A gloriously icy pale blue cloudless morning awaited us at
Kingsbarns Distillery, after a brisk morning walk around the Old Course in St
Andrews. Refreshed and slightly chilled, we headed south along the stunning East
Neuk of Fife coastline to the sleepy village of Kingsbarns and just beyond this
setting, down a sweeping gravel track, awaits the distillery.
Initially we thought maybe we had taken a wrong turn. The
landscape stretched as far as the eye could see; across fields and woodland
towards the North Sea. Then just around a corner, the distinctive shape of
Kingsbarns distillery appeared out of nowhere. Originally the building prior
renovation was an 18th century doocot that had fallen into
disrepair. Another word for doocot is dovecot, and these buildings housed
pigeons and would have been seen as a sign of status and wealth. In its later
life the building was then a mill and home to cows before becoming dormant.
Many years later - I’m starting to feel like a fairy tale
voice over here - local golf caddie Douglas Clement had the inspiration to bring a whisky distillery
to the region and set about seeking investors to bring this vision to fruition.
It is hard to believe but only a few years ago whisky distilleries were not the
current vogue as we know today. Never giving up on his dream, the concept
received the massive boost into reality when the Wemyss family bought into his
vision. The Wemyss family has a long connection with Fife and since 2004
entered the whisky market and began releasing a very successful range of blends
and single cask bottlings. Together, Kingsbarns Distillery came into being and
started distillation only a couple of weeks ago.
After a pre-tour cuppa in the already popular distillery
café we embarked on our tour, which was with Douglas himself, who is now the
visitor centre manager. There are 3 tours available with the Kingsbarns (£8, an
hour) lasting an hour, the Doocot (£20, 1.5 hours) and the Dream to Dram (£50,
2.5 hours) tour. My choice was the Dream to Dram as this offered the
opportunity to explore the distillery in detail and then enjoy an extensive
range of the Wemyss blends and single malts. This would prove useful for when I
descended downstairs after the tasting, to raid the attractive distillery shop.
If you are a real whisky enthusiast then there is only 1 choice when it comes
to a tour, as long as you have a driver in tow. St Andrews is only around 8 miles away so for visitors staying nearby, a local taxi is another method of transportation.
Currently Kingsbarns is only in production on weekdays, so
the weekend was free of those distinctive aromas and sounds. Next time I’ll go
on a weekday for that part of the experience, but the Saturday setting afforded
the opportunity to get up close with the distillation equipment and wonder what
the stills may give birth to in a couple of years. Needless to say Kingsbarns
has no distilling history to base a presentation around currently, but for
visitors they have turned to the history of whisky and Fife along with the
seasons of nature that play such a vital role in the creation of whisky.
I’ve lived in Fife for most of my life and sometimes you
take the history and the way things are around you for granted without further
question. The professional presentation offered a moment of reflection and that
I should be planting more snowdrops for next year. We then moved onto the cow
horn area where each individual vessel offered a whisky scent and you had to
guess which it was. My senses were still coming online after a well-earned
break the night before but I still managed to correctly guess a couple and
enjoyed the interaction. This area of the doocot housed the cattle so the horns
have a connection to its prior residents.
Looming at the back of the presentation area is the striking
display of the first cask to be filled at the distillery. This comes as
Annandale distillery have put up their first cask for sale for the ridiculous
price of £1 million. The Kingsbarns cask stands alone in the restored doocot
area of the distillery, complete with the sounds of birds and pigeons. It
sounds unusual but this link with the past and future works well. An
atmospheric setting, offering an almost dunnage warehouse atmosphere and
climate, somehow I doubt that Kingsbarns will be going down the Annandale
After this display we then moved towards the production side
of the distillery but not before a detour to gaze out across the idyllic Fife
countryside. As the distillery is in its infancy the exterior is still coming
together with the team waiting on Mother Nature to produce an array of wild
flowers across its grounds. Also on the to-do-list is a putting green for
visitors. The view was enhanced with a dram of the Wemyss blend Lord Elcho thatI reviewed last year. My comments still stand regarding this high malt contentblend and next time I’m up at Kingsbarns I’ll purchase the age statement
expression for comparison.
A stack of barrels stood nearby waiting for their
opportunity to interact with the new make spirit. These fine ex-bourbon casks
have come from Heaven Hill Distillery in Kentucky. Douglas relayed the story of
the Wemyss family connections to source this vital ingredient that is in great
demand currently. The Speyside Cooperage facility in America has a specialist who selects
these casks, which are subsequently transported intact to Fife; a key piece of
detail for those who criticise the practice of flat-packing barrels. This
should add more flavour to the Kingsbarns whisky and yes, I did ask, they will
be experimenting with other casks types including sherry. It’s also worth highlighting
that the Wemyss family own the Rimauresq vineyard in France and some examples
of their wine are in the distillery shop.
Prior to entering the main hub of production we took in a
huge wall chart showing the ground underneath the distillery, which is where
Kingsbarns extracts its water from a depth of 60m beneath the surface. The
water itself is natural and although Douglas suggested it is a little harder
than the water used by many other distilleries, it doesn’t stop Highland Park
from creating marvellous whiskies. The malted barley is grown locally in Fife
which is fantastic news but as the major maltsters are out with the Kingdom
itself, it has to be shipped out before returning. It’s just not financially
viable to malt the barley onsite, which was confirmed by Dr Bill Lumsden during
a presentation I attended earlier this month celebrating the 200th anniversary of Ardbeg. His nirvana is
to have the Ardbeg malting floors revived but Moet Hennessy don’t like the price
The distillery production takes place in one room and unlike
most distilleries today disabled access is catered for throughout the tour. An
efficient layout of the various stages takes place on the upper deck before you
descend down the stairs to be greeted by the spirit safe and two distinctive
stills from Forsyths of Rothes. Douglas highlighted the desire so far to keep
the stills looking natural so they haven’t applied any coating to make either
of the stills buffed and gleaming.
Initially the plan was to have the stills with tall necks to
help facilitate a lighter spirit in the Lowland tradition. Unfortunately due to
restrictions regarding the external building (this is a historic site after
all) and its appearance they were unable to shape the stills in this manner, as
digging down would have been very costly and created its own set of issues. Instead
the Lyne arm of both stills is very pronounced and visually impressive. One
still is heated internally by a coil whereas the other relies on an external
source. Beyond the stills is an area where some a limited number of casks will
be racked giving visitors almost the whole process within this single room.
Most of the production will be shipped to Glenrothes where another distillery
is currently under construction and the warehouses will be shared.
We ascended the stairs to the tasting rooms both of which have
been lavishly decorated and panelled with great attention to detail. The Dream
to Dram tour includes an in-depth tasting across the Wemyss range. The elegant
environment and fine whisky offered another opportunity to talk with Douglas about
his inspiration, whisky appreciation and the journey towards realising his
dream. It was an inspiring discussion and Douglas is clearly looking forward to
the future with his engaging and passionate distillery team. The whisky itself
includes the choice of 2 drams from the Wemyss blend range which includes the
expressions from 8-12 years old.
Then we had the choice of 3 drams from 5 exclusive single
cask Wemyss releases that are only available at the distillery shop. It is a
very clever idea offering something exclusive to the distillery given the
maturation required before they can sell their own Kingsbarns whisky. The plan
is when these 5 exclusives have sold out that Wemyss will bottle another
handful of exclusives. Wemyss do like to name each of their releases summing up
the feel and experience of the dram much like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Some
of the 5 names can be linked back to the Fife landscape today.
For the record the single cask whiskies are from Mortlach, Glen
Grant, Clynelish, Glen Scotia and Bunnahabhain so a good range of Scottish
single malts are on offer. The unanimous star is the 17 year old Bunnahabhain,
closely followed by the Glen Scotia. The tour includes a £5 discount off a bottle
from the distillery shop so I purchased the Bunnahabhain. It also includes a
Glencairn tasting glass but I forgot all about that little extra.
Needless to say I will be reviewing my Smouldering Hickory
(Bunnahabhain) purchase in the coming weeks here at Whisky Rover so watch out
for that little gem. Our thanks go out to Douglas and his team for being such
welcoming hosts and I’m sure we’ll be back very shortly. I’m delighted that Fife
has another distillery to add to the ranks of Daftmill and Eden Mill yet each
of the trio retains its own unique appeal and fingers crossed, the whisky
As always I've taken far too many photographs to fit into this piece. You can follow me on Instagram as I drip feed many images of Kingsbarns over the coming months here, or at your own viewing pleasure click through my Facebook album of the visit but be warned there are a few photographs!
Labels: distillery tour, dream to dram, kingsbarns, lowland, wemyss, whisky