Where did it all start?
Years ago, Max would visit the Scotch Malt Whisky Society tasting rooms in Farringdon to stock up on cask strength whisky. In 2011, during one of his monthly visits, he got into a conversation about an urban whisky distillery that was being set up in Battersea. An obvious question arose – why aren’t there more whisky distilleries in England (there was only one in existence back then)? Not exactly a light bulb moment but the seeds for the first whisky distillery in the Peak District were sown. The following day, Max opened up a file on his computer marked ‘Whisky’ and started to plan.
The plan evolved, and went through a ‘few changes’ but remained on his computer, a topic of conversation over drinks amongst friends, until 2015 when he attended the funeral of an old school friend. Such events can provoke some soul searching about what’s important in life and also a reminder of its potential fragility. The sermon included a recital of ‘The Dash’; there is a start date and an end date to our lives, punctuated by a dash, and it’s that little dash that has so much meaning, make it count. Max made the decision there and then that ‘now’ was as good a time as any to make it happen.
Not wanting to be a Scottish distillery in England, he looked to the North American spirits scene for inspiration and read a few articles about a whisky pioneer in Texas called Chip Tate. Words like ‘maverick’, ‘legend’ often follow on in type to describe Chip and what he achieved in building (literally by hand) his first distillery. Chip was now building his second distillery, again by hand! Max felt instinctively that this was someone he’d like to meet, someone who doesn’t do things by the book, but finds his own way. After a few e-mail exchanges with Chip, Max was invited to stay for a week in January 2016. This was the first time Claire, Max’s wife, was aware this was really happening!!! During his time in Texas, Max got some unfiltered insights into the realities (the ups and downs) of building a distillery. Chip was generous in his experiences of how a small scale craft distillery could work, a marker he had put down himself over the previous decade. One piece of advice stood out; ‘plan for success’. Max returned home inspired (and with an important revision to the plan – the distillery would be twice as big).
The Distillery needed a home. The key search parameters were a riverside location (a romantic necessity), within 20 miles of home (commutable by bike). A Google Maps search along the River Derwent highlighted some 19th century industrial buildings on the edge of Shining Cliff Woods in Ambergate, formerly the home of the Johnson & Nephew Wire Works, and also part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. The first visit to see the old maintenance and stores sheds revealed that a lot of building work was needed but almost at once it felt like the right place to build a distillery. A gateway to the Peak District, with rich industrial heritage, a riverside location alongside an ancient woodland, coupled with an enthusiastic and supportive landlord; White Peak Distillery had found its home.
Next up was some distilling expertise. Enjoying whisky is not necessarily a good qualification for making the stuff! We needed the right expertise; an experienced distiller who was passionate about what we were doing, where we are doing it, and open-minded about innovation so the Distillery could bring something new to the world of craft distilling, not simply by virtue of being in England. Max contacted Dr Annie Hill at the International Centre for Brewing & Distilling at Heriot Watt University, explained his plans and that he needed a head distiller. Annie offered to use the alumni network, but before doing so recommended a former MSc student who was originally from the Peak District, and she thought may be interested in moving back.
So, Annie led us to finding Shaun Smith, one of the previous head distillers at The Cotswolds Distillery. Not only was Shaun enthusiastic about our plans, but one of his best friends lived close to Ambergate and he had previously mountain biked in Shining Cliff Woods…what are the chances?!! Shaun joined the team as soon as we secured our funding in the winter of 2016, so has been part of the team from the early days, with technical and practical input into the Distillery design, engineering and procurement.