The Kingdom of Fife is a grand title for this Scottish administrative region.
This name hails from its position of power during the time of the Picts in the medieval period. It is written that, prior to the earliest reference to the Kingdom of Fife in 1678, whisky was already well established. This relates to the claim that in 1494 aqua vitae was being produced at Lindores Abbey by Brother John Cor, a monk, who was commissioned by King James IV to turn malt into aqua vitae.
Fife is one of Scotland’s most populous regions, but also one with some of the greatest disparities in wealth. As early as the reign of the Stuart King James VI (1566 – 1625) the disparity between the success and wealth of the coastal areas and that of the centre of Fife was well recognised. The king is quoted as describing Fife as a “beggar’s mantle fringed wi gowd [gold],” in reference to the prosperity in fishing, salt and trading around the small ports that now attract modern day tourists.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries Fife grew into an economic powerhouse due to the industrialisation of local coal mining. To capitalise on the industry, new ports were constructed in Methil, Burntisland, and Rosyth. Kirkcaldy become the global centre for the production of linoleum. The post-war period saw the creation of a new town: Glenrothes – not to be confused with the Speyside whisky of the same name – which became an administrative centre.
Fife has also been significant for modern spirits, and is a major hub for Diageo; the company’s predecessor entities’ involvement in Fife precedes the creation of the drinks giant itself. Cameronbridge grain distillery, established in 1825, is one of the country’s largest, and the packaging plant at Leven is one of the company’s largest. From Leven, Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and Gordon’s are shipped to over 180 countries around the world. Collectively, Diageo employs over 1,000 people in the region. Agriculture in Fife also produces much of Scotland’s distilling quality barley.
The collapse of the coal industry through the 1980s and 1990s has been a particular challenge for the region, with King James VI’s words still prescient today as former mining towns struggle with significant levels of deprivation and inter-generational joblessness.
Tourism has significantly supported the region. The Kingdom of Fife is also widely known as the “Home of Golf,” with the picturesque coastal town of St Andrews boasting one of the world’s finest golf courses. St Andrews’ Golf Road maintains the highest property prices in the whole of Scotland, with average prices topping £1.8 million on Golf Road. Meanwhile in Methil, 15 miles away and close to both Cameronbridge and Diageo’s bottling plant, prices average just 80 thousand pounds
There are no shortage of high-rolling tourists flying into the grand hotels around St Andrews, coupled with an ancient University that counts Royals amounts its recent alumni. Many a whisky trip to Scotland will include a few rounds of golf in Fife as part of the itinerary. 2019 tourist statistics demonstrate that Fife is much more of a single destination for a holiday than a stop-off on a tour around Scotland.
What we do see in Fife more recently is tourism surging, at least prior to COVID, and the area becoming more well known for more diverse attractions than those that involve “a good walk spoilt”. I am also extremely uncomfortable discussing golf in general, as my own skills remain at the swoosh-f*@k level.
For Scotch, Cameronbridge grain distillery dominates in terms of volume. There is no recent history of Single Malt distilling until Daftmill Distillery was created in a barn at Daftmill farm by Francis Cuthbert in 2005. Stratheden, closed in 1926, was located in the fantastically named Auchtermuchty. Eastbridge, located in Kirkcaldy, closed as long ago as 1853. Other lost distilleries number more than 15 according to research by Misako Udo.
Worthy of mention is the lost Distillery of Grange at Burntisland, one of at least 3 distilleries called Grange in Scotland around the same time. The Burntisland Grange is considered one of the first to install a Coffey still in 1883 and was visited by Alfred Barnard in his historic tour around the Scottish Distilleries between 1884 and 1886. Sufficient heritage exists for recent calls to recognised Fife as a separate whisky region. After all, there are more distilleries in Fife than Campbeltown today!
At Daftmill, Francis Cuthbert was able to hold back stocks until the inaugural release of a 12 year old dram… much to the bemusement of global distributors Berry Brothers and Rudd, who wanted to get selling the whisky. Since the founding of Daftmill we’ve seen releases from Eden Mill in 2012 and Kingsbarns in 2014. Both whiskies are now available to purchase and easier to track down than Daftmill.
Inchdairnie opened in 2016 and will produce 2,000,000 litres of whisky a year, compared with Daftmill’s 20,000 litres each year. Although Inchdairnie do not expect to release their Single Malt Whisky to the public until 2029, they are producing a range of styles of whisky – including peated and unpeated – which are feeding into the blending market to provide financial support whilst the core whisky ages.
Most recently, Lindores Abbey Distillery started producing whisky in 2017. Located on a site next to the ruins of Lindores Abbey – the location of Brother John Cor’s stills – a small percentage of the profit is invested into preserving the historic site.
As for visiting: Lindores and Kingsbarns have established visitor centres. Eden Mill distillery is moving to a new location on the same site and aims to have the new visitor centre open by mid-2022. Daftmill and Inchdairnie are closed to the public, but tours or visits have occasionally been hosted.
Despite King James VI’s suggestion that Fife was essentially a “butthole with gilded edges,” central Fife contains some absolutely delightful and overlooked places. Falkland Village was Scotland’s first conservation village, and Falkland Palace was the home of the Stuart Kings and Queens including Mary Queen of Scots. It had delightfully independent retailers and an independent spirit not so easily found on the High Street in St Andrews or the three large towns. This most especially demonstrated by the obscurely named Pillars of Hercules organic café. Other central places of note include Cupar (Sat-Nav tip: not to be confused with Cupar Angus) whose former corn exchange is home to the well-regarded Fife Whisky Festival.
Recommended eating in Fife includes the well-established and malty-named Peat Inn near St Andrews. Both the East Pier Smokehouse and Craig Millar @ 16 West End in St Monan’s come well recommended. Food and accommodation at the “Coorie by the Coast” are worthy of any itinerary. More informal, but in a delightful location, is the Crail Harbour Gallery and Tearoom pictured below. Perhaps naturally, the best eating is to be found around the gilt-edged coast where local seafood is the modern king.
If that does not whet your appetite, then perhaps a run through some of the Kingdom’s modern whisky will? I teamed up with Dora the Whisky Explorer to offer you a wide selection of Fife whisky reviews:
Lindores Lowland Single Malt Scotch Whisky Batch 1 MCDXCIV – Review
Bourbon, Sherry, and red wine barriques. 46% ABV. £45.
Colour: Pale straw
On the nose: Blossom honey, vanilla, golden caster sugar, ripe red apples, cinnamon, ripe plum, yeasty, oxidises in the glass nicely over time. Cake crust, baked strawberries, cask char and a little burnt sugar.
In the mouth: Effervescently spirity, big bold first fill bourbon casks giving sweet vanilla, slight solvent, sherry casks adding some body, fondant icing sweetness and heavier complex sugars, red wine and cask char easing the youthful finish with some neat Ribena® that fades fairly quickly.
Well-renowned whisky consultant Jim Swan may have departed the earth before he could see the conclusion of his work with Lindores but his spirit lives on, in spirit, so to speak. This is a successful and tasty young single malt which does about as much as can be expected at this stage in its life. Jim Swan aside it’s testament to the team at Lindores to get a spirit of this quality at this point. Everyone should try it now as a benchmark for later releases over the next few years.
Kingsbarns Dream To Dram – Review
Bourbon and STR casks. 46% ABV. £45.
Colour: Golden white wine.
On the nose: Sweet with dustings of icing sugar; it becomes deeper with light caramel and honey. Yeasty dough and brown bread that has been lightly toasted come to mind. There is a slight woodiness reminding me of pinewood. An alcoholic youthfulness fizzles in the air. As the liquid oxidises, fruits akin to redcurrants and light watery strawberries come out to play. In the background there is a scent of yuzu zest mixed with vanilla.
In the mouth: Salty with a light brine, chillies and white pepper tickle the tongue and tonsils. Initially the whisky is quite oily but then becomes drying and thin on the palate. Bitter tannins like drinking a medium dry white wine. It is gin like with youthful spirit, juniper berries and hints of citrus zest mixing. Sweetness with oaky icing sugar peppering those watered down berries from the nose. On the finish, an aftertaste of eating white grapes with their powdery skin; I found it drying and quite short. Light white pepper burn at the back of the throat but the feeling of a dry roof of mouth and tongue. However, there is some moisture there that carries those light berried flavours to the end.
Much like the Eden Mill Single Malt below, this Kingsbarns is young and you can taste the youthfulness, but it does not assault my senses. There is something promising and – although quite drying – there is a pleasing oily sensation which I think helps the flavour move around. At the moment, I am happy to sip this but I look forward to older expressions in the future from both of these distilleries.
Kingsbarns Cask 1610869 – Review
Bourbon barrel. 8/9/16 to 2019. 61.7% ABV. £75.
Colour: Pale straw
On the nose: Strong bourbon influence of vanilla and light toffee, crisp green apple, lemon peel, a richer weightier note developing too, some riper orchard fruits, soft brown sugar, and apple blossom. With water the fruit is elevated as is the more floral blossom notes.
In the mouth: A little tight at full strength, but again some weightier flavours here, honeycomb, vanilla fudge, some oak notes giving quite a bitter finish. Still quite tight with water, coming across as quite young, unwaxed lemons, peppery heat, foam shrimps, still bitter.
The nose hints at the development of flavours but this has been bottled too young and I’m not exactly sure why this barrel was chosen as a showcase single cask in 2019. Not really any enjoyment in this for me.
Kingsbarns Balcomie – Review
Ex-Oloroso American oak Sherry butts. 46% ABV. £45.
Colour: Rich gold.
On the nose: The note of this cask is very familiar because I find it unpleasant; it’s a bitter burnt sugar note, sugar burnt on the bottom of an oven. It overwhelms the spirit altogether and lets little else through.
In the mouth: improved on the nose, but the deep burnt sugar is overwhelming, it eases to dried fruits like raisins and the chopped dates you get in luxury muesli. The body is fine but the finish is frustratingly long given the lack of excitement here.
I really wanted to enjoy this. It was a gift, a gift that was recommended from a shop I know well, and whose picks are usually good. But, given the cask flavours and no real presence from the spirit, I have to mark low. This is the same note I got from the Thompson Brothers Ben Nevis 7 Year Old reviewed by Mark and also from the Macdonald’s Glencoe Blend containing Ben Nevis. Perhaps more interestingly, it’s a similar note I get from Port of Leith Distillery Oloroso Sherry which they state is the sherry their whisky casks will be seasoned with.
To be absolutely clear: I am not criticising all seasoned American oak, which the pedants will point out 80% of all Scotch Whisky sherry casks are. I am suggesting there is a single source of these seasoned casks whose sherry is unpalatable to me. You can see from Mark’s review that this flavour profile works for some people. With the Ben Nevis, both bottles had a few more years on this Kingsbarns and peat to help carry them through.
Eden Mill Single Malt 2018 Release – Review
Bourbon and Sherry casks. 46.5% ABV. £75.
On the nose: The aroma is quite perfumey and herbal; those notes remind me of artificial cherries and stale Ricola Swiss sweets (original flavour). There are deep fruity notes akin to dried red berries, jujube dates and goji berries. For me it is quite sherried and as the liquid oxidises, deeper and earthier notes such as mushrooms and damp soil make their appearance. Candied fruit is present that cuts into those heavier aromas lightening the sensation in the nostrils. In the background there is a creaminess with the likeness of rum and raisin ice cream.
In the mouth: The earthy and mushroom notes translate through from the nose. On the palate there is a white pepper tingle, but overall the flavour is very light. The berry notes from the nose are not really present, and instead I get more of citrus touched orchard fruits. The mouthfeel is quite drying like eating a powdery green apple and the feeling of dry grape skins coats my teeth. The finish is short, light and thin. Though it is drying, there is an oiliness to the sides of the mouth and a feeling of numbness on the tongue.
I could score this lower, but you have to look at it being young, and it is most promising. There are certainly good qualities but one of the biggest disappointments is the texture; if it was less thin and drying, I reckon the flavours would carry through better. This is inoffensive; not amazing, but perfectly drinkable.
Eden Mill Hip Flask N°10 – Review
Ex-Bourbon. 47% ABV. £30 for 20cl.
Color: Pale white wine.
On the nose: Sweet with honey and fruit in the form of peach tea, with strong tea leaf tannins. This whisky is definitely punchy and tangy the malt comes through quite strongly. Throughout, I get new make aromas with plenty of stewed apples and pears. Ester notes from sour artificial banana and pear drop sweeties are mixed with hints of sulphur sweetened with icing sugar.
In the mouth: not too sweet with vanilla notes. There is spiciness from white pepper and also a creaminess from cheap ice-cream van cones with their aerated swirls. However, those dairy flavours are taken away almost instantly by the dryness of the liquid. It is very bitter with strongly brewed tea that has had lashings of tea leaves. However, though tannic, there is a slightly oily mouthfeel. The sensation and taste of drinking the dregs of a cup of tea remains throughout. On the finish, this liquid does not last very long and, as it is so drying, the flavour does not really stick around. When you do get some flavour, it is quite light with hints of sweetness but those powerful tannins are ever present on the tongue. Apart from the dry sensation, it is as if you had not drank anything. Disappointing.
This is young and I can taste it. That new make flavour really smacks you in the face. Unfortunately for me that rawness paired with the extreme tannins take away the enjoyment. If it were older then maybe those extreme flavours would mellow out and be gentler to my senses. In my opinion, this needed more time to mature and compared the Eden Mill 2018, I found it lacking.
Eden Mill Hip Flask N°16 – Review
Pale Malt in Ex-Islay Whisky Refill Cask. 04/02/2016 to 2021. 47% ABV. £30 for 20cl.
Colour: Pecorino wine.
On the nose: Light new make, ground malt, porridge and heather honey, peat both in smoke form and more raw vegetal state. White fruits like grapes and gooseberries. Wine must. Overall raw.
In the mouth: A little thin, wood smoke and garden bonfire initially fall away to rain soaked bracken, a damp chalk minerality, some sweetness and a bit of peaty spice and spirit lead heat. Then the finish is so short it’s a matter of philosophy if it ever existed at all. Even with the peat it feels as though it’s trying to leave my tongue as quickly as possible.
The Hip Flask series is a fantastic idea. Clearly a lot of experimentation was done in the early days of Eden Mill. The Hip Flask series represents a way to share that with the public in an appropriately small (you’d not want more than 20cls of these generally) and affordable package. A similar approach was taken recently with some experimental output from Kinivie Distillery too. I wish more distilleries would do this instead of subjecting us to failed experiments for £120 for 70cl. £30 per bottle is a little steep as a full bottle equivalent price of £100 is a lot for young whisky, but the bottling costs will be higher than for full bottles. Overall a reasonable…
Eden Mill Hip Flask N°17 – Review
Peated Malt in refill bourbon casks 20/07/2016 to 2021. 47% ABV. £30 for 20cl.
Colour: Oaky chardonnay.
On the nose: A distinct chemical note in the air (perhaps Mossmoran?), opening to a light gentle peat smoke, last night’s white wine glass, as I try to dig deeper in the nose the spirit takes the forefront.
In the mouth: More body, peat yes, some oak spice balanced with the youth of the spirit, some charred damp oak that reminds me of a very unsuccessful Limeburners single cask that burned itself into my whisky memory. Short finish.
I’m not really sure why a “Lowland” malt whisky distillery is messing about with peat, other than “why not,” I suppose? Fife’s coal extraction goes back to the 17th century and there is very little peat habitat in the region, so even to define Fife as its own region would suggest a history of unpeated spirit from coal fuelled maltings and stills.
I have to take into account that these hip flask drams are experimental, slightly fun, and accessible. The catch with this one is that it just isn’t tasty. You do get more spirit character with these than the sherry-heavy core release but the core release is a tasty dram. Other than to say one has tasted the first peated cask from Eden Mill, I cannot really endorse it. When you consider that the “full bottle” cost of these hipflask bottles is the equivalent of a full bottle from the Daftmill batch releases, it’s hard to justify even for the novelty value.
Strathenry Cask TWB1017 – Review
Distilled at Inchdairnie. Ex-Bourbon cask. 2016 to 2021; 4 years old. 60.5% ABV. £99.
Colour: 9 carat gold.
On the nose: Sweet baked sponge cake, rich almost sherry-like, peppery spirit intermingled with dried fruit and torn mint leaves, Kiwi® boot polish, cupcakes, with more time a depth and complexity develops that is yeasty and funky.
In the mouth: Sweet and spirity, peppery spirit, floral flowerbeds, buttered brown toast sprinkled with some demerara sugar. With water more toffee and vanilla, chilli flakes and a rounded fruity finish. Some honey, vanilla fudge with a long finish that is a little bitter but gives a tingle of wood spices.
Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that the Strathenry spirit is sold by Inchdairnie right from the stills. The cask selection and cask picks are not representative of the distillery as such, but of a purchaser. Nevertheless, in this cask The Whisky Barrel have found a remarkably active cask that has worked well with the spirit. The pricing reflects this was the first mature spirit from the distillery available in any market, but is still steep for what you are getting. It is rare for such young spirit in only bourbon casks to offer such deep and complex tasting experience. Of all the younger spirits covered in this piece, this shows – to me – the most promise of future quality. When watered down to closer to 46%, which would be a fairer comparison, the flavour profile offered less of an advantage and as such a comparable score.
Daftmill Winter Batch Release 2008 – Review
Ex-bourbon casks. 46% ABV. £95.
Color: Golden syrup.
On the nose: Sweet with vanilla and watered-down honey, whilst also being fruity with white grapes and powdery apples. There are scents of oats with a hint of coconut oil and the tiniest waft of new clean plastic. Vanilla ice cream floats come to mind with Fentiman’s botanical cola and chewy cola gummies. It is slightly herbal with deep root beer notes and a floral banana breadiness comes out. Nostalgia hit with retro cherry lips at an old-school confectioners giving that floral cherry taste. There is also a fizzy sensation on the nostrils as you inhale.
In the mouth: Sweet with vanilla and watered-down sugar syrup and deeper notes of caramel. Spice comes in the form of light white pepper. It is definitely bready (malt whisky to the max) and that banana dough translates from the nose! The mouthfeel is fizzy, similar to the sensation when nosing. It is oily but becomes drying over time. Hints of bitterness from tannins with sweet tea notes makes their presence known. Cream soda and custard comes to mind with a hint of ginger spice. There is also a slight nuttiness akin to waxy raw cashews that lightly coats the palate. The finish is medium with hints of bitterness and chilli spice but deeper notes from the bread and cola are also present. On the tongue is a watery oily film that dilutes and carries the flavours around making the taste quite subtle as the whisky goes.
A very nice dram. It is one that has to be enjoyed whilst your palate is fresh as it is subtle but that gives the liquid an elegance and maturity. If drank alongside the previous whiskies, this knocks it right out of the park. Sometimes a little more maturation really benefits a whisky, mellows out those rawer alcohol punches and gives it a deep fruitiness.
Daftmill Winter Batch Release 2007 – Revie
Ex-bourbon casks. 46% ABV. £95.
On the nose: This whisky is sweet, with the scent of dusty grapes that gives me a feeling of a light chalky dusting on the nostrils. There is a floralness from freshly cut flowers mixed with their newly-cut grassy stems. It is slightly mineralic and briny. There are muted tones of dried citrus skins, not as punchy as their fresh counterparts. The vanilla and creamy fondant icing presence reminds me of Fry’s Chocolate Cremes without the chocolate. Spice from white pepper and wood make their appearance. Very light and delicate fruits akin to flat peaches that have been honeyed. Cinnamon on dried apple slices, and an almost artificial sweetness taking me back to children, trying to get into a Gobstopper. Rhubarb crumble with almonds and a drop of custard from school lunches. Initially there is a slight fusty note, barely there in the background, weirdly reminding me of the scent you get when opening a tub of flaked fish food. Not fishy, per se, but maybe more of a wet algae or damp hay.
In the mouth: Sweet with chalky vanilla, delicate peaches and a hint of apple. Russet apples come through eventually, and there is a tanginess like you have just finished eating an orange. Nutty and caramel notes are there, reminding me of almond and hazelnut encrusted nougat. The mouthfeel is oily and resinous. Well-cooked stewed oats with a subtle oak spice. Tannins are present, but not overly drying, giving a lingering bitterness with a sweetie embrace. The floral aspect translates through from the nose, and fairground roasted nuts make an appearance. The finish is medium to long, sweet and delicate. The flavour doesn’t die off quickly, considering how gentle this dram is. Lightly drying and soft, with bitter tannins ending in a nice warming heat.
Delicate yet flavourful. This dram scores slightly higher than the previous Daftmill because, though both are subtle, this has more of a juicy burst. For me, there was just a little bit more je ne sais quoi that tantalised my taste buds!
Graham’s conclusions overall:
Let’s be honest: Daftmill had the luxury of time that the other distilleries did not. The other distilleries’ spirit is still essentially under development, but remember these scores use Malt’s full range 1-10 scale and therefore show some quality and great hope for the future. Everyone wants to claim they were into the band before they were famous, so now is the time to pay attention to Fife whisky.
Dora’s conclusions overall:
I would definitely have to conclude that the two offerings from Daftmill are my preferences over the Eden Mill and Kingsbarns products but, of course, it is far from a fair comparison. Whilst older whisky is not necessarily better whisky, in this case the effects of extra maturation are clear. These two Daftmills ooze a certain elegance that can’t be rushed. A couple of the younger Fifers have a lot going for them, certainly some nice qualities are visible. With a bit more maturation they may well will hit those highs in the future. I look forward to revisiting all of these brands! Moreover, I plan to visit these distilleries when I get the chance. To date, of the Fife producers, I’ve only visited Lindores Abbey which I would thoroughly recommend a visit there.