Behind the doors of many a craft distillery, there is often a fascinating story waiting to be told—tales of lifetime ambitions, personal sacrifices, hard-fought achievements and life lessons learned. Consider the “crazy story” of Dan Szor, the New York-born CEO and founder of the Cotswolds Distillery, who left the world of finance late in life for the more precarious, but ultimately more satisfying life of a craft distiller.
Szor has turned this “hedge funds to hedgerows” story into a new book called Spirit Guide, which was written during lockdown. Inside the Cask contributor Joe Bates caught up with Szor to ask him about the book, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the distillery, and why people should always have the courage to follow their dreams.
Inside the Cask guest contributor Joe Bates caught up with Daniel Szor. Note that the picture above of Daniel Szor is credited to Lorentz Gullachsen.
Inside the Cask: What prompted you to write ‘Spirit Guide’? Did the enforced ‘downtime’ of lockdown give you the time and inspiration to write the book?
For some time, I’d been wanting to write a book about setting up the distillery and my crazy “hedge fund to hedgerows” story, but there was never enough time. With lockdown came a bit more time and distance for reflection on what had been achieved so far, and on what all of this has meant to me.
I’d always wanted to write about my experience in a way that might inspire others to have the courage to follow their dream, and at a time where all of a sudden people have been questioning their life choices more than ever due to the pandemic it seemed a perfect opportunity.
Inside the Cask: Is the book a straightforward biography or have you organised it differently?
The book is organised chronographically, but is in no way a detailed biography, as I didn’t want to bore people with either an exhaustive story of my life. The pre-distillery part was meant mainly to give readers a feel for how and where I was brought up, and the values, fears and priorities which my parents instilled in me.
The main focus of the story, which I believe readers will find the most interesting part, is the transition from “locked-in” City professional to would-be distiller, and finally to distillery owner and whisky-maker.
Inside the Cask: How much did you enjoy the writing experience and what do you want readers to take away after having read the book?
I was greatly helped in this project by a company called StoryTerrace, a fast-growing start-up whose mission is to help people put their life stories into writing. They paired me with an author, helped with all the editing and formatting, and then with the Amazon publishing (both Kindle and paperback).
The author I worked with and I were really well paired, and we hit it off tremendously. Though she’s much younger than me, we shared many similar elements in our upbringing and view of the world. She was able to distil hours of my ramblings into coherent and well-written prose and I couldn’t’t have done it without her.
She understood my aim for the book— that it neither be a “whisky book” nor a business book, but rather a book about the journey which would encourage people with similar dreams to follow their spirit —hence the name, “Spirit Guide”.
Inside the Cask: You mention in the book your parents were Holocaust survivors who found a new life in the States. How did this terrible experience shape your childhood and subsequent path through life?
Both of my parents lost virtually all of their relatives in the Holocaust so I grew up in a very small nuclear family, with an understanding that my family’s tragedy made my life different than most of my third, fourth- or fifth-generation American friends.
Despite the horrors they lived through, my parents were determined to build normal lives for themselves and for their child in the USA. They treasured the freedom and opportunity, which the US offered, and they felt at home in the melting pot of New York. Their cultural sensibilities remained very European, however, and I always found myself more at home on this side of the Atlantic.
Having lost so much at an early age, my parents taught me to value stability and security over all else— which I suppose is the main reason I went to work in finance from a young age and didn’t deviate from that path for 30 years.
Inside the Cask: How and why did you first get into the world of finance and was life on Wall Street in the 1980s as wild and unchecked as the books and films make out?
In my last year of University, I got an internship at a major regional bank in Boston and while I was working there a spot opened up on the Foreign Exchange trading desk, which became my first full-time job.
It was the era of the rise of trading culture when the previously staid conservative image of Wall Street gave way to the frenzy and power of traders— and I was in the middle of it all.
Millions were bought and sold in the blink of an eye based on a news flash or very often on gut feeling; though it was never a passion, it was an incredible and exhilarating experience for a recent graduate at like me, fresh out of university.
Inside the Cask: When did you start to feel a career in finance wasn’t for you, and that you needed a new direction in life?
The first time I felt my career path wasn’t right for me was after three years of working in big banks when I started planning a return to business school to get an MBA, but at the same time I was offered an interesting job with a small and fast-growing start-up foreign exchange management firm. I thought I’d give it a few months and that turned into 26 years.
A few years after I started, I got bored, and a life crisis (a near-drowning on a rafting trip in Costa Rica) made me think of quitting.
Instead of leaving, I pitched the idea to send me to live in Paris to the European marketing guy and to my amazement they said yes. So, for the next 10+ years, life became more about where I was doing my job rather than the job itself.
Later, I moved to London as the firm grew into a hedge fund, and all the growth and money made it hard to walk away. In fact, I probably would have stayed for longer had it not been for the firm suffering several difficult years post-2007 and ultimately going out of business. That took away the excuse for me to continue my loveless career, and it eventually woke the inner entrepreneur in me.
Inside the Cask: When was your love and interest in all things whisky first kindled?
It was in early 2000 at a Paris meeting of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS). I’d had whiskies before, but I was basically a wine guy. As an American in Paris, I indulged in all the typical foodie pursuits, driving off at the weekend to Burgundy, the Loire Valley and Champagne and learning all about terroir and provenance.
A good friend of mine owned a Cognac distillery and when I visited, I was amazed at the difference between the quality of his cask-strength brandies and the bland, homogeneous products found in duty-free shops and other large retailers.
So, when I had my first tastes of single-cask malts at that SMWS evening, it was love at first dram.
The startling differences between cask types and regions blew me away and I realised that the Scots had beaten the French at their own game. I became a whisky geek, attending monthly tastings at the wonderful Maison de Whisky flagship store in Paris and taking yearly trips to Scotland with my best friend and visiting distilleries. The bug really bit during a tour of Bruichladdich with Jim McEwan when he talked us into buying a cask. Because of that purchase Bruichladdich became a sort of “home team” for me, and their unswerving focus on provenance, transparency and quality are what I’ve always tried to emulate at the Cotswolds Distillery.
Inside the Cask: How did you come to live in the Cotswolds and when did you first get the idea of starting the Cotswolds Distillery?
My (English) wife Katia and I both loved the Cotswolds and had spent many a weekend there in rented cottages. The decision to buy a home there came out of a difficult period when Katia was quite ill, and we needed a place where we could relax as a family and appreciate our time together. The idea was for a weekend home, but as we got to know the area and make more friends, we found ourselves drawn more and more to spending as much time as possible and regretting having to go back to London every week.
Against a backdrop of continued problems at the company for who I was still working, I found myself thinking about what I would do if things got worse— and during that time I had my “barley epiphany”. It was in the summer of 2012 as I was looking out our bedroom window at a big field of malting barley growing next to our home.
I thought of Bruichladdich and their innovative use of Islay barley, and then I thought: “With all the barley grown in the Cotswolds, why hasn’t anyone ever made whisky here?”
It seemed a natural place for a “destination distillery” with its proximity to London and Birmingham and 30 million visitors a year. I put the idea out of my head for several months, mentioning it only once to a friend in a drunken reverie during our Christmas party than December, but then thought about it again in April 2013 when attending Whisky Live in New York and realising for the first time just how deeply the craft distilling revolution had taken hold in the US.
This time I started taking the idea more seriously, and the final step was a trip to Islay— where the dreaming had all started— and a meeting-up with Jim McEwan who had sold me that cask of whisky more than 10 years ago. I asked him what he thought of my idea, having committed to myself that I would shelve it if he told me, I was crazy. But being Jim McEwan— a romantic and a spiritual guy at heart— he told me to go out and follow my dream. That was when things got real.
Inside the Cask: What were some of the big challenges in the early days of the distillery and could you rely on any whisky mentors to guide your way?
The biggest challenge was that I knew absolutely nothing about whisky-making or the drinks industry in general— certainly no more than any whisky geek would have picked up after drinking a lot of whiskies and touring a number of distilleries.
That humility was actually an asset, as I had no preconceived notions of what was the right way to do things— all I knew was that I wanted to make a whisky of quality that I would actually want to drink, in a distillery that I would want to visit.
Therefore, I needed mentors. My first, Harry Cockburn, was recommended to me by Jim McEwan, who used to work for him back when Harry was General Manager of Bowmore. With over 50 years of experience in the whisky business, Harry was an engineer by training and his calm and rational approach got me to understand that whisky-making wasn’t about a sacred water source, heather on the hillside and pipes in the Glen, but mainly about a sound engineering process, good kit, discipline, and hard work.
Our other mentor was the late and great Dr. Jim Swan, who perfectly complemented Harry in that his background was chemistry. Where Harry’s job was to get us to a commissioned distillery with everything working properly, Jim was all about creating superior spirit character and choosing the best possible casks in which to mature it.
The amazing work of these two experts put us 10 years ahead of where we might otherwise have been, were we left to our own devices to figure out the optimal process, the right yeasts, optimal cut points, the best wood programme, etc.
Inside the Cask: What do you feel have been some of the biggest achievements of the distillery since you started? Seeing the first bottle of whisky to roll off the bottling line must have been quite a moment, for instance…
The first mash was a great day— we called in the “Midnight Mash” as we got such a late start due to the mechanical commissioning process, that we ended up emptying the draff by moonlight at 1am. Seventeen days later Harry and I casked our first barrel of Cotswolds Single Malt, which was just as memorable a moment.
That first cask actually turned three years old on Day One of Whisky Live in Paris in September 2017, so we thought it would be fun to celebrate the first-ever live birth of a whisky in the middle of a whisky show. We decanted a bit into a 25-litre cask and took it with us to Paris, then poured the first bottle live, in front of a roomful of French whisky geeks with Dave Broom presiding over it all— quite a memory. And within a week, we were hosting a party in our field at the distillery for over 1,600 hundred fans who’d pre-purchased a bottle. Eight hours of live music, street food, and an unplanned speech and toast by Jim Murray— it was a really incredible way of launching our whisky into the world.
Inside the Cask: What sort of impact has COVID-19 had on the distillery business and you as a person?
When the pandemic burst onto the scene in the UK in March 2020, we felt— as most— like the rug had been pulled out from under us. Particularly as one of my favourite parts of our business – our tours, masterclasses, visitor centre/cafe and two local retail outlets – all had to cease.
We planned for the worst but ended up having an excellent year, with sales growing by more than over 25%. This was mainly because we managed to successfully pivot our business towards those channels in which we could continue to interact with consumers— mainly online and off-trade (both physical and online grocery).
We did frequent online tastings and for me it was a great opportunity— being locked down in a remote farmhouse— to have a natter and a few drams with a hundred kindred souls, on a regular basis via Zoom. I’ve had to get used to working from home, which is a few miles from the distillery, but I’ve been amazed at how well things have carried on so far thanks to lots of hard work from our amazing team.
Inside the Cask: Looking back on the lessons learned, what advice would you give anyone stuck in a career rut but perhaps lacking the courage to try something new?
I’m a big believer that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself —that is what stops lots of people from pursuing their dream— so I hope that people will look at my story and think again about taking a chance on pursuing their passion.
I ended up betting my life savings on this project and I’m making a fraction of what I once earned, but I’m happier and more fulfilled than I’ve ever been and I’ve completely forgotten my old career ever existed.
I’m doing something which I enjoy and am proud of and which I hope will be my legacy, while at the same time I’m getting to spend more time with my family. And quite honestly, the best part of this adventure has been being able to learn so many new things, so late in my career. I realise not every story like this will have a happy ending, and even mine still doesn’t have an ending written. But I don’t think one will ever regret trying to do something at which they really want to have a go— and if my crazy story helps to encourage even a few readers to follow their hearts, it will definitely have been worth the effort.