The Kingdom of Fife has become a hotbed of new distilleries. We look at this increasing force in Scotch whisky and talk to major producers about the rise of a potential new whisky-making region.

The Lowlands is one of five official whisky-producing regions recognised by the Scotch Whisky Association, covering southern Scotland and the central belt from the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow to the green and golden fields of Falkirk, Dumfries and Galloway, the Lothians, Ayrshire, the Scottish Borders and the Kingdom of Fife. 

There’s been a distinction between the Lowlands and the Highlands since the 1784 Wash Act when Lowland distilleries were taxed per gallon in the wash while Highland distilleries were taxed based on the size of their still. Big Lowland names include Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, Glenkinchie, Cameronbridge, Littlemill, and Rosebank. The region’s style is usually summed up as light, approachable, and smooth containing grassy, floral, sweet, and citrusy flavours. In the latter half of the 20th century, factors such as urbanisation and the ‘whisky loch’ contributed a decline, but now the region entering an exciting new era

There are nearly 20 active distilleries in the Lowlands today, with a dozen or so more to come including previously closed or mothballed distilleries working their way back to production. Producers such as Daftmill, Eden Mill, Annandale, Kingsbarns, the Glasgow Distillery Company, and Lindores Abbey are making a name for themselves and establishing varied flavour profiles. The Lowlands region is firmly back on the whisky map.

The barley that makes Kingsbarns whisky

Fife is barley country, so there’s always been whisky made here

Fife whisky

But of all the Lowland developments, the most pronounced has been in the Kingdom of Fife. Just to the north of Edinburgh, the Scottish king James VI called it “a beggar’s mantle fringed with gold”, with its thriving fish trade, sandy beaches, and fields of barley. The latter meant that there was always whisky made here, but after a period of relative quiet, the likes of Daftmill, Eden Mill, Kingsbarns, Lindores Abbey, InchDairnie and more have made it one of the most popular and productive new regions in Scotch. An annual whisky festival now celebrates the emerging scene, showcasing over 35 distilleries and independent bottlers from all across Scotland.

So why has Fife become such a popular place for new distilleries to be built? Ian Palmer, managing director at InchDairnie, believes there are many reasons. “It’s not a crowded place, being just another distillery in Speyside is not going to create much brand differentiation. Fife is surrounded by good barley growing country creating good links to a vital raw material,” he explains. “Most important from our point of view is Fife is a clearly defined area of Scotland surrounded by water on three sides. It’s easy to create a sense of place, and provenance. Consumers always want to know where products come from, Fife is easy in that respect”.

Peter Holroyd, Kingsbarns distillery manager and Scott Ferguson, head distiller at Eden Mill Distillery, concur that the region’s strong barley growing and whisky distilling heritage is key. Thompson points to its ideal soil and drier east coast climate (also a plus for maturation) as well as good quality, pure water (mostly drawn from aquifers), but also argues that tourism is increasingly an important aspect of the industry in respect to visitor centres and showing people what goes on at a distillery. “Fife is such a beautiful location but it’s only an hour or two at the most away from the main population centres of the central belt of Scotland. Folk can get over here easily and that makes the area attractive for building brands too,” Holroyd says.

Guests enjoy The Fife Whisky Festival

The fact there’s a Fife Whisky Festival at all shows the growth of the region. Copyright Dan Mosley.

A whisky region in waiting?

With such a history and volume of new brands that are easily accessible to tourists, there’s an argument that Fife could push for its own status as a whisky-producing region as recognised by the SWA. After all, it has more malt distilleries in its range than Campbeltown. Holroyd thinks there’s a case to be made for it but qualifies this by saying that regionality is probably less important now compared to what it once was. “When it comes to what we produce here at Kingsbarns it was always important to give the whisky some sort of sense of place by keeping things local from raw materials to maturation of casks to the fact that the cows in the next field over get to eat the spent grain we produce”.

Ferguson describes the region as a whisky destination, something he hopes to contribute to with the opening of the new Eden Mill distillery in 2024, and makes a point of saying that the brand’s work will entail showcasing the distinct and flavourful barley from Fife. This sense of place is also something that Palmer is passionate about, saying that InchDairnie is a great supporter of the idea of Fife becoming its own region. “Provenance is important and Fife delivers that in a very understandable way. It is easily defined. ‘Lowlands’ is just a catch-all and it does not do justice to the distilleries that are located in that region. We need to change this and I know we are not alone”.

As brand ambassador at Lindores Abbey Distillery, Murray Stevenson says he’s asked if Fife should become its own whisky region, separate from the Lowlands, regularly. However, while he explains that Lindores are proud of its Fife heritage, loves supporting Fife distilleries, and is part of a strong community, the brand doesn’t necessarily feel that Fife needs its own region status just yet. “We enjoy being part of the growing and evolving Lowland region. Many whisky bar menus group their malts by region, with the Lowlands often being the last page with a couple token gestures in comparison to a vast offering of options available from other regions. We are excited to help flesh out that back page and to seeing the Lowland section flourish over the next few years”. 

Ian-Palmer at inchdarnie distillery

InchDarnie will soon be a hotbed of rye creation. No wonder Palmer is excited

One region, huge variety

There is a growing sense but not a consensus that Fife can stand on its own two feet as a new Scotch whisky region. What every producer does agree on is that each very much makes its own style of whisky, unique to the distillery, and that there is no definable ‘Fife whisky’ character, nor does need to be one. As much as there as overarching flavour profiles you can touch on that make explaining regions to people new to whisky easier (Islay whisky will often be peated for example), the truth is no region makes just one style of spirit.

Ferguson references the typical profile associated with Lowland whisky, ones that are considered grassy and lighter in tone, but says Eden Mill is amongst a collection of distilleries in Fife that are bridging the gap between the traditional regions. “Our single malts are the perfect blend of Lowland style with Highland heart, bringing a stronger, more robust flavour profile to what conventionally might have been expected. We want the flavour from the Fife barley to pass through the distilling process, with a delicious malty backbone shining through on the sherry background”. 

At Kingsbarns, Holroyd believes that all the distilleries in Fife are making their own unique styles. “In terms of malt, we are all youngsters, with the oldest of us 18 years old (Daftmill). So I suppose we are all modern distilleries in one way or another. Apart from that there is a wide range of spirit characteristics being made in Fife, with peated malt use, different yeast recipes and grain types etc so there is definitely a lot of variety between us. I would say the one uniting factor is that Fife puts an emphasis on flavour and quality first and foremost and much of the spirit produced is fresh, sweet, fruity and so far very drinkable at a young age!” 

Stevenson says that Lindores Abbey feels the need to group themselves to a particular region or style is less important than the desire to champion provenance in raw materials and business practice. “Lindores is a small, independent distillery, we have always used 100% Fife barley and in recent years now get all of our barley from our two neighbouring farms just minutes from our front door. We have a local water source, bottle 100% of our whisky on-site at the distillery and are superbly engaged with our local community”. 

Palmer is similarly forthright, saying that the concept of the different whisky regions having a flavour profile is out of date now and outlines how InchDarnie does things differently. “All InchDairnie whiskies are ‘Fife grown, Fife distilled and Fife matured’. This I believe makes a difference and reinforces the provenance, but not many distilleries can make the same claim, it would be great if the other distilleries in Fife had the same philosophy”. 

A trio of eden-mill whisky

Eden Mill will open this year but the brand has already teased what’s to come with some fascinating releases

A new Scotch whisky kingdom?

This palpable sense of opportunity in Fife was something I picked up on in a recent visit to Kingsbarns. I stayed in St. Andrew’s, home of golf, royal romance, and Luvians, one of Scotland’s finest wine & spirit retailers where I enjoyed a tasting of whisky from the region. With manager Archie McDiarmid and Ben Smith, director of Whisky and Friends Ltd chatting to me while filling huge orders for the States (great to see), it was clear that they also sensed there was a rising tide flowing through Fife, one that was raising all ships. As the region’s premier whisky retailer, they’re already seeing people appreciate there’s more to it than the obvious attraction of Daftmill and can put together full, diverse tastings with just local brands, something not possible a decade ago. 

The tasting began with a Daftmill single cask from 2009 bottled for Luvians to bring to the Fife Whisky Festival, a graceful dram of warm porridgey comfort paired beautifully with a bright minerality and an array of yellow and white fruit laced in vanilla and toffee. Then there was a single grain from old Fife stalwarts Cameronbridge,  aged for 23 years and finished in Madeira casks by James Eadie that has all these deep caramels and charred tropical fruit, accompanied by old marmalade, roasted nuts, and balsamic vinegar. Then to an Eden Mill 2021 limited release aged in bourbon and oloroso casks that were rich in deeply dark dried fruit nuts and marzipan as well a Lindores Abbey whisky finished in peated Islay whisky casks bottled in 2021 with a memory of smoke in the nose and then a bold reminder on the palate, as well as orchard fruit, grassiness, and vanilla. 

In a small sample range, a variety of profiles were demonstrated. Fife has young, innovative distilleries, and an astoundingly good level of new make spirit leading to promising young whiskies, each with a commitment to developing different, intriguing characters. The future of the kingdom is bright. Whether it becomes its own whisky region is one to watch. For now, the Lowlands has a new highlight worth embracing.