Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Not-Yet-Whisky Pilgrim. 3rd September. Kingsbarns and Eden Mill.

God I hate the M6. In particular the Junction 15-20 stretch, which is the sort of place of which antique cartographers would write ‘here be monsters’, but the whole thing’s just a 230 mile ribbon of awfulness. Should you wish to even slightly alleviate the drudgery you’ll pay £4.80 for the privilege. And how many times mine weary wheels hath trundled its ponderous length. After which you hit the M74, and nothing improves whatsoever.

Yes, it’s the customary tarmac preamble to another long-haul pilgrimage; another slog from Reading to the Highlands, entirely spent wondering why I didn’t do this when I actually lived in Inverness. However, can’t complain. After all, 11 distilleries are lurking up ahead, as the Kingdom of Fife and the counties of Angus and Aberdeenshire lie in wait. (And so does Thurso, but we’ll get to that.)

My customary impression of The Flash takes place the moment the office clock strikes 4:59 on Friday afternoon. Corsa bursting with petrol and bags overflowing with old t-shirts and spare toothbrushes, and it’s up to my native Merseyside for a night of breaking up the journey. I’ve two distillery tours the next day, so
the alarm starts wailing at 4:30am, and I blearily stumble back into the car and point its nose northwards. A service station coffee and a sausage batch (apparently Westmorland don’t start serving their incomparable sausage rolls until lunch) break up the trip, but otherwise it’s just 4 hours of holding the steering wheel in place until the Forth Bridge is behind me, and for the first time in nearly two years I find myself in the Kingdom of Fife.

Once upon a time I used to drive around Fife almost every day. In fact for two months I lived there, albeit in Newport, which is just over the bridge from Dundee. But despite all my zipping around Scotland in the last year-and-a-bit, Fife hasn’t really been on the radar. Primarily because the whisky scene there has been...well...nonexistent. Technically it still is – none of the distilleries in the Kingdom have bottled what can legally be described as a whisky yet (though Daftmill could if they wanted to) but in the last few years the mushrooming of new distilleries has seen three set up on Fife. Daftmill, Eden Mill and Kingsbarns. Unfortunately owing to timing and to lack of visitor centre I’m not able to check out Daftmill this time round, but the other two are very much today’s set menu, and Kingsbarns, just south of St Andrews, is first up.

Kingsbarns was the brainchild of Douglas Clement, a former caddy at the nearby Kingsbarns Links Golf Course. On being frequently asked by golfers where the nearest distillery was, and having no
answer closer than ‘50 miles away’ he decided to found his own. Between a phonebook full of wealthy golfers’ numbers, a government grant and the backing of the Wemyss family he was able to make it happen, and so we find the Corsa pulling up the long drive to the gorgeous Kingsbarns visitor centre to start the pilgrimage.

Kingsbarns is very much a child of the modern era of Single Malt fascination, which is to say that it has been put together in the knowledge that people are going to want to come and visit. It’s converted from a building which, amongst other things, was once a petting zoo, but it’s very swish and swanky indeed. The atrium in particular is immensely polished – as is the café and the shop. In short, it’s very tourist-friendly, and if you think that means it has compromised on charm and authenticity, you’re wrong. I’m reminded of St George’s in Norfolk actually, and my feelings on that wonderful place have been documented here several times. 

I roll in at about 11, far earlier than anticipated, and the staff kindly move my tour from the scheduled 12:30 to 11:30. That still gives me a little time, so I take advantage of the café to imbibe much-needed caffeine, before being directed by Ilyana, our guide, to the room in which the pre-tour film is taking place.

I’m pretty sure I could ad-lib a script for a distillery film by this point, though I’d need to dust off the Scottish accent before I took a hack at the voiceover. Kingsbarns’ USP is their section on the local golf scene, which nods of course to Douglas’s old vocation. Personally I’d take a swap from golf to whisky any day of the week. I’ve never so much as played a round, though back in my days of selling wine over the phone it was a ten-times-daily conversation topic with the old chaps who were buying. I’m also pretty handy on a crazy golf course if that counts. (I think it should.)

There’s a lot of attention to detail at Kingsbarns. In an homage to the building’s former occupants, the ‘guess the smell’ display is set up in a long line of cow horns, whilst the first ever filled cask of Kingsbarns spirit is enshrined in the old ‘doocot.’ (‘Dovecote’ in English/proper spelling.) The doocot even has appropriate sound effects, which in the absence of any non-artificial doves was one step too gimmicky for my taste, but as has been correctly pointed out several times I take no joy in life. So who am I to comment?

Ilyana files us into a hallway in which the usual display of water and barley is set up. There’s a lot of information along the walls, and I’m intrigued to notice a titbit stating that the barley used is selected from local growers, à la Bruichladdich/Kilchoman. Ilyana adds that maltings take place in England specifically because, were they to be done in Scotland, the distillery wouldn’t be able to specify the parcels of barley they want for their whisky. The water used at Kingsbarns is also worth a mention – it’s piped up from an aquifer 100 metres below the distillery, and, besides being used for all their whisky needs, goes through the café and indeed every other water-based function on site. More good news.

We learn that initial distillations when the machines were first fired up were producing a spirit grassier than Kingsbarns were after. To correct this, and create a fruitier profile, they altered the strain of yeast they were using. Scotch distillers tend to be less fussy about specific yeast strains than are their American cousins, who place the utmost importance on them. But this particular anecdote
seemed to highlight the importance of individual yeasts to the profiles and flavours of whisky, and the possibilities presented by experimentation. Food for thought.

As is the case with many of the new wave of distilleries, Kingsbarns is a small-scale affair. I don’t know how much, if any, goes off to blends, but I’m not guessing it’d be vast quantities. All the production takes place in one room, and we’re talking one wash and one spirit still. I’m intrigued to learn that their fermentation times vary depending on what time of the week they take place. Since they aren’t working 7 days a week the building cools down when machinery is off, and cooler temperatures mean a slower fermentation. The variance is as much as 20 hours, so I wonder whether the wash tastes different each time, and whether this has a knockon effect when it comes to the spirit? If so, fascinating possibilities suggest themselves when it comes to vatting the barrels...

Kingsbarns were after a light spirit, but having been prohibited from raising the old farmhouse roof, were unable to install stills as tall as they had wanted. Instead, reflux and lightness of spirit is encouraged by big-bellied pots with corset waists between pot and neck. The spirit, on having been distilled, ends up in 90% ex-bourbon casks (Heaven Hill) with a few casks of sherry/port/wine etc being experimented with.   

And then we’re off to the tasting room, and I’m rather wondering, in the absence of any Kingsbarns whisky, what will be on offer! As
it transpires, we’re given a taste of the new make, which is indeed light and fruity, and we’re also offered a choice of blended malts bottled by Wemyss, who are the distillery’s directors. In case you’ve not stumbled across Wemyss yet, they’ve a range of blended malts as well as a selection of single-barrel offerings from other distilleries. And they’re well worth looking up. We’re offered the core range, which are ‘The Hive,’ ‘Spice King,’ and ‘Peat Chimney,’ as well as ‘Kiln Embers,’ which has been bottled for a limited run. Having tried the first three before, I go for the Kiln Embers, which I take downstairs to the café to write my note.

Douglas Clement was in the foyer as I scribbled, and came over to say hello, introduce himself and have a chat. It was terrific to learn a little more about the distillery from the man whose vision made it possible, and very kind of Douglas to come over and expand on what Ilyana had talked about during the tour. They really are an incredibly friendly bunch at Kingsbarns – well worth seeking out to visit. The spirit’s really good too, and I can’t wait to see how the whisky turns out. A friend of mine was up in Edinburgh just last
week and made his way over to visit. By the sounds of things his experience was every bit as positive.

Can’t linger though – I’ve another to visit on the other side of St Andrews. Despite their incredibly prolific social media I know even less about Eden Mill than I do about Kingsbarns, so I’ve absolutely no idea what to expect. The distillery’s not what you typically imagine such places looking like either – a large white building at the side of the road that you’d easily drive past without so much as a sideways glance. In fact I must have done so several times, as I drove this road frequently on trips to St Andrews two years ago.

Eden Mill set itself up in 2012 deliberately as a brewery and distillery – not as one that became the other, Adnam’s-style. When you enter their large, warehouse-esque visitor centre/shop/bar and sign yourself onto the tour they immediately stick a large glass of one of their many craft beers in your hand, and shepherd you into a rather nice waiting room. I’m driving, and most beer is wasted on me anyway (I’m a cider man) so I’m given a delicious ginger ale instead, which is a lovely thing to sip as I wait.

Our guide, Steven, is brilliantly enthusiastic and clearly passionate about the brand. We’re given the back story over our drinks in the ‘waiting room,’ which, in my book, is a far better way of doing things than by sticking on a generic distillery video. Besides their beers, Eden Mill has created a range of gins presented in rather smart opaque bottles. Their whisky isn’t ready yet, but they’ve bottled some of the one-year-old stuff. We’ll come to that presently...

I’m pretty leery of the term ‘craft’ when it comes to drinks, particularly to whisky. I get why it’s being used; as a copywriter in the wine business I have to use it a fair amount myself. And it’s not that I’m denying that what the so-called ‘craft distilleries’ are doing is a craft – simply that I’d also describe what, for example, Brian Kinsman at Glenfiddich does in the same terms. At what size do distilleries stop ‘crafting’ their whisk(e)y I wonder? When do you lose the status of being a ‘craftsman’? On the whole I blame the millennials. There’s a lot I blame millennials for. And don’t you dare call me one – I don’t care that I’m in the right age bracket.

Anyway, the point of that pseudo-rant is that Eden Mill would definitely position themselves as ‘craft.’ And whether or not I’d argue the term, there’s no doubt whatsoever that what they’re making is innovative – magnificently so. Hopped and Pink Gin for example, and myriad interesting beers. But I’m not the Beer Pilgrim or the Gin Pilgrim, so let’s talk about what they’re doing with whisky.

Well, first off, they’re a brewery. And as a brewery they know that key to producing an interesting whisky is producing an interesting wash. (Essentially a strongish hopless beer.) To do this, they’ve been messing around with malts a bit. They start with Golden Promise Barley, which, if you know your barley, is a variety which produces notoriously low yields, but has long been championed by Macallan as the highest quality there is. On top of this, they’re playing around with chocolate malt, à la Glenmorangie Signet, and with crystal malt, à la no whisk(e)y I’m currently aware of. (But please enlighten me if you know of any!)

Then we move to the stills, which are unlike any I’ve seen at any whisky distillery before. They’re miniscule, for starters – only 1000
litres each, and if that sounds like a lot, Kilchoman’s, which were by far the smallest I’d seen previously, are well over three times that. Secondly, their shape is bizarre. Old-school alembics, with a bulbous pot and a lyne-arm which is essentially a curving copper hose. Potentially most weirdly of all, they don’t have a spirit safe. Steven wasn’t certain of quite what was done to satisfy the tax man instead, but whatever they do is clearly ok with HMRC. (Though if it turns out it isn’t, then sorry for spilling the beans, chaps!)

 The unorthodoxy continues as we are led into the cask ‘warehouse’ (it’s just one big-ish room) where Steven announces that much of what we are looking at is virgin oak, largely European. Until very recently, virgin oak was seen as not suitable for holding Scotch. Distilleries such as Glenmorangie and Bruichladdich have proven otherwise, but it’s still a pretty clung-to notion amongst many, who perhaps see virgin oak as the preserve of American whiskey. Bourbon, of course, must by law be matured in virgin American oak, so I’m well aware of the flavours contributed from that department, but I’ve only had a virgin European oak-matured whisky once before – at another brewery, in fact, Adnam’s. 

Steven talks to us a little more, before we’re led to the tasting room. At present, Eden Mill have bottled three one-year-old spirits. The first, and the one we try, is 100% Golden Promise malt matured in virgin European oak and bottled for St Andrews day. The other two have been matured in virgin US Oak, contain portions of Chocolate and Crystal Malt respectively, and were bottled for Hogmanay and Burns Night. 

Eden Mill St Andrews Day 2015 – Ok, it’s young, of course it is – but there’s nothing whatsoever harsh or ‘spirity’. Those virgin European oak casks have gone to work quickly. There’s cloves in there, maybe fennel...loads of spice at any rate. Oh, and CITRUS! SO MUCH CITRUS!!! Lifts it all wonderfully. Medium+ body with tonnes of chocolate orange, and maybe some coffee afterwards. Palate not quite as intense as nose. I will be expecting so much of the quality of the proper whisky from this place. Because this is fascinating. 43%ABV

I’ve tasted one year old spirit before. But never in my life, or in the hundreds upon hundreds of whiskies and young spirits I’ve sampled, have I come across anything like what I smelled and tasted in that glass. I immediately left the tasting room and bought a 20cl bottle. Three weeks later that bottle is entirely finished – because I have given samples to everyone I’ve come across who is a fan of whisky. It is quite simply astonishing stuff, and although it’s sold out on their website, a few of the 500 20cl bottles filled are still on the shelves at the distillery, and I cannot urge you strongly enough to
pick one up if you are anywhere near Fife. I will be ordering the Hogmanay and Burns Night editions, and I am waiting impatiently for the release of their two year spirit, which I will also be buying immediately.

I can’t begin to describe how impressed I was with what I saw – and tasted – at Eden Mill. I’ve now visited fifty distilleries, and with a tweak or two here and there, they all follow essentially the same pattern. Without breaking a single rule with regards to the production of Scotch, Eden Mill have come up with a magnificently fresh approach to the drink, and it is quite simply wonderful. 

I am going to go out on a limb and say that not only will their finished whisky be superb, but that it could end up being the most interesting made at any of the distilleries which have sprung up since Kilchoman. Colour me a super-fan. I’ve been turning over that St Andrews Day bottle in my head since I tasted it more than I have the Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old I tasted two days before. Which is not to say that the Eden Mill is better – that would be ludicrous. But it has given me more pause for thought. I expected the Pappy to be sublime, and it was. I didn’t know what to expect of the Eden Mill, and it took me somewhere I'd never been before. Which is the best experience you can ask for as a whisky drinker. I can’t wait for the other two bottles to arrive.

With some regret I left Eden Mill and drove to nearby St Andrews, where I checked into a hostel for the next few nights. Two exciting new distilleries done – and I haven’t even tasted any proper whisky yet. It’s going to be a good week. Next up, Glencadam and Royal Lochnagar...



  1. Great article, I now want to track down some Eden Mill!



    1. If the completed whisky is anything less than stunning I'll be gutted! When the Hogmanay and Burns Night bottles arrive there'll be some sample swaps!