Gin production and environmental activism aren’t usually two areas of life that get mentioned in the same sentence. But there’s a relatively new company in North Yorkshire that is embracing both with enthusiasm and passion. Cooper King Distillery in Sutton-on-the-Forest is producing craft gin and whisky of the highest quality — and it’s doing so while pursuing some very impressive environmental objectives.
The story of this fledgling distillery goes back a few years — to a time when a young couple decided to ditch the nine-to-five in favour of world travel. Although a gamble at the time, it was this wanderlust that ultimately gave birth to one of the most unique distilleries in Britain.
It All Began in Tasmania
Abbie (a scientist) and Chris (an architect) made the momentous decision to book an open-ended trip around the world just a few short years ago. It was during the Australian leg of their travels that they happened upon a distillery; a distillery that had recently won the title of “World’s Best Single Malt”.
Inspired by what they saw and the innovation of Tasmanian Whisky legend Bill Lark, Abbie and Chris began to delve deeper into the art of whisky production. They visited distilleries all over Tasmania in an effort to soak up as much knowledge as possible — and they began to sketch out plans for their own business as they learned.
Chris talked passionately about this first awe-inspiring introduction to the industry:
“We visited eight different distilleries in Tasmania, taking photos, watching demonstrations and sampling the products. The process fascinated us, and we both decided that this was the industry for us.
“We spent two years learning about distillation techniques, in countries as diverse as Austria and Myanmar. We even began our business plan while we were still travelling — that’s how excited and motivated we were.
“We eventually raised more than £350,000, but it was tough. We started with a fraction of that amount, and raised money through crowdfunding and grants from the government and the EU. Because what we were doing was unique we were able to receive a substantial ‘innovation’ grant, which came in very handy.”
Chris and Abbie Strive to Make a Difference to the Environment at Every Turn
For most startups and fledgling commercial ventures, environmental projects and sustainable business practices come later — once a revenue stream and a stable cost base has been established. But environmentalism is in the DNA of Cooper King Distillery. Indeed, it is the company’s commitment to sustainable practices that makes it unique. While this road may prove more expensive in the short run, it is already winning this innovative business new customers around the world.
Chris said: “We’ve always been conscientious about the environment. I suppose this was reinforced during our travels around the world. We developed a greater understanding of the environments we visited, and we became more determined than ever to protect them for future generations.
“We decided from the outset that we wanted to operate responsibly. After all, we’re taking resources from the environment. It’s important that we replace them wherever possible.
“We’ve just planted 1200 square metres of woodland in three months. For every bottle of gin we sell, we donate £1 to the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust. This goes towards the planting of trees in our name.
“We like to get physically involved, too. Four of us recently went along to plant trees with Trust employees. Our trees can be found across the Yorkshire Dales, but mainly in the Nidderdale area.”
Genesis by Green Energy
As well as Abbie and Chris’ commitment to replacing woodland in Yorkshire, they’ve also made a long-term commitment to the use of green energy. In fact, there isn’t a part of this thriving business that isn’t linked in some way to a fantastic environmental cause. As well as walking the walk, Abbie and Chris are providing a great example for businesses around the UK.
“Many energy companies offer a ‘green tariff’, but in many cases, this just means that a fraction of the energy supplied comes from green sources. We wanted to go the whole way.”
“We have chosen a company called Ecotricity, which offers a 100% renewable tariff. We’re serious about environmental issues, even when it means paying a little extra.”
But it doesn’t end there. Cooper Kind Distillery is a green initiative in many different respects. Chris and Abbie source packaging from local companies that’s made from recycled materials and in turn, recyclable. Even their self-built distillery is made with various reclaimed and reappropriated items. Taking this green approach to business has made the journey more difficult and time-consuming, but it is undoubtedly one of the company’s most important USPs.
Collaboration is a Major Motivation for Abbie and Chris
Creating a great product is a major motivation for both Abbie and Chris, and perfecting the art of distilling gin and whisky is also a significant motivating factor. And of course, doing business in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly way is a priority. But Chris is also motivated by the opportunity to collaborate with other businesses in the UK — and more importantly in North Yorkshire.
He said: “We love food, and we love the process of creating flavours and matching our products to them. That’s why we love collaborating with a local Michelin-starred restaurant in the area. We get to see our products being sold in a wonderful food environment, and we love to see the look on people’s faces when they taste out products for the first time.”
Indeed, Abbie and Chris have collaborated several times during the course of their relatively short career in gin and whisky production. Teaming up with local breweries, bakeries and distilleries hasn’t just widened the appeal of their products, it has been the inspiration for new and increasingly innovative products.
There Have Been a Few Struggles Along the Way
Like any fledgling business, Cooper King Distillery has had more than its fair share of trials and tribulations — as Chris testifies to.
He said: “Setting up the business was tough. We had to raise an enormous amount of funds through the sale of equity. Raising the initial £100K wasn’t easy, but it allowed us to get started. But we then had to start building our business whilst still raising money. That’s when the hard work really started.We always knew we’d get to where we needed to be. We were passionate about our products, and confident about our ability.”
Abbie and Chris have been on a journey of discovery — quite literally. They have learned the principles of whisky and gin production from experts around the world, and the passion they have encountered has been a huge inspiration.
One specific source of inspiration comes from clothing company Patagonia. This pioneering outdoor clothing manufacturer takes an ethical and sustainable approach to everything it makes. Not only that, the company donates one percent of its sales to environmental groups (or 10% of its profits). A member of the 1% for the Planet organisation, Patagonia is a shining example of what Cooper King Distillery is aiming to become in the future.
Chris Offers Advice for Anyone at the Beginning of Their Own Journey
Chris and Abbie have decided to take a relatively difficult and risky path. While most startups look for the cheapest supplies and contracts, Cooper King Distillery places environmental issues and sustainability at the forefront of business decisions.
Chris said: “If you’re starting a business with an environmental cause at its heart, you need to prepare for a lot of expense… it’s not going to be cheap. The process of sourcing your products and bringing everything together is slow, and it may take longer than it does for your main rivals.
“But stick to your guns. And be pragmatic. If you can’t be as green in your business practices as you’d like, start small, and introduce changes gradually.”
Abbie and Chris have a long-term plan for success, but by their own admission, they’re still learning — and that’s why such a monumental task is proving to be so rewarding. In the medium term, it’s all about waiting for whisky to mature, which should be ready in three to five years. Beyond that, these two young entrepreneurs want to continue their collaborations, continue developing great products, and continue travelling the world for inspiration.