As home to one of the oldest and most iconic golf courses in the world – the Old Course at St Andrews – the Kingdom of Fife is well established on the Scottish tourist trail. But for the single malt enthusiast, there’s been less incentive to make an eastern detour on the road north and west to the main whisky producing reasons. In the past decade, that has changed, with distilleries at Daftmill near Cupar, Eden Mill in St Andrews and Kingsbarns in the East Neuk running spirit.
When I visit Kingsbarns I find that it’s the area’s association with golf that provided the motivation for the distillery. Founding director Doug Clement grew up on a local farm and was working as a golf caddie at both St Andrews and Kingsbarns. It was on the fairway that inspiration struck.
“I was fed up sending my golfing clients out of Fife to visit a distillery and I thought, surely there’s an opportunity to create a distillery close to the golf courses?” he tells me. “My idea was driven not by any substantial knowledge of whisky, although I always liked a dram, but by trying to make my golfers happy.”
The journey from golf course to whisky cask hasn’t always been straightforward. Doug began by raising a small amount of money from his golf clients to get planning permission. Once that came through in early 2011, bigger investments were required.
The turning point came in September 2012 when Doug secured the Food Processing Marketing and Co-operation Grant Scheme from the Scottish Government, which awarded him £670,000. The grant made the distillery a more attractive proposition and he was able to bring on board the Wemyss family, with their valuable experience in the drinks industry. However, there was something else that set them apart.
“So many Scotch whisky distilleries nowadays are owned by multinational companies and for me, being a ‘Fifer’, it was fantastic to bring on board not just a Scottish owner but one with ancestral routes to Fife,” he says.
Those ancestral routes, and their charming quirks, are highlighted throughout Kingsbarns. The most obvious is the doocot, a pigeon loft familiar to many Fife farm steadings, but now home to the first cask filled with what will one day be Kingsbarns whisky. There’s something about the way the cask is sitting there, surrounded by a soundtrack of cooing pigeons, which makes it feel as though it’s on a pedestal.
Doug takes me to meet the production team, and as we watch head distiller Peter Holroyd and his assistant Andy Colman in action, he tells me about the importance of the distillery’s water source.
It lies 100 metres beneath us, where the water fell as rain decades ago and filtered through layers of rock, purifying it on its journey. Combine that water with locally grown barley and you have a genuine product of Fife.
Doug’s dream may have come from spotting a gap in the market in an area where golf is still the biggest draw. However, since switching from caddying to distilling, Doug has immersed himself in the world of whisky.
“One of the first things I did was join the SMWS,” he says. “It’s been a great education, going into the Vaults and learning about single cask whisky. Then I started travelling all around Scotland.”
Although he claims not to be a “whisky geek”, when he starts explaining the importance of the two types of yeast used by Kingsbarns – one from the US and the other from France – I can’t help but think he’s being modest.
But does it make a difference? There is only one way to tell, and that’s to taste it. The Kingsbarns new make spirit is something special – add a few drops of water and it becomes incredibly fruity; ripe green apples, gooseberries and hay bales – qualities Doug says come from the French yeast.
Before heading back to Edinburgh, I ask Doug about the Kingsbarns Founders’ Club, an initiative launched in 2015 on the distillery’s first anniversary. For Doug, it was a chance to get people involved in the distillery from the start.
“Other distilleries offer cask ownership schemes but we decided to go for a Founders’ Club,” he says. “We’re trying to bring on board founder members to join our journey and support us in the future. In doing so they’ll get all the first bottlings of our whisky – in effect, you’ll be tasting all the fruits of our labour over the last seven years.”
With that I hit the road. On the journey home, I wonder how the cask is getting on in the doocot, and suddenly feel a little impatient.
The Kingsbarns Founders’ Club is open to only 3,000 members who want to be part of the distillery’s history. After receiving a welcome pack, members will be the first to own the distillery’s single malt whisky when they receive a bottle of Kingsbarns Single Malt Founders’ Reserve in mid-2018.
Members will be the only ones to receive a further exclusive Founders’ Club Reserve bottle, each year until 2022. They will also have access to special events and be able to provide input into key decisions in the development of the distillery and its whisky.
Founders’ Club membership costs £500 plus delivery charges and available to buy here.
Words by Phoebe Brookes.
Photography by Mike Wilkinson.