After departing Eden Mill at Guardbridge and looking around St Andrews, we headed south to Kingsbarns to purchase their own 2-year-old spirit. Much like my recent Eden Mill 2-year-old review it’s the prompt passing of time that comes as a surprise. Right now, for both Fife distilleries, they sit at the base camp, beneath a towering whisky mountain with a historic expedition ahead.
For Kingsbarns there have been a few recent changes of late. The road into the distillery was certainly smoother and some staff members have come and gone leaving their own legacy with the recent 5-star tourist attraction award. None more so than Doug, who had the vision when partaking in a local round of golf to establish a distillery in the East Neuk of Fife. This was all pre-boom when every man and his dog decided to start-up a distillery and it took several years for the project to come to fruition thanks to a government grant and the Wemyss family coming onboard. Doug was very much the face of Kingsbarns and grew into his role with aplomb. Kingsbarns’ loss is the gain of the Fife tourism industry and maybe golfers at the nearby Kingsbarns course.
One chapter closes and another begins. Much like a pulp Dan Brown novel, you turn the pages without realising the journey is whizzing by. The reaching of a 2-year-old spirit is important as it provides a checkpoint on how this Lowland spirit is progressing. From memory, Kingsbarns did tinker with their new make spirit characteristics shortly after launch; just to harness some key features. Things today are more scientific and attuned than in the boom times of the 1820’s or 1890’s, where just distilling on a regular basis was an achievement. My overriding concern, not just for Kingsbarns, but almost every new distillery incoming or producing now, is the distillery character. We have a core group of independent consultants and experts providing advice, which is why I remain so intrigued by distilleries such as Ballindalloch with its worm tubs, or Dornoch who are taking inspiration from bygone eras and blazing a new route, which is always my preferred route to the summit.
My esteemed colleague, Mark of Malt-Review and his own whisky fanzine you’ll find in some newsagents, recently ranted about the regions being little more than tax creations. Whilst there is a grain of truth in his proclamation, he also overlooked the point that nowadays regions have been merged together by the aforementioned experts and manuals. The movement away from local malt towards centralised maltsers was another nail in the regional coffin. Bruichladdich for instance for all its showboating, has its malt created to recipe in Inverness before being shipped back to Islay. That’s not exactly terroir now is it? You might as well be purchasing your ingredients off the Internet or at Tesco’s all pre-wrapped for the next stage. You’ve lost a key part of the process and subcontracted it out offshore. Standardisation may have improved yields, efficiencies and production overall, but at the same time a consistent whisky is arguably (in my book) a boring whisky. Give me the roller coaster of discovery, whilst the harmonisation of whisky production and maturation has diluted or even removed those regional barriers of distinction.
By seeking out, trying and experiencing whiskies from bygone decades proves that there was more than just a tax band that united clusters of distilleries in geographical areas across Scotland. You just have to expel a little more effort finding these whiskies than chasing down the latest wine cask release. It’s been a staple consideration of my own whisky discovery and for the Lowland region, where Kingsbarns is a new entry; the rich stream of ripe fruits was a key characteristic.
We’ve forgotten this over the years as time whizzes by and the Lowland region was cut down to Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie. Both excel in disappointment, or blandness depending on your point of view. The former pursuing a blander distillery character full of artificial colouring, whilst the latter is capable of a decent whisky – as seen by a rare Cadenheads 28-year-old bottling – but is shackled to its owner’s blends and a very lightweight single malt official offering.
Standing in a Daftmill distillery warehouse, the most exotic and incognito of all the Fife and Lowland distilleries, surrounded by casks and a wee dram of its slumbering liquid. Francis will taste and suggest its not ready yet; not meeting his aim for a Lowland whisky. That first bottling will have to wait. In the meantime Lowland region is reviving with several distilleries across its hemisphere. These for the most part will bottle at the magical 3 years and a day benchmark, with Kingsbarns being no different.
So how does this 2-year-old snapshot fair? Its bottled at an impressive 62.8% cask strength and uses malted Fife barley that is shipped south from memory to a central malting facility and back again. It’ll have been matured in Fife at the Inchdarnie distillery in Glenrothes that has available warehousing unlike Kingsbarns, using those ex-Heaven Hill casks that have been almost hand picked for the job. This release is a distillery exclusive of 1800 bottles and retails for £19.95 for 20cl on a one-per-person basis.
Colour: a light sand
Nose: a combination of sour apples, icing sugar and a twist of lime. It’s very zesty with vanilla cream to keep it subdued. With water, this brings out more greenness with Kiwi fruits and mangos.
Taste: again, a citrus feel and fruits such as apples and pears poking through followed by melon. Vanilla yes, but not forthright like you’d see in a bourbon of this age, instead more subtle notes with liquorice, fresh wood shavings and a dampness. Not much of a finish but it’s 2 years old so this will come with time. I actually felt this was better without water generally as there’s a fragile quality to the spirit as it stands currently.
Overall: it’s heading in the right direction but clearly needs more time. I’ll certainly try the Kingsbarns whisky when it arrives next year, but on this basis, I’d rather sit down with a dram when its approaching a decade in age to fully appreciate what the distillery can achieve.