Years ago, when my wife and I were looking for our first house that we would own together, we were obsessed with this British documentary series called “Build a New Life in the Country”, where a couple or family bought a run down, severely dilapidated heritage farm or house in the countryside to get away from it all. Some episodes ended in success, some ended with a partial completion and more than a bushel full of financial uncertainty. Regardless of the outcome, there was always a good story to tell.
As I was researching Kingsbarns, memories of the themes of that show came wafting back to me. The big dream, the creative ambition, the desire to start a new life, unexpected costs, not enough money. Yet, a happy ending (though a bittersweet one for the founder).
The initial idea of creating the distillery lay in the mind of Douglas Clement, who was a golf caddy in and around St. Andrews, long time home of The Open PGA major tournament. Over the years, he noticed that after a hard day on the links, many golf tourists wanted to visit a distillery, have a tour and a drink, and walk away with a bottle as a souvenir. Only problem was, the nearest distillery was 50 miles (80 km) away. Douglas’ desire to fill that niche lead him to pitch his idea to several golf contacts whom he caddied for. With this initial investment in place, he was able to secure a long-term lease from the nearby Cambo Estate for the East Newall Farm, as well as obtain planning permission from Fife county council. The farm was quite run down, but had lots of character and potential for a distillery and visitor’s center.
With this initial investment and a £670,000 (~ 1 million Canadian dollars) grant from the European Union, Douglas still did not have enough capitol to realize his dream of turning the farm into a distillery. Fortunately, William Wemyss, a golfing friend whose family had interests in a number of industries, including an independent bottling company (Wemyss Malts) and a French winery, offered a substantial grant to keep the project going. To keep the dream alive, Douglas and his investors sold their interests in the distillery to the Wemyss family. Now working for Wemyss, he became the Kingsbarns visitor’s center manager and director, opening the center on St. Andrew’s Day 2014. Douglas chose to leave the distillery in 2018 to pursue other ventures and later that year, Kingsbarns released their first whisky.
Although no longer directly involved with the distillery, except of course in spirit, Douglas decided to get a tattoo on his forearm to commemorate the first distillery release. Although he was not able to independently realize his dream of serving whiskey to the golfing masses, his vision had ultimately created something that made all of Fife proud. That, in and of itself, is substantially rewarding.
In my glass today is the second core release from Kingsbarns. Called Balcomie, this is a non-age stated (NAS) single malt whisky made from 100% Concerto barley from county Fife. It spent its entire life in ex-Oloroso American oak Sherry butts from Jerez, Spain and is bottled at 46%. This is non-chill filtered and contains no added colouring.
Nose: Fresh, minty and slightly floral. There are a couple of layers of fruitiness in here. Tropical notes are dominant. Combined with a confectionary sweetness, it’s almost like candied pineapple and ginger, the latter of which tickles the nose a little. A less prominent fruitiness comes in the form of poached pears in syrup sprinkled with cinnamon. Lovely mint milk chocolate bar, like the ones sold at the old-style chocolate shop near the house where I grew up (the now defunct Lee’s Chocolates for those who lived around the west part of Vancouver). Much of what I’m nosing is the result of this near-perfect balance between spirit and cask. For a lighter spirit, ex-Sherry casks can simply overpower a whiskey. That is not the case here.
Palate: A sweet and zesty one right from the start. Initially, I get creamy, rich honey and barley sugar on the entry. As this transitions into the development, the citrus comes to the fore along with a slice of fresh ginger, which tingles the tongue a bit. That floral note from the nose comes back as the experience approaches the mid-development, giving the spirit a slight gin character. Throughout the whole development, that poached pear is prominent, this time with some dark chocolate sauce drizzled over top. For an ex-Oloroso cask, the dark baking spices are quite faint. A good thing really, as this gives the spirit a chance to shine. Instead, the cask is delivering with that dark chocolate.
Finish: The citrus and syrupy sweetness leads to a juicy finish, which dries out slightly at the end. That pear and dark chocolate continue all the way through. The cask is, again, only exerting a light touch.
With water added
The ginger note is quite strong on the nose now. Floral honey is in there too. The poached pear is absent, replaced by a barely fresh one. After I nose this for a while, I get dark chocolate ginger, quite the contrast when compared to the chocolate note I got without water added. The stronger ginger character continues on the palate and the floral nature of the development is turned up a bit. Still a ripe pear rather than poached.
Whether you like this scotch will depend upon the expectations that you had when you purchased the bottle. Those who read the label, saw the word “Sherry” and were expecting a whisky heavily laced with dark spices and dried fruit, disappointment will soon set in. Lowland spirit is a light, fruity and floral thing. Swamping it with an active Sherry cask would erase that character almost entirely. These Oloroso solera casks instead impart just enough of its signature to let you know of its presence without reaching for the ten pound lump hammer. In the end, the result is a supremely balanced young Scotch that I am salivating to try at cask strength (coming soon to Alberta, I hear). For those who are interested in trying all facets of Sherry cask matured Scotch, and those lovers of Lowland Scotch in general, this one will put a smile on your face.
Correction: I made a couple of errors in the timeline regarding Douglas’ founding of the distillery as well as his time at Kingsbarns after him and investors were bought out by the Wemyss family. I have made these corrections in the text. Sorry!