Campaign launches to save Oxford distillery

The Oxford Artisan Distillery’s founder has launched a campaign to maintain the original site and its stills after its parent company revealed plans to relocate to Yorkshire.

Tom Nicolson founded The Oxford Artisan Distillery (commonly known as Toad), the English city’s first distillery, in 2017. The grain-to-glass distillery produces gin, vodka and whisky using ‘heritage’ grains.

Oxford native Nicolson left the business in 2022 after the distillery secured a minority investment from Diageo drinks accelerator Distill Ventures in November that year.

The business was then rebranded to Fielden last month, with the company announcing the closure of the Oxford site and a move to a new, larger facility in Goole, Yorkshire. The firm will focus on producing rye whisky and will be installing new stills at the Yorkshire distillery, which will have an annual production capacity of 450,000 litres.

Nicolson, who was informed last month in a shareholder update of the relocation, voiced his disappointment at the move. “It’s incredibly confusing and really disappointing,” he said, explaining that he left the business after “securing the distillery’s future in Oxford” following the funding from Distill Ventures.

He believes the new owners have “broken the promises made to the city” by shifting its operations to Yorkshire. Nicolson said the promise was to “take over the site” and build a visitor centre, which would have been located in the nearby South Park.

As such, Nicolson has formed the Friends of Toad campaign group to call on the company to leave the stills behind and the site in its current state. The group hopes to keep the business open as a distillery and retain jobs for local people.

The distillery stopped tours on 31 May and staff members were put on notice, Nicolson said.

He explains that the “ultimate ambition is to keep the distillery going in Oxford” and work with independent brands and the local community. While Fielden has the company’s grain rights following the investment, Nicolson hopes to continue operating a sustainable distillery using organic grain neutral spirit (GNS).

‘We want to save the jobs’

“We’re not even in competition, we just want to save the jobs,” he added. “What we will do is we’ll raise capital to fulfil the promises of building a visitor centre, and then just keep this distillery running in Oxford. There’s so much support for it.”

As part of the original plan, Nicolson had agreed a “really good deal” with the local council to build facilities at the park, where there are currently no toilets or a café. The visitor centre would have included a restaurant and bar.

He continued: “We’ve got people that want to invest already. And we’ve got a plan to move forward with the visitor centre.”

Nicolson has sent a letter to Fielden’s board to start a conversation about the move and approached Distill Ventures, but said neither move prompted any successful talks.

He said: “We want to talk to the distillery and just find a way to say, ‘look, come on, you know, it’s so much easier for you to just walk away, leave the keys’, and it’s more cost, it would cost them more money to decommission everything and take everything down.”

Nicolson is hoping to fix the distillery’s current stills, which are not functional, adding that the new owners believe they are “too costly to repair”.

“The stills cost under £100,000 to build in the first place,” he says, noting that he has already found someone who is willing to fix them.

“We are deeply confused and very disappointed that a brand that claims to be an ethical and sustainable brand is just ditching Oxford,” he continued.

Within the Friends of Toad group, Nicolson has gained support from residents, local businesses, councillors and an MP.

“We’ve got some very good people on board. There’s a very strong team, we’ve got an amazing executive that we put together already,” he added. “The goal is to create a thriving business in Oxford that provides jobs and experiences for visitors and for the community in Oxford.”

‘Difficult to develop’

Dave Smith, CEO of Fielden, explained the move to Yorkshire in a statement: “Continuing in the Oxford site with the former stills is simply not viable. The stills themselves are unfortunately no longer fit for purpose and continued use was deemed a health and safety risk, and restoration options were just too costly.

“We also explored options to remain at our home in Oxford but the site is difficult to develop given its physical footprint, location and the fair and reasonable restrictions imposed by the Oxford Preservation Trust covenants and Oxford City Council’s planning requirements.

“As a result the business will be leaving Oxford. We have worked with the key stakeholders, Oxford Preservation Trust and Oxford City Council, on an exit plan for the site. Tours ended at the end of May and the site will thereafter be used for blending whisky and then be fully decommissioned by the end of 2024.

“Our new production site enables us to grow, be more energy efficient (we aim to be at net zero emissions by 2030), and focus on our mission of transforming the way grain is farmed for whisky.”

Fielden takes its name from an Old English word meaning ‘of the field’. The brand uses traditional farming techniques and heritage grains from centuries ago, and works without any chemicals or tillage.

The company has planted 2,100 acres of heritage grain across 15 farms stretching from Cornwall to Norfolk.

Fielden’s new distillery in Yorkshire is expected to open in September this year, but there are no plans for a visitor centre.

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Author: Nicola Carruthers