The Kingsbarns Distillery and Visitor Centre is a outstanding visitor attraction located some eight miles south-east of St Andrews in Fife and a mile south of the village of Kingsbarns. A fine old farm steading, part of the historic Cambo Estate, has been converted into a superb visitor centre which serves - and neatly conceals - the new building set within its angle that contains the distillery itself. Visitors have a choice of tours of varying length and depth, which means that everyone from the newcomer to Scotch whisky to the distillery connoisseur will find their needs catered for. There is also a nice distillery cafe with a choice of outdoor seating for days like the one on which we visited, and a shop.
The Kingdom of Fife has a great deal to offer the visitor, but for too long it lacked a type of attraction that is uniquely Scottish and which many people travel from across the globe to see: a distillery producing spirit from malted barley that will in time turn into Scotch whisky. Enter Douglas Clements. While working as a golf caddy at Kingsbarns Golf Links he was often asked by golfing visitors where they could find the nearest distillery they could visit. The answer entailed a drive of 50 miles or more each way, which highlighted an obvious gap in the market.
In looking round for a way to fill this gap, Doug found East Newhall Farm on the Cambo Estate. Close to Kingsbarns Golf Links (and, of course, St Andrews) it overlooked barley fields and offered distant views to the North Sea. The farm was originally built in around 1800, but by the time Doug found it, it was semi-derelict.
Dreams seldom come cheap, and dreams that involve distilleries never do. The costs involved in restoring a lovely old building to a superb standard and adapting it to a completely different purpose while maintaining its essential charm and character are fairly obvious, as are those involved in constructing a new building to house the actual distillery itself. Rather less obvious is the fact that when you are producing Scotch whisky there is a legal minimum of three years before you can begin to sell your product labelled as such: and you are not really going to be able to market it in its fully developed and finished form for considerably longer, perhaps for eight or ten years or more after you have begun to distill it.
Anyone with a dream of establishing a distillery therefore needs to find a means of financing that dream that takes into account the very long-term nature of the commitment being entered into. In Doug's case this was the Wemyss family. A long-established Scottish family, they own the Wemyss Estates, centred in southern Fife. The family has had an involvement in the whisky industry since 1824, when John Haig built a distillery on their land on a site now home to the huge Cameron Bridge grain distillery. The Wemyss Estates farms also grow barley that is used by many distillers, and the family has established a reputation as independent bottlers of single cask and blended malt whiskies. Douglas Clements' dream of the distillery fitted perfectly with the Wemyss family's ambitions, and the Kingsbarns Distillery and Visitor Centre is the result.
And what a result it is. It is immediately obvious to anyone visiting that a huge amount of love and care has been lavished on restoring the old farmstead buildings to a very high standard, and the feeling of quality that results carries through to the cafe, the shop, and the elements of the tour. Some of the details are outstanding. The old doocot (dovecot) that stood at the heart of the farmstead has been beautifully restored and is home to the first cask of spirit produced by the distillery in December 2014. But for us the true indication of the character of the distillery was a small detail found behind the bar in the Wemyss Room, one of the tasting areas. Here the carvings on the woodwork include a row of Glencairn glasses, now widely recognised as the best way of drinking Scotch whisky.
We've already noted that there are several different tours available for visitors to Kingsbarns. All begin with an exhibition setting out the historical background to Kingsbarns and a film. You then proceed to the doocot and into a fascinating exhibition in which the aromas of whisky can be explored. After an explanation of distilling methods inside the distillery you move on to one of the tasting rooms. It is worth noting that both the visitor centre and the distillery itself (apart from the cask-filling area) are wheelchair-friendly.
Kingsbarns Distillery produces 140,000 litres of spirit each year, which equates to 24 casks each week. One of the most important elements in any Scotch whisky is the water used in the process, and here it comes from an aquifer 100m below the distillery itself. The second key element in making Scotch whisky is the malted barley. At Kingsbarns, Chronicle variety grown in Fife is used. Most distilleries now buy-in barley that has already been malted, and Kingsbarns is among them. The malt used here is unpeated: in other words, no peat smoke has been used during the malting process.
You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process. Each day the distillery used 1.5 tonnes of ground malt in its daily mash (think of it like making tea) and adds 6,000 litres of water at 64°C in the mash tun. The mash is watered twice more, with 2,700 litres of water at 75°C, and 5,800 litres of water at 87°C to extract the maximum amount of sugar. The third water is used as the first water in the next mash.
The sugary "wort" from the mash tun is then cooled to 20°C and placed in one of the four stainless steel washbacks, where it ferments to produce alcohol (think of it like making beer). This takes 65-85 hours and produces a "wash" with an alcohol content of about 8%. The wash is then distilled twice, first in the wash still, and secondly in the spirit still. The process is controlled from a single spirit safe, a locked brass and glass cabinet through which the spirit flows while the stills are in operation.
What emerges is a clear and colourless spirit that is placed in oak casks, most of which have previously been used to store bourbon in the USA: though a few casks previously used to store sherry and port have also been used. It is a legal requirement that spirit must be stored in an oak casks for a minimum of three years and one day before it can be called whisky. It is likely that most of the output of Kingsbarns will be aged for between 8-10 years before being bottled. Truly a long term commitment.
The production area at Kingsbarns wouldn't look out of place as a set designed for the next Star Wars film. The single space allows a clear grasp of how the different elements of the process interact, and the flow can easily be observed. This makes it an excellent visit for someone new to the process, though old hands will find it equally fascinating. We think it may be the first distillery we've visited in which the filled casks are stored in the same space as all the production elements, but this is more a holding area than a long term arrangement. Each month the distillery's production is moved to bonded warehouses elsewhere, making room for the next month's output. Meanwhile, empty casks are piled in the yard outside, under sprinklers on warm days to ensure they do not dry out before being used.