The coastal strip that runs from the Firth of Forth to Montrose has long been prime barley country, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Fife claims the first written record of distilling. Some 525 years later whisky is back with a vengeance across the region, as Tom Bruce-Gardyne reports

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‘Fine views to the Kingdom of Fife’ is an old Edinburgh estate agent cliché, up there with ‘good local schools’ and the more recent ‘nearby Waitrose’ (an upmarket supermarket, for the uninitiated). Fife was a mythical Pictish kingdom after the Romans departed and remained secluded behind the Firths of Forth and Tay until these wide estuaries were spanned by road and rail in the 19th century. Beyond Scotland, Fife is obviously best-known as the cradle of golf rather than whisky, but the latter is experiencing an exciting, if belated, second coming.

The view of the new distillery from Lindores Abbey in Fife, home to Scotland's first documented distiller.

The first coming, as every Scotch whisky book will tell you, concerns Lindores Abbey in Fife, home to Scotland’s first documented distiller. The Exchequer Roll for 1494 carried the immortal line: ‘To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make acquavitae, VIII bolls of malt.’ “Eight bolls amounts to 1,120lbs (508kg), and this quantity of malt would make just over 400 bottles of today’s whisky,” explained Charlie MacLean in his 1997 book Malt Whisky. Although the acquavitae, or ‘water of life’ could well have been surgical spirit, perfume or even an ingredient in gunpowder, the Scotch whisky industry seized on the date in 1994 to celebrate its 500th birthday.

ALL BUT FORGOTTEN

By then malt whisky production along the east coast, if we include Angus, had shrunk to just one distillery – Glencadam in Brechin. The town’s other distillery of North Port, which had ceased production the previous decade, was demolished in that anniversary year and now lies buried beneath a Co-op supermarket. Fife’s malt whisky fizzled out when Cameronbridge stopped producing it in 1929. This mother of all distilleries, the largest in Europe, has since stuck to grain whisky, with a hefty dollop of vodka and gin on the side.

Having visited Cameronbridge on his grand distillery tour of the 1880s, Alfred Barnard wrote: ‘The whisky made here is said to have no equal in the world. There are several kinds manufactured, first patent ‘Grain Whisky’ second ‘Pot Still Irish’ third ‘Silent Malt’ and fourth ‘Flavoured Malt’.’ The Forth Rail Bridge was being built at the time by mainly Irish navvies*, and whisky was being blamed for rising casualties. “The Hawes Inn flourishes too well for being in the middle of our works, its attractions prove irresistible for a large proportion of our 3,000 workmen,” wrote Sir Benjamin Baker, one of the engineers. “The accident ward adjoins the pretty garden with hawthorns, and many dead and injured men have been carried there, who would have escaped had it not been for the whisky of the Hawes Inn.” One wonders how many of the 57 who died fell into the Forth with a bellyful of ‘Pot Still Irish’ from Cameronbridge.

Barnard missed the brief life of the Drumcaldie distillery (1896-1903), but visited Grange in Burntisland, Auchtertool near Kirkcaldy and Auchtermuchty (aka Stratheden). These three closed in the 1920s, swiftly followed by the pot stills of Cameronbridge. Unlike other grain distilleries, Cameronbridge did continue to bottle a single grain whisky, originally called Cameron Brig, that was popular in the working men’s clubs of Fife. In 2014 it added a second single grain whisky that some mistook for aftershave in its shiny blue bottle with a gold stopper – this being David Beckham’s famous Haig Club.

A NEW GENERATION

Cask filling in the warehouse at InchDairnie distillery in Fife.

The Haigs who founded Cameronbridge in 1822 were part of the Lowland whisky mafia with their cousins the Steins. Their industrial approach to distilling was partly an accident of nature, as Ian Palmer of InchDairnie distillery explains. “The fact the Lowlands were built on coalfields made a difference, because you could run the stills so much faster if they were coal-fired,” he says. And as Fife farmers were growing other grains besides barley it encouraged the production of grain whisky. Having worked at Invergordon during his 40-year whisky career, he says: “One of the downsides of grain distilling is that it’s a bit of a monster than needs to be fed.”

Ian is part of a new generation of Fife distillers, and he began distilling on the edge of Glenrothes in 2015. The plan is to provide fillings for Macduff International’s blends like Grand Macnish before eventually launching a single malt in 10-15 years’ time. “All InchDairnie has to offer anybody is flavour as we don’t have any history or heritage to lean on,” he says. “We’re a very stripped back company, and we only do one thing here and that’s make good whisky. Every penny and every minute is devoted to the one aim.” There is therefore no distillery visitor centre.

Ian Palmer at InchDairnie, part of a new generation of Fife distillers.

The whisky’s provenance really matters to Ian, who insists on using local barley. “We think about Fife in everything we do,” he says. “Technically we’ll be a Lowland whisky and that’s what will be on our label, but we’ll scream Fife!”

SUNSHINE ON FIFE

The stillroom at Kingsbarns distillery.

Ian also helped engineer the nearby Kingsbarns distillery, which released its first ‘Dream to Dram’ single malt this February. Its owners, the Wemyss family, have been independent bottlers since 2005, which gave them a crucial insight into the whisky industry. Yet it was Doug Clement, a golf caddy at Kingsbarns who conceived the original idea, given the interest in whisky among golfers.

“We’d lived here for many generations down the coast as coalminers and now we’ve gone full circle and become distillers,” says managing director William Wemyss, though whether any of his ancestors actually worked down the pit seems unlikely. Kingsbarns is also committed to local sourcing. “We don’t market our whiskies that we grow all the barley ourselves, but that is definitely the position we’re in,” he says, mentioning Fife’s high levels of sunshine making it perfect for barley. The same climate encouraged Christopher Trotter, a local chef and food writer, to plant a tiny vineyard at his home in Upper Lago, hoping that longer daylight hours would compensate for a lack of warmth. Tasted in 2015, Château Lago has been pronounced ‘undrinkable’, but it may succeed one day with climate change.

William Wemyss (centre), managing director of Kingsbarns distillery.

At Kingsbarns, the late Dr Jim Swan was hired to create a spirit that would be light and fruity and thus lend itself to early maturation, which is now the job of the young distillery manager, Peter Holroyd. There is an impressive new visitor centre and the whisky is proudly of the Lowlands, which William Wemyss believes will have a critical mass in the future. “In 10 years there will be a lot of Lowland single malt on the market,” he says. “Maybe that’s the moment when Lowland distillers need to come together and market themselves under that G.I (geographic indicator).” But he also sees plenty of scope for Fife’s band of whisky-makers to promote themselves jointly, and is encouraged by the Fife Whisky Festival, now in its second year.

FIRST BEER, THEN WHISKY

Paul Miller, driving force behind Eden Mill distillery in St Andrews.

Up the coast, just beyond St Andrews by the mouth of the river Eden, is Eden Mill, which produces craft beers and spirits including whisky. It was set up by Paul Miller and a team of brewing and distilling graduates from Heriot-Watt University in 2012 as the Eden Brewery. It was the first since the town’s Seggie Brewery closed a century before, having been converted from a distillery by the Haig family in the 1860s. This flip-flopping between beer and whisky was not so unusual back then, and when I spoke to Miller for Unfiltered in 2016 he seemed puzzled that no-one had thought of doing them under the same roof. “Had we started as a distillery, would we then have opened a brewery? I guess not,” he told me. Eden Mill released its first single malt last year, and at the time of writing was undergoing a major expansion that should boost its whisky production considerably. It had been filling just eight barrels a week.

MOONLIGHTING AS A DISTILLER

Franchis Cuthbert at work in the stillroom on his farm at Daftmill.

That wouldn’t cause much of a whisky loch any more than Daftmill would. This tiny farm distillery near Cupar has been averaging a mere 100 casks a year since Francis Cuthbert and his brother Ian acquired a license in 2005. “I’m a farmer who moonlights as a distiller,” Francis is wont to explain, and there’s little doubt the 1,000-acre farm comes first, with distilling squeezed into the quiet months after the harvest and during July and August. His connection to whisky, other than enjoying the odd dram, was in supplying Edrington, owner of The Macallan and Highland Park, with barley for malting.

Frances Cuthbert at Daftmill distillery.

“Our original idea was to add value to our barley, which used to sell for around £70 per tonne, by making whisky,” he told the whisky writer Gavin Smith last year. “But the cardboard tubes for the bottles effectively cost more than the barley!” Francis took perverse delight in denying whisky fans a taste of Daftmill, or so it seems. “It’ll be bottled when it’s ready,” the self-taught distiller would tell them. Last April he finally relented by releasing 250 bottles of the 2005 vintage through Daftmill’s upmarket agent – Berry Bros & Rudd of London’s Mayfair. The whisky was sold by ballot at £210 a pop, and no doubt those precious bottles are changing hands for a lot more now.

BACK TO WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

Drew McKenzie Smith at Lindores distillery.

It is time to return to Lindores Abbey, whose owners were once blissfully unaware of its venerable link to the water of life. In fairness the Abbey had been a ruin for centuries, was totally overgrown and housed nothing but a solitary bull employed as a guard dog. Drew McKenzie Smith, whose family has farmed here for over a century, takes up the story: “About 20 years ago, [whisky and beer writer] Michael Jackson came here, and we had no idea who he was. Six months later a lovely book arrived – ‘Scotland and its whiskies’, signed by Michael, with a note saying ‘turn to page 73’. And there was this photograph of the remains of the Abbey with the caption – ‘For the whisky-lover it is a pilgrimage’.”

He began to delve into research and started thinking of a possible visitor centre. At the time he and wife were running Glenmorangie’s Cadboll House, so there were talks with Glenmorangie about a possible collaboration, but plans were shelved. The idea resurfaced four years later, only this time it would involve a distillery with Dr Jim Swan as consultant. “The promise I made to Jim was to keep the spirit first and foremost. Otherwise we could have gone down the Loch Ness Monster route and it could have been a bit of a Disneyland for whisky,” Drew explains.

“I’m happy to report that nearly two years down the line, the spirit is shaping up really nicely,” he says, having fired up the stills in September 2017. “Tragically Jim died halfway through our project, but what we did have was his cask recipe, so my wife and I have already been over to Louisville to meet our bourbon barrel supplier.” Lindores has managed to resist the temptation to surf the gin boom by adding yet another brand, and instead released an acquavitae whose recipe includes sweet cicely and lemon verbena. The spirit has been sweetened and coloured by macerating dates and raisins in it, and sounds rather exotic compared to the original from 1494.

Then again, as explained earlier, Friar John may not have been making whisky. “I think it’s fairly well-documented that acquavitae was initially medicinal for rubbing on wounds,” says Drew. “My theory is that if you get four people in a room someone will start drinking it, and then people will say ‘well, let’s at least make it drinkable.’”

Before converting the steading into a distillery, the McKenzie Smiths knew they would have to do a thorough archaeological exploration of the site. So far, the most exciting find has been a circle of stones surrounding a clay bowl about three feet deep. Could this be an ancient kiln for a still? It’s probably too early to say, but tests have revealed traces of carbon, wood and barley. If true it would bring the whole story of whisky and Fife full circle. Brian Townsend, author of <Scotch Missed>, sums it up well. “Lindores will be unique among distilleries,” he wrote in the <Courier> newspaper in 2018, “blending the sacred and the secular, and the spirit of the past with the present.”

ACROSS THE TAY

John Stirling at Arbikie distillery in Angus.

Francis Cuthbert’s comment about cardboard tubes costing more than barley would certainly resonate with John Stirling of Arbikie, a farm distillery across the Firth of Tay and up the coast near Montrose. He believes the big distillers “have in many ways driven down the price of grain” and are being disingenuous if they trumpet their green credentials while simultaneously importing their barley from wherever’s cheapest.

But it was the supermarkets’ obsession with blemish-free spuds – only smooth, sparkly white tatties need apply – that led to Arbikie’s first spirit, a potato vodka in 2014, quickly followed by the wheat-based Kirsty’s Gin distilled by master distiller, Kirsty Black.

Arbikie's master distiller Kirsty Black has overseen both gin and whisky.

All the while casks have been filled for a single malt that won’t be unleashed until it is 18 years-old, though Arbikie has started bottling a vibrantly spicy ‘Highland Rye’, described as “a wee belter”, by whisky writer Dave Broom.

It would be nice to report that the Stirling brothers had experienced their lightbulb moment of inspiration while staring out at 2,000 acres of spuds, wheat and barley. In truth it happened in a New York bar “sampling alcohol, very professionally”, says John.

“We thought why can’t we do this ourselves? We’ve got all the components. After a few more drinks the idea became better, and by the end of the night it was the most fantastic idea ever!”

Somewhat amazingly, the plan still had legs in the cold light of day and within two years they had a distillery. He is grateful to Scotland’s close-knit distilling community “who helped us enormously”, and Angus Council “who couldn’t have made life easier.”

From the plantings of juniper for the gin to the spices grown under polytunnels, everything comes from the farm. “We wanted that traceability and terroir to resonate throughout the spirit,” John explains. “I think that’s becoming more and more important as people want to know what goes into their drinks.” He admits that Arbikie was lucky to catch the gin wave when it did, but insists whisky will become the main focus eventually. There is a historic tie with an Arbikie distillery marked on a map from 1790 discovered by John’s brother, David. One assumes they were making whisky and not distilling potatoes.

Arbikie production manager Christian Perez.

As well as rye, Arbikie has planted heritage varieties of barley to see what impact it might have on the spirit. The whisky industry has encouraged farmers to focus on one of two high-yielding strains like concerto, which John reckons may not be such a good idea. “If the sole driver is ‘how do we produce more alcohol per tonne’, they’ve potentially lost some of the genetics of flavour,” he says. The proof will be in the pudding in years to come. Meanwhile Arbikie hopes to have its visitor centre open by late summer, though a word of warning to local farmers who visit and then dream of distilling their fields of barley into liquid gold. Growing it is one thing, turning it into a successful brand is something else.

* Navvy, short for navigator and used to describe the manual workers employed on major civil engineering projects.


This in-depth feature is from the May 2019 issue of Unfiltered. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership

 

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