We talk a lot about the renaissance of Irish whiskey, with the industry having grown from a mere four distilleries to over thirty in the space of only a few years. Over the Irish sea, a similar growth can be found. This isn’t limited to the burgeoning Welsh and English whisky scenes either: there are several new distilleries in Scotland. Some of these, such as Ardnamurchan, Raasay and Daftmill, have jumped straight into the craft whisky sector, with their limited run releases quickly selling out and receiving high plaudits. Today, however, we will look at a distillery founded as a rather different concept.
It would be a little unfair to say that Kingsbarns Distillery was built wholly as a tourist attraction. However, the concept came to its founder, Douglas Clement, while working as a caddie in Fife. Having been asked countless times by golf tourists if there was a distillery nearby that they could visit, he recognised a niche in the market that deserved to be filled. This provenance is reflected in the significant visitor experience that Kignsbarns advertises. And the distillery’s location in the East Neuk of Fife, a 16-minute drive from the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, certainly makes it an attractive proposition for golf tourists.
It is worth noting that the story presented on the Kingsbarns website makes scant reference to Douglas. While he had laid the groundwork for the distillery’s construction, he lacked the capital to establish a large distillery and visitor centre by himself. Given that the visitor centre was key to the Kingsbarns concept, establishing a small distillery first and growing the tourist experience later was unfeasible. Having established the Kingsbarns Distillery company in 2008, Douglas sold a controlling stake to the Wemyss family in 2013. The distillery opened in 2014, with Douglas working as the visitor centre manager.
The Wemyss family had previously established an independent bottling company but had business interests, and pockets, that run far deeper. These include, according to The Herald: “Kenyan tea plantations (and) Australian sheep farming.” This is far from a small family business.
Today, Doug has parted company from Kingsbarns and the Wemyss family. To comment on the nature of this split would be pure conjecture. However, the Kingsbarns website makes scant reference to his part in establishing the distillery, instead writing a leading role for the Wemyss family.
The inaugural release from the distillery is the NAS Dream to Dram. The question is: whose dream?
Kingsbarns Dream to Dram
Lowland Single Malt Whisky
46% ABV, matured in a combination of first-fill ex-Bourbon and first fill STR ex-Portuguese red wine casks.
Natural colour; non-chill-filtered.
£45 (Kingsbarns Distillery website)
Nose: Toasted cereal leads the way in the form of hobnob biscuits. There’s also coconut, sweet vanilla, foam banana sweets, pears and citrus. The youth is apparent: the nose has an acetone harshness to it.
Palate: There are some lighter notes here: fruit from pear, banana, and melon. These are joined by coffee grounds, bitter almond, and butter biscuits – more than a little rough around the edges.
Finish: Citrus and grains, harsh and increasingly bitter as it fades.
Opinion: There is potential here, but in my eyes, the Dream to Dram is far too young. There is a real harshness to the nose and the palate, and not much in the way of balance: a couple of flavours came through strongly out of a somewhat jumbled mess. It’s a shame – the ingredients for a decent dram are here, but these will need time and finesse for the potential to be realised.
It strikes me that the Kingsbarns distillery is a tourist attraction first and foremost, which has influenced the decision to release a whisky as soon as possible. A distillery visit that doesn’t offer tourists the opportunity to purchase a bottle of whisky is a wasted opportunity. The price seems suited to tourists too: it’s definitely high for what the whisky offers, but it isn’t so high that it would prevent purchase in the distillery shop.
I asked whose dream the Dream to Dram represents. Its obvious and offensive youth answers this. The Wemyss family purchased Kingsbarns as the project, after years of work, culminated. They had been dreaming about the distillery for almost no time at all. The Dream to Dram clearly expresses this: it has matured for nearly no time at all, in a noticeable and slightly unpleasant way.
I wonder what could have been had Douglas Clement retained a controlling interest: we have seen great things from other small distilleries founded and operated by passionate people. Instead, I find myself dreaming of what this dram could have been.