Millie Milliken runs The Drinks Trust’s Drinks Community platform, a peer-to-peer networking hub for people working in drinks to upskill, share knowledge and connect with other industry members. She is also an award-winning drinks and hospitality journalist, writing for publications such as Whisky Magazine, Club Oenologique and The Spirits Business, as well as acting as head of content for the recently launched OurWhisky Foundation which works to empower, support and recognise women in the whisky industry
In this month’s newsletter, she talks to Barney Wilczak, distiller and owner of Capreolus Distillery in the Cotswolds and recent winner of the International Spirits Challenge’s Rising Star of the Year award, about handling the pressures of running a business, his biggest hurdles and the support of the drinks community.
Tell me all about Capreolus Distillery and what you do
We have a small distillery based in the Cotswolds and we specialise in eaux de vie which are fruit brandies that take up to 45kg of fruit to make 1litre. We’ve been kindly adopted by the fine wine and bar world as the way we work is very terroir driven: working from wild yeast, locally, hand-grading every piece of fruit. I probably cover all the jobs, but my main job is as the distiller. We’re a family company so it is very much an ensemble and we’re doing everything from distilling to hand labelling.
You recent won the International Spirits Competition’s Rising Star of the Year award – congratulations! How did it feel to win that award?
We’re quite isolated out here and it only really hit me how important it was when I saw all of my industry friends who I haven’t seen for three years and how excited and generous they were when they were talking about Capreolus – I think that more than the title was more important when getting to this point. We’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to do something I love doing, and that makes the huge amount of work worth it. To be put in this position by people we respect massively is amazing.
What’s been your biggest hurdle to date?
It’s a challenge being a small business and starting with no money. We’re now hand processing over 50 tonnes of fruit this year in the garden – we’re bursting at the seams, so we’re looking at buying some land, and put things in like a quince orchard. For any small business these are huge, huge steps, and we don’t want outside investment so we’re digging deep. Throw a new-born baby in there…
How do you try to stay balanced when running your own business with the pressures that come with it?
It’s really challenging sometimes, especially when you’re running your own business. Although we work mainly with people working in hospitality and farming, so you say ‘God, we’re doing 12-hour days’ and they’re like ‘Yeah?’ I try and make time for yourself: taking the dog out twice a day, trying to spend time with my partner Hannah and always try to keep weekends free and find some time sit down with a glass of wine. Nobody gets it right all of the time, but Hannah has been very good at always reminding me to stop and take three deep breaths.
You support a lot of farms by using and celebrating their fruits – do you think the people who grow drinks ingredients get enough recognition?
I think this is one of the things we’re slightly bad at in the spirits world. There is a drive from consumers wanting to know where ingredients come from, but we also have this amazing heritage and the frustrating thing for a lot of farmers is that they have all these interesting crops that have fallen out of favour because nobody knows what to do with them. I’m like a kid in a candy store though – what we do is a small way of being able to conserve these things.
How have you had support from the wider drinks community in growing your brand and spreading the message about what you’re doing?
Everyone in the industry has been incredible. When I started I had £8 in my overdraft and then we got picked up by Dawn Davies [head buyer at The Whisky Exchange] and our gin was made Gin of the Year which was mad. It’s just been amazing, I never thought anyone would buy English eaux de vie or that people would be so interested in us. I live in this world of bemusement – I spend my days distilling in a shed in the Cotswolds and they end up in Michelin-starred kitchens.
You’re also a member of the Drinks Community – how have you found being part of the wider community in the industry?
When you start a business it feels remote and you don’t quite understand what that world is. We do very little advertising beyond social media but it is amazing how that community of people has grown. All we have to do is talk to nice people and everyone is there to support each other – it is a nice industry to be in as everyone on the whole is excited about what they do.
How can you support the hospitality industry through difficult times?
I think the most important thing we can do is keep sharing. Education is such a powerful thing so we always welcome people from the trade to ask for samples, or ask to visit us and spend the afternoon trying our eaux de vie. The more people taste and talk and do different things is great and we’re always there to support people as much as we can from one small company to many other small companies – we’re all in this together.