It’s estimated that the golf tourism industry earns the Scottish economy some £300 million each year. While the staples of tartan and bagpipes have been laid on for these tourists at just about every golf course in the land, the addition of whisky has been somewhat more problematic. St Andrews and the East Neuk of Fife, golf’s traditional home, had a particular problem: the nearest distillery offering any form of tour was Tullibardine, over an hour away. Enter Douglas Clement, a local caddie, whose vision of a distillery within easy reach of some of the world’s most famous golf courses I have covered in a previous review.
Kingsbarns is now firmly established and beginning to build a reputation. It recently featured on the BBC’s Hairy Bikers Go Local, which showcased their spirit. Their whiskies have also started to accrue various prizes and awards from the likes of the IWSC, World Whisky Awards, and Bartenders’ Brand Awards. With a business plan firmly anchored on attracting tourists, it was high time to make the trip to the East Neuk to see what Kingsbarns had to offer.
Situated in a beautiful, sympathetically restored old farmhouse, the Kingsbarns distillery makes a strong first impression. A significant portion of the initial funding for the distillery was linked to appropriately preserving the listed building, which has definitely been achieved. Stepping into the reception in the old milling room, visitors can only be impressed by the excellent job the architects have done. While clearly a modern building, a few touches, such as the original roof beams, serve as reminders of the building’s history.
After a short wait (the Fife country roads had not been kind to the other group on our tour), we were introduced to our guide, Dan. We began with a look into the history of the local area and whisky production. There were some interesting choices in the artefacts and information on display. I had been expecting the nods to golfing history, clearly aimed at a particular set of visitors, but the presentation on the area’s royal links was more of a surprise. I suppose this points to the distillery hoping to cater to the interests of the broadest range of visitors. Much was made of whisky’s believed local origins: the team at Lindores Abbey will be pleased to know that their distillery featured prominently in this part of the tour. I was happy to note that the tour offered a more balanced view of the distillery’s origins than the Kingsbarns website, which seems to write Douglas Clement out of the founding story. The Wemyss family did, however, receive the lion’s share of attention.
The tour continued with the obligatory slick film examining the origin of Kingsbarns’ ingredients. This was among the better examples I have seen: it felt like a high-value production. The investment here even included whisky writer Charlie Maclean introducing the dram. Having watched this, we stepped through to the doocot (or dovecot). This authentically restored part of the building holds the first cask of Kingsbarns whisky and serves as the venue for a discussion of the influence of wood on a finished dram.
We moved onwards to the “aromatron” display. This interesting device was a demonstration of some of the different scents present in whisky. I found it quite a fun, interactive tool illustrating our guide’s explanation. Some of the scent sources could have done with renewal, lessening the impact slightly.
Discussion complete, we moved into the next room to take a more in-depth look at some of the ingredients: water sourced from their own borehole reaching directly below the distillery, local barley (malted in Yorkshire), and two strains of yeast. The choice to malt local barley quite some distance away seemed odd initially. However, this was the closest company that could guarantee they would return the same batch of barley they were sent. While not explicitly mentioned, I think we can work out which side of the “terroir” argument Kingsbarns comes down on! The choice of two yeasts, added at different phases of fermentation, was presented as something possibly slightly more revolutionary than it actually is.
At this stage, I must mention that it felt like we had moved through most of the building before we had seen any actual distilling. Most of the original building is given over to the visitor centre displays. Overall, I was quite impressed by these, but I did feel like the narrative was slightly disordered: we had discussed results before ingredients and maturation before distillation. Perhaps I’ve done too many distillery tours and have come to expect a certain order for these things.
Stepping into the still room was quite a jarring experience, having spent the previous 30 minutes in the lovingly restored farm buildings. This was like being in a completely different distillery. The walls were utilitarian breeze blocks, the roof simple steel, the stills unpolished and industrial. While everything up to that point had made me feel like the whole endeavour was purely aimed at tourists, we were now standing in a room that was only built around fermentation and distillation. I noted the comparatively short stills and their long horizontal arms. This is the influence of the building’s listed status: no part of the distillery can stand taller than the doocot, impacting the shape of stills and, ultimately, the taste of the whisky they produce.
As it wasn’t a distilling day, the explanation of the process took place in the stillroom itself. Provision had been made for those days when this would have been impossible due to the noise of the distillery in action, with an excellent diagram just outside. Visitors should be aware that distilling typically only takes place on weekdays: this is not a full-time industrial undertaking. Indeed the output is relatively low: some 200,000 litres per annum, or perhaps 30 casks per week.
There was no visit to the distillery warehouse: Kingsbarns does not mature its spirit on site, instead storing it down the road at Inchdairnie. Instead, we moved straight to the “Wemyss Room” for the traditional tasting and conclusion of the tour. This included the new make spirit, Dream to Dram, and sherried Balcomie (which I will cover in a future review). The two whiskies are without age statement, although are likely released as4-year-old spirit at this point.
The Kingsbarns distillery is a good proposition for those tourists who already find themselves in that part of the world. Although I wasn’t convinced by the order in which the initial part of the tour was presented, it did make for a decent explanation, undoubtedly helped by our guide’s enthusiasm and knowledge. I suspect that the distillery’s whisky won’t yet attract pilgrims to visit from afield, but it’s very much early days for the Kingsbarns brand. At £12 per person, the price of a tour certainly shouldn’t put anyone off, and there are more expensive tour packages aimed at those wanting to make more of an experience out of it: possibly at those golf tourists hoping to be able to claim to have really “done” Scotland.