s USP? What makes you stand out from other distillers?

Our focus is on craftsmanship, honesty and adventure.

We will produce a single malt whisky with a character unlike any other in the country, thanks to our Tasmanian influenced production methods and our unique copper pot still, which will be the only one of its kind in the UK.

Our single malt whisky will be made from 100% Yorkshire barley and malted at the country’s oldest working maltings. We will mash, ferment, distil, age and bottle our whisky here on site, and will power the distillery on 100% green energy.

We are the country’s smallest family-owned whisky distillery, and will produce limited batches of exceptional spirit. We are ageing exclusively in small 100 litre casks, skilfully coopered and fired by our cooper, right here in Yorkshire. Ageing in smaller casks creates a richer spirit, which matures in three to five years.

What has been your biggest achievement to date and why?

Raising £100,000 equity investment with no expert guidance has been our biggest achievement.

Starting out with an idea years ago in the back of our estate car in Tasmania, and developing it into a credible and investable business with no previous experience, has required a vast amount of energy, commitment and positivity. It has set us on an irreversible and enthralling journey.

How has the company grown since its launch?

It’s still just the two of us running the show, but over the last year we’ve surrounded ourselves with a talented team of people to help us develop the business and get the distillery off the ground. We’re now gaining a lot of momentum, and are quickly adapting to the speed at which we are moving. We’ll be taking on formal staff when we start production later this year. We can’t start production quick enough!

And how do you see it growing going forward?

We are starting small but the business has huge potential. We’re launching into a strong premium spirits market and fast-growing whisky market. English whisky is in its infancy but set to experience considerable growth over the next 5-10 years. I can see the company doubling whisky and gin production in the next 2-3 years to keep up with demand. We have an exciting vision to become a destination distillery and take advantage of the strong inbound tourism the region benefits from. We’re proud to be Yorkshire and are excited what the future holds.

Finally, if you could give three nuggets of advice to an aspiring entrepreneur, what would they be?

Remain positive. There are endless challenges and pitfalls, but all are surmountable with a positive outlook.

Speak to people! Regularly test your ideas and seek advice from those more experienced than you.

Make time to relax. Keep up with friends and family, and be sure to get your sleep. There’s nothing that can’t be achieved after a good night’s sleep.