THE man behind the North East's biggest independent chain of shops has his sights set on making whisky in the Lake District.
Nigel Mills, who founded the Whitley Bay-based Mills Group before selling the business to Tesco for more than £20m in 2011, hopes to repeat the success with a new venture in Cumbria.
The £2.5m Lakes Distillery on a farm near Bassenthwaite Lake has received planning permission and building will commence in April this year.
The distillery should create 25 jobs and, although no whisky will be available until matured for at least three years, the company hopes to start selling their Cumbrian-made gin by April 2014.
Mills is joined in his latest venture by Paul Currie, who set up the Isle of Arran distillery with his father 15 years ago.
Mills said: “We’ve put a board together comprising myself, Paul, Geoff Hodgson, my former finance director at Mills Group, Martin Stokoe, and Gary Thornton.
“We’re managing to raise between £1m and £2m and we’ve also received some European grant funding to get the business started.
“We’re hoping to open the visitor centre, bar and bistro and local art gallery by April 2014.
“It will be one of the biggest tourist attractions in Cumbria when it’s established and create jobs in a national park that desperately needs employment.
“There is only one other whisky distillery in England and that’s in Norfolk but it is very much a smaller operation to what we are trying to do in the Lake District.”
Cumbria has a heritage for whisky-making as it was a Celtic area and whisky was distilled illegally there until late into the 19th Century.
The landscape is one of fast-flowing rivers, rugged mountains and clean pure air. These conditions are very much like those found in Scotland, and they are ideal for producing malt whisky.
There is also a long history of illicit whisky distilling in the area, with the secluded hills and valleys of the area ideal for smugglers.
One of these distillers was Lancelot ‘Lanty’ Slee, who had a thriving business and always managed to keep one step ahead of the customs authorities, helped by supplying his whisky to the local magistrates.
The Lakes Distillery will set aside the first 100 casks produced and, each year, will bottle the maturing whisky exclusively for its Founders’ Club members.
Each year for 10 years, members will receive one 70cl bottle plus two miniatures, giving them the opportunity to taste the spirit as it develops over time into a 10-year-old malt whisky. These casks will not be available to the general public – only to members.
“We will sell the whisky through our membership club, the distillery and distribute it around the world,” said Mills. “We don’t want to produce huge volumes as we want it to remain a niche product.
“You’ll be able to distinguish it from Scottish whiskies as it will be distilled three times instead of twice. We aim to produce roughly 24,000 casks a year each containing 12 bottles.
“All of us involved bring a lot of business experience to the table, and although it’s still very much a commercial venture for all of us, it’s also a great deal of fun.”
Anyone interested in investing in the business can get in touch via the website: www.lakesdistillery.com