The 'Kingdom of Fife' in eastern Scotland is home to the country's largest whisky distillery, namely Diageo's Cameronbridge grain facility, which is capable of turning out over 100 million litres of spirit per year. Cameronbridge was founded back in 1824 by members of the famous Haig family, a prolific distilling dynasty, which operated many distilleries across central and Lowland Scotland and became synonymous with one of the world's best-selling blended Scotch brands.
Fife has a rich distilling heritage, with the earliest surviving reference to Scotch whisky in 1494 being linked to Lindores Abbey, and the owners of the abbey land are planning a new distillery there (see Whisky Magazine 125). The current Scottish distillery-building boom is also seeing the construction of InchDairnie distillery at Glenrothes by John Fergus & Co Ltd, due to open for business later this year. Meanwhile, well below the radar, the Cuthbert family's farm distillery of Daftmill, near Cupar, has been operating since 2005, and aficionados are eagerly awaiting the first releases.
Within the last eight months two new Fife distilleries have come on stream, and while there are significant differences between them, both share a link with the aforementioned Haig family. Eden Mill, located near the historic university town of St Andrews, has been developed on the site of Seggie distillery, operated by Haigs between 1810 and 1860, while Kingsbarns is owned by the Wemyss family, of Wemyss Castle, on the Fife coast. Their connections with the whisky industry date back to the turn of the 19th Century when John Haig built his earliest distillery on Wemyss land.
Of the two ventures, Eden Mill was the first to be established. It was the brainchild of former Coors Brewing executive Paul Miller, whose career also included working in product development with International Distillers & Vintners and The Glenmorangie Company Ltd.
He set up what was initially called Eden Brewery during 2012 in part of a former paper mill, built on the Seggie distillery site at Guardbridge during the second half of the 19th Century, and the Eden range of beers soon proved highly popular. Indeed, Miller considered expanding the brewing plant in order to increase production. However after a meeting with David Lang and Tony Reeman-Clark of Strathearn distillery (established in 2013), this led him down the craft distilling path.
During 2014 brewing capacity was expanded from five barrel to 20 barrel capacity so as to be able to produce enough wash for distillation purposes. Following the Strathearn model, Miller commissioned three distinctive copper pot stills from Hoga in Portugal, and after starting out making gin, Eden Mill filled its first whisky cask last November.
With Miller's brewing background, and a brewery on site, it was not surprising that the Eden Mill team decided to experiment with three different types of malt, each producing a distinctive new-make spirit character.
That new make is now on sale ahead of the release of legally defined 'Scotch whisky' after a minimum of three years, and the trio of spirits are St Andrews Day Single Malt Spirit, made from pale malt, Hogmanay Single Malt Spirit, using pale malt and chocolate malt, and Robert Burns Day Single Malt Spirit, produced with pale malt, crystal malt and brown malt.
Eden Mill distils from Golden Promise barley, grown by Francis Cuthbert, who owns Daftmill distillery, and Paul Miller says that "It's more expensive than most barley, but the yields are actually pretty good and the quality is fantastic. We get wash coming through clear, sweet, balanced, and not cereal led. The aim is to create spirit which is rich and robust."
'Lowland malts' and 'rich and robust' are not the adjectives most likely to spring to mind, as thoughts turn to light, fragrant, delicate drams. This is not the case with Eden Mill, however, as the fuller-bodied style of spirit being laid down is described by Paul Miller as 'Coastal Highland,' and he cites The Macallan, Clynelish and Old Pulteney as whiskies admired and respected by the Eden Mill team.
Rather than fill into ex-Bourbon casks as might be expected, a substantial percentage of the distillery's output is going into into ex-Oloroso sherry casks, though American and French oak casks of varying sizes are also being used.
According to Paul Miller, "Our first whisky, The St Andrews Day Malt, will be released in early December 2017. It will be pale malt matured in French Virgin Oak quarter casks and will be a release of approximately 350 bottles."
Spirit made from the other two malt recipes will follow, and Paul Miller adds that "Each of the three variants will have a small batch of one year old spirit and two year old spirit released in 2015, and 2016 to allow interested spirit /whisky lovers to join us on the journey to our single malt releases. We expect to be releasing our first signature malt from Oloroso hogsheads around five or six years old in 2020."
Although Eden Mill offers popular beer, gin and whisky tours and tastings to the public, it is very much a working site rather than a showpiece establishment that sets its stall out to attract visitors, which is in direct contrast with fellow Fife distilling newcomer Kingsbarns.
Kingsbarns is located in the East Neuk of Fife, between St Andrews and Crail, and like Eden Mill, it is based in a redundant building, but rather than a former paper mill, Kingsbarns has brought a historic farmstead on the Cambo Estate back to life.
The man credited with the notion of creating Kingbarns distillery is Doug Clement, who began to plan the venture back in 2009, and now rejoices in the title of Visitor Centre Manager and Founding Director. Raising finance did not prove easy, however, but as he explains. "I kept at it, I didn't give up, despite rejections for grants, then finally we got £670,000 in September 2012 from the Scottish Government. I had presented our business plan to William Wemyss in early 2012, and once we'd got the grant he went for it, coming on board officially in January 2013, with construction work beginning in June of that year."
So just why did Wemyss Malts become involved in the Kingsbarns project? Karen Stewart, Director of Marketing for Wemyss Malts and Kingsbarns Distillery points out the early Haig link with Wemyss land and notes the establishment of Wemyss Malts as independent bottlers in 2005. "Kingsbarns distillery secures and strengthens the Wemyss family's interests in Scotch whisky," she says, "and not only creates a new single malt brand, but also supports the business of Wemyss Malts with selected reciprocal deals to support our range of blended malts in particular."
Production at Kingbarns commenced in February of this year, and the barley used in distilling is grown on the Wemyss family's Wellsgreen Farm, near Cameronbridge, giving the whisky the same sort of Fife malt provenance as Eden Mill.
When it comes to spirit character, the intention is to produce a relatively light-bodied single malt in the traditional Lowland style, by contrast with Eden Mill's more robust and 'Highland' malt. Doug Clement says that "We're looking for a fast-maturing spirit, and bottles of new-make will be on sale from this summer."
The Kingsbarns stills have long lyne arms to help create a light style of spirit, and slow distillation is practiced, with a high 'cut point' of 69 per cent, to ensure only the lighter spirit is captured. The majority of casks being filled are ex-Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels..
Kingsbarns boasts well designed and appointed visitor facilities, with some flashes of real imagination. For example, in the former cow byre which has become part of the visitor centre, a nice touch is an eye catching line up of Highland cow horns which serve as an 'aromatron,' giving the public the chance to experience different whisky aromas.
When it comes to visiting Kingsbarns, there is a range of tour options, from the one hour Kingsbarns Tour, which includes a tasting session, through the one and a half hour Doocot Tour, with a more extensive tasting remit, to the Dream Dram Tour. Here guests are welcomed with a coffee, then guided through the exhibition, taken to some of the behind the scenes areas of the distillery, given a full tutored whisky tasting, and come away with commemorative Glencairn whisky glass and voucher for £5 off a bottle of whisky in the well-stocked distillery shop.
Based on recent and current developments, the 'Kingdom of Fife' may have a proud distilling heritage to its credit, but it also looks to have a very positive distilling future ahead of it.
Malt: unpeated - Golden Promise barley variety
Mashing: semi-lauter mashtun - 3,330 litres capacity
Fermentation: 2 x stainless steel washbacks - 13,300 litres total capacity. Average 2-3 day fermentations
Distillatio: 2 wash stills, 900 litres charge, 1 spirit stills, 900 litres charge
Distillery capacity: 100,000 lpa
Hogmanay Single Malt Spirit 50% ABV
Nose: Sweet, with sultanas, toffee and almonds. More biscuit-like in time
Palate: Sweet and nutty, with emerging ripe peaches
Finish: Quite lengthy, with peaches and milk chocolate
Malt: unpeated - Optic and Chalice barley varieties
Mashing: semi-lauter mashtun - 1,400 kilos mash. Five mashes per week
Fermentation: 4 x stainless steel washbacks - each 11,000 litres capacity. 72 hour fermentations
Distillation: 1 wash still - 7.5,000 charge, 1 spirit still - 4.5,000 litres charge
Distillery capacity: 650,000 lpa
Sampling the Spirit
Kingsbarns New Make 67.1 % ABV
Nose: Fruity and floral, with melon and roses. Hints of toffee and ginger
Palate: Approachable at high strength, fruit still to the fore, with toffee and sweet spice
Finish: Long, with lingering spice
Eden Mill Distillery
Main Street, Guardbridge, Fife KY16 0UU
Tel: + 44 (0) 01334 834 038.
Kingsbarns Distillery and Visitor Centre
East Newhall Farm, Kingsbarns, Fife KY16 8QE
Tel: + 44 (0) 1333 451 300