TOAD's (Not so Wild) Ride to Becoming Oxford's First Distillery


On our trip to England last August we spent one night in Oxford which didn't give us a lot of time to explore but we did squeeze in a walking tour of the university and then ventured about 1.5 miles beyond the city to a new craft distillery where a talented team of visionaries was launching its first bottled spirits after years of building every aspect of the business from the ground up.

Five years is how long it took Tom Nicolson to lay the ground work and build the team that today is The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD), the first legal distillery ever in Oxford. Nicolson, the founder and CEO of TOAD gave us a tour just days after the distillery released its first bottles of Oxford Dry Gin and Oxford Rye Vodka. TOAD is also in the process of crafting an absinthe made with more than twenty organic botanicals and a rye whiskey that has been laid down but needs to age.

Nicolson, donning a wheat straw pork pie hat, picked us up at our hotel in the center of Oxford to transport us to the distillery just a short drive away. The distillery van was easily recognizable as it pulled in front of our hotel with its TOAD logo and illustration of the distillery's dapper, amphibian mascot, George, wearing a boater hat.

The distillery sits on a site which dates back to the 18th century when it was owned by a local family and the property was known as Cheney Farm. An original threshing barn still stood on the property now known as the Old Depot in South Park and is under the control of the Oxford Preservation Trust which has leased it to TOAD. 

There were a couple of carpenters working on projects around the property and the distillery seemed to be in "soft opening" mode with shipment boxes stacked on the floor and marketing materials laying around. Behind a counter, Chief Operating Officer, Tagore Ramoutar, was unpacking boxes of glassware and stocking the tasting bar where we would later sip the new vodka and gin. Nicolson and Ramoutar met at a networking event for start-ups in 2014 and soon after began working together on detailed plans and a strategy for Oxford's first craft distillery. Unpacking boxes seemed a rather mundane task for an experienced entrepreneur and new venture expert who had already notched many business successes on the global stage but Ramoutar had a relaxed smile on his face and looked as though he was having a great time as part of this distillery venture. 

Nicolson too, came from an impressive business background. His career in the music industry and creating successful recording studios in London had fueled his passion for business and creativity but in 2012 he was ready for a new challenge. That's when the wheels for the inception of TOAD were put in motion. He had become interested in craft distilling and started to investigate the possibility of opening his own distillery. Nicolson had come from a family with a history of working in the wine and whiskey business in Scotland for generations, a tradition that ended when his father left the industry to pursue life as a vicar. Nicolson joked that his father gave up one kind of spirit for another. After talking to people in the industry and doing his own due diligence, Nicolson decided to fully commit himself to opening Oxford's first craft distillery. 

We made our way to the distilling building where two impressive and gleaming copper stills with towering distillation columns were housed. These were not run-of-the-mill stills, they were custom designed and hand made. As Nicolson proudly patted the larger of the two he told us these stills had been designed and built by a man named Paul Pridham, one of England's last great steam engine boiler makers of the South Devon Railway. Nicolson had reached out to Pridham who worked for two years to create these custom, hand-riveted stills. The large 2200-litre still is named Nautilus and the smaller, 500-litre still is named Nemo - a clever nod to the author Jules Verne and his novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

As Nicolson explained the distilling process he told us about the farmer who provides the grains TOAD uses in making its spirits - grains which distinguish TOAD's spirits from those of any other distiller in the world. The story of their origin was quite fascinating.

John Letts, an archaeo-botanist and well known organic farmer from Oxford discovered various ancient grains in the base layer of thatch removed from a medieval house from which he began to develop genetically diverse seed mixes of wheat, rye, oats and barley. Nicolson and Letts first met in 2013 at a farmers' market where the farmer was hoping to attract artisan bakers to buy his flour made from sustainably-grown, ancient and heritage grains. Nicolson was intrigued with Letts' approach to growing grains for this flour but saw another angle. "I think you're missing a trick," he told Letts, suggesting maybe these ancient grains could be used for distilling spirits. The two kept in touch and in 2015 TOAD signed an exclusive contract with Letts to use his populations of ancient heritage grains (in perpetuity) for distilling. All of the heritage grains come from fields within 50 miles of Oxford. TOAD claims to be the only distillery in the world to use populations of these types of grains in is distilling. 

Next, we took a peek inside the 18th century threshing barn where the rye whiskey would eventually be laid down to age after the distilling process. This is the only building from the original farm that is still on the site. Instead of seeing it as a preservation nuisance, Nicolson sees it as an enhancement to the story of TOAD and its historical connection to community of Oxford. 

We made our way to the lab where the work of Cory Mason takes place. It was a modest-sized room filled with beakers, scales, bottles, grain bags and other ingredients. Mason was not on site that day but he, like the other members of TOAD, comes from an impressive background. Nicolson and Mason met back in 2013 when opening a distillery was still just an idea but the two "clicked" and seemed to share the same vision. Mason, an award-winning Master Distiller who made a name for himself in New York City with management roles in bars and restaurants including "Employees Only," (once voted one of the best cocktail bars in the world). He honed his distilling skills at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and his long list of accomplishments include developing more than 15 commercially released spirits. Today he is the Master Distiller of TOAD. 

There is room to grow on the property and Nicolson has plans to add a bar, restaurant and visitor center. He's been busy getting the word out about TOAD and in addition to the regularly scheduled distillery tours, Nicolson has been inviting the local community to a few "Open Days" at the distillery where folks can get a behind-the-scenes look at the operation. Nicolson invites local food purveyors, beer breweries and car clubs to help with the festivities all the while educating his local guests about TOAD. He wants very much for TOAD to be part of the community and he wants the community to be part of TOAD. To prove it, the distillery will open up its shares to the public in an attempt to raise £1million in a crowdfunding campaign some time this fall. We just might buy in too!

We finally made our way back to the tasting room where Ramoutar was waiting to treat us to tastings of the newly bottled Oxford Dry Gin and Oxford Rye Vodka. Both were so smooth and very easy to sip straight up. We could taste a very slight toffee flavor in the vodka which Ramoutar explained was from the ancient grains. We tasted the gin mixed with some tonic, lemon and lime and it really was the best gin and tonic I've ever had. We bought two bottles of gin to take with us to the Cotswolds where we planned to hike for the next few days.  


The name of the distillery provided a basis for the apt acronym, TOAD, a happenstance not lost on Nicolson. One of his favorite books as a child was The Wind in the Willows, the story of friendship and adventures of a band of anthropomorphized animals in the English wood including the frolicsome standout character, Toad, who may or may not have been a source of inspiration for the distillery mascot, George. Similar to the characters in the children's book, Nicolson and his colleagues seem to be enjoying their own adventures and camaraderie as they build their distillery business in the English countryside. Cheers to them!



For information about The Oxford Artisan Distillery and tours click here

For information about our four-star accommodations at The Buttery Hotel click here

A Walk in the Cotswolds


The Cotswolds is a vast area which covers nearly 800-square miles spanning six counties and has a  seemingly endless number of trails to choose from - some circular, some linear, but all offering beautiful pastoral scenery and sweeping views of the English countryside.

Perhaps the most famous trail is the 102-mile Cotswold Way which stretches from Bath to Chipping Campden and can take 7-10 days to complete, but there are many other shorter routes already mapped and waymarked that traverse many of the same quaint towns and villages that you can complete in 2-5 days. Determining which route to take really depends on what you want to see, how far you're willing to walk, what type of accommodations you prefer and your budget. 

The Cotswold Round

Our group of eight decided on the Cotswold Round - a five-night, 4-day circular route - designed to take in some of the most picturesque villages and towns in the Cotswold countryside with a few steep climbs to breathtaking panoramic views. Our walk started and ended in Moreton-in-Marsh, once an important staging area for horse-drawn carriages making their way to London and many of the inns, pubs and homes in this town today were once coaching inns. We walked an average of 12.8 miles each day which didn't leave much time for sightseeing. We started our walks at 9 a.m. everyday and usually finished between 3:30-5:00pm. By the time we showered and had a drink it was usually time for dinner and shops were closed. If you want to have more free time in the towns then consider walking fewer miles each day. We ran into several people who were only walking 6-7 miles per day. There are many tour operators that offer walks of various distances along many routes and will transfer your luggage to the next town as ours did.


Along the way we visited more than a dozen villages and towns and connected onto other trails for brief stretches which included the Monarch's Way, Windrush Way, Wardens Way and sections of the Cotswolds Way. Our first day on the trail proved to be a challenge with seemingly convoluted directions and elusive waymarkings which slowed us down. However, by the second day we found the directions much easier to follow or our navigation skills had improved - not sure which. We had two people reading directions while the rest of us looked for landmarks, waymarkers, fingerposts, gates, hedges, fences, stiles or other vital signs that would keep us on track. 


The scenery on our walk was ever-changing as were the paths we walked on. We climbed grassy hills, followed cuts through farm fields, walked down country lanes, shared bridle paths with horses and riders, hiked a single-track path through a wood and occasionally plodded through mud or wet, sticky clay that required a good boot scrubbing at the end of the day. There were also trails fringed with stinging nettle that got our attention but caused no real harm. We noticed a few restaurants and pubs provided plastic bags to ramblers wearing muddy boots and some clientele just left their boots outside and enjoyed a pint while in their stockings. One path even skirted a golf course where we came upon a friendly foursome who didn't mind us watching them tee off.

Pub life

Stopping at a pub for lunch was a highlight each day and we always tried to find something at the halfway point of our walk but sometimes it was a bit of a challenge getting the timing just right. I recommend keeping some snacks like nuts, cheese and fruit in your day pack in case you need something to nibble on before you find a place to stop. The food was always good and we drank our fair share of beers along the way. A few pubs where we stopped displayed a "CAMRA" decal which recognized the pub as one listed in the CAMRA Best Beer Guide. CAMRA, which stands for Campaign for Real Ale, has been around since 1971 and in addition to publishing a beer guide, its mission is to promote quality ales and bolster support for local pubs in hopes they can thrive amidst ever-growing competition and higher taxes. CAMRA believes local pubs play a critical role in English culture as the hub of community life but in some areas, as wealthy residents move in, pubs are left behind as new fine dining establishments crop up. Real estate has been on a roll in the Cotswolds and demand in the area of Gloucestershire has driven up home prices more than 15% over last year. The Cotswolds have become a favored destination of the well-heeled and in the posh area of Chipping Norton, David and Victoria Beckham (See what I just did there?) just plunked down £6million ($8.079million) for a home they plan to remodel. A local couple in one town did try to direct us to a different pub, saying it would be three times cheaper than where we were headed.

I didn't take many pub or restaurant pics partly because I don't like taking photos during meals and also there was really no extra time during our breaks. I also didn't take pictures of the inns or B&Bs where we stayed but all were nice and had great hosts. The larger inns with restaurants worked out the best for us because at the end of the day after walking 12-14 miles we really didn't feel like walking another couple of miles back into town for dinner. Everywhere we stayed included full English breakfast. 

Historic Sites

There were lots of buildings and structures of historical note throughout the Cotswolds including Civil War ruins, towers, dovecotes, castles, memorial markers, abbeys and wool churches. Much of the affluence in the Cotswolds centuries ago is attributed to the wealthy farmers and merchants who benefited from the wool trade and built large estates and donated generously to the churches, many still standing. 

Towns and Villages

Our trails led us through some private land at times and provided up-close views at the daily work taking place on a farm or a glimpse into a perfectly-manicured English garden of a stately manor. The honey-colored stone cottages and thatched-roof houses reminded me of fairytale illustrations from books I'd read as a child. One of my favorite memories from this trip was when a farmer released his cows into the field where we were walking and we watched as his working dogs herded them to another field. While the farmer strolled along and talked with us, his two dogs worked together to move the cows the length of the long field and into an open gate waiting at the other end. 

Some Final Thoughts

Even though we spent all day, every day walking during this vacation Larry and I still felt like it was one of the most relaxing trips we've ever taken. Walking the trail was quiet and scenic and we felt a sense of satisfaction in reaching our goal at the end of each day. We had moments of walking alone and times when we all were bunched together - talking and laughing, and there may have been a few expletives expressed while going up a steep ascent but we all had a great time. A few of us were a little sad when the trek was over and might go back to walk the entire 102-mile Cotswold Way in the near future. Thank you to Megan, Randi, Sally, Vikki, Bill and George for joining us on this adventure.

The Itinerary

Day 1:    Moreton-in-Marsh

Day 2:    Moreton-in-Marsh to Bourton-on-the-Water (12 miles) 

Day 3:    Bourton-on-the-Water to Winchcombe (13 miles) 

Day 4:    Winchcombe to Broadway (12 miles) 

Day 5:    Broadway to Moreton-in-Marsh (14 miles)

Day 6:    Depart from Moreton-in-Marsh after breakfast.

Other towns and villages along the route included Broadwell, Stow-on-the-Wold, Longborough, Donnington, Upper Slaughter, Lower Slaughter, Naunton, Guiting Power, Broadway, Wood Stanway, Stanway, Stanton, Chipping Campden, Blockley, 

Some Tips

Dress in layers and bring rain gear 

A light day pack is essential and a walking stick or hiking poles is recommended

Wear sturdy trail shoes or hiking boots and make sure you have trained comparable distances wearing them before your trip.

Train. We walked at least 4-6 miles four or five times a week for at least a month prior to our trip. We also fit in a few longer walks of 7-8 miles. 

Pack light. Most tour operators allow only one piece of luggage to be transported to your next accommodation each day.  

If you're interested in taking a walk in the Cotswolds and would like help planning your trip, we'd love to assist you. Working with a travel agent will never increase the cost of a trip but it will usually enhance it.