Nigel Mills is the Chairman of The Lakes Distillery. He qualified as a chartered accountant in 1984 and an opportunity two years later to buy a business from a family friend was the start of an incredible journey that saw the Mills brand grow from 11 newsagents to a chain of 77 convenience stores and eight supermarkets from a strong base in North Tyneside and beyond to Sunderland, County Durham, Cumbria, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, the Midlands and South Wales.
In April 2012 Nigel met Paul Currie, who had obtained planning consent to build the largest whisky distillery in England located in an old Victorian model farm in the Lake District National Park. Having owned a successful 4star hotel in nearby Cockermouth for the past 23 years, the opportunity to build a world class whisky distillery, together with tourist destination and food and beverage operation, was too good an opportunity to miss.
Tell us about your journey to The Lakes Distillery?
It all began with a newsletter I was reading, published by a firm of architects in Carlisle. It said they had received planning consent to build a whisky distillery near our hotel in Cockermouth. I felt the two could work really well alongside each other – benefitting from both sides. So I contacted Paul Currie, the distillery’s founder. I showed him around the hotel and we agreed to work together to build the distillery. Over the next three years, we raised £10m and built England’s premier whisky distillery. Since then we have continued to succeed year-on-year, winning awards including the most recent ‘Best Visitor Facility at a Whisky Distillery’ in the world. We have also won the ‘Best Consumer Experience’ award and three architectural awards for the development of old buildings. Our spirits have won 12 medals in several competitions held across the globe, from London to Hong Kong. On 22 July 2015, we were honoured to welcome HRH Princess Anne to the official opening of the distillery. She said: “I hope lots more people get to see the distillery and the wonderful benefits it has here, from the local water and perfect environment to lovely bistro. It is especially lovely to see an old agricultural building being restored and put to good use. I’m looking forward to coming back.”
And this all emerged from one newsletter…
Faith, hope, luck and love are the four words emblazoned on the distillery’s quatrefoil designs. Can you tell us what this means to the brand?
When the Victorians built these farm buildings in the 1850s, they were made from slate and sandstone and included old, Celtic symbols within the designs. While renovating the structure, the builders uncovered many beautiful original details in the architecture and stonework which were then incorporated into the new building works. Foremost among these was a recurring quatrefoil motif. The quatrefoil is an ancient Celtic Christian symbol which denotes Faith, Hope, Luck and Love. It has since become a key symbol of The Lakes Distillery, underlining the very qualities which made this remarkable project possible. Not only are the quatrefoils a symbol of the attributes we’ve needed to build the distillery, but it will be the official toast to our malt whiskies that will be released in five years time.
Our readers have the chance to become part of whisky history this Christmas. Can you tell us about the Founders’ Membership?
When we opened, new whisky distillers were quite rare. The first English whisky distillery was built in Norfolk in 2006 – and there are only two others in England when we launched. We are offering something really quite exclusive and very unique in the Founders’ Membership. We put aside our first 100 casks – so, effectively they are a part of English whisky history. In May of each year – starting in 2016 – we supply one bottle and two miniatures to all of our members. After ten years, founders’ will then end up with a priceless collection – a time capsule of that whisky spirit, and a genuine piece of history. We’ve sold 85% of our memberships, so it’s your last chance to get your hands on one. It certainly makes the perfect and truly unique Christmas present for someone special.
Why should Luxe readers visit the distillery?
We set out to create the best on-site visitor facilities at a whisky distillery in the world, which we have definitely achieved – hence the awards. We provide a fabulous tour experience where visitors can learn all about the traces of whisky production in Cumbria – and all the history that comes with it. You’ll also get the chance to smell the maturing whiskies and taste three of our spirits (our blended whisky, our gin and our vodka). Following on from the experience, visitors can dine in our Michelin-rated Bistro, headed up by our consulted chef, Terry Laybourne. We also have a wonderful retail outlet where you can bag a gift and a selection of distillery experiences. And finally, you can stroll to the river and see where we extract the water. We are set within beautiful surrounds, so we always encourage our visitors to have a look around. So I guess the question is, why would you not come here?
A memorable day at the office?
My most memorable day at the distillery would be 16 December 2014. It was the day the first whisky spirit flowed from out stills. After three years of hard work, we were finally rewarded with our first, fabulous product. Smiles all round.
Your favourite Lakes Distillery product?
The Explorer Edition of our gin. It has won two silver medal in the International Wine and Spirit Competition 2016 (IWSC) for best gin and tonic and best solo gin product. The IWSC is held in London and Hong Kong each year.
Your luxe things in life?
Golf – travelling the world – eating in the best restaurants – wines and spirits.
One of my favourite places to visit is the Algarve, Portugal – particularly to a restaurant called Pequeno Mundo (meaning ‘small world’) in Almancil. It’s a beautiful restaurant built in an old farm building – the food and wine is excellent every time.
Perfect Christmas gift?
A Founders’ Membership. Own a piece of whisky history – what else?