As Scotch whisky-maker Kingsbarns Distillery’s new-make spirit edges closer to coming of age, we catch up with co-founder William Wemyss to talk about the distillery’s progress, the Kingsbarns Founders’ Club and what innovation in whisky looks like today.
According to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) there are 123 whisky distilleries in Scotland – with at least 14 joining the ranks since 2013. One of those was the Wemyss Malts-backed Kingsbarns Distillery, which officially opened its doors in December 2014.
Located close to the Fife’s North Sea coast, the distillery is a converted farm, housed in buildings which date back to around 1800. The site is a compelling blend of old and new – similar in a way to how the fledgling distillery sits within the wider Scotch whisky industry, a sector heavy in terms of both history and the size of the businesses which largely control it.
The distillery itself came about after golf caddie Douglas Clement teamed up with the Wemyss family, a partnership which also inherently combines old and new – the fresh whisky enthusiasm in Clement and the Wemyss family’s industry pedigree.
“The aim in style is to make a light, fruity type of single malt that would mature quickly,” co-founder William Wemyss explains the distillery’s ethos over the phone. The set-up at the site is largely thanks to the late Dr Jim Swan, the renowned whisky consultant, who helped get things up and running.
While Kingsbarns is small in the grand scheme of things, production has already been upped once due to the level of interest, and the team is now filling 35 casks a week – the equivalent of 200,000 litres per year.
“The response has been so strong in terms of the quality of the new-make and the sales rate of the two year old (released alongside the new-make), it gave us the confidence to increase production,” Wemyss says. “We felt, even though we haven’t got a single malt in bottle yet, the response to everything we’ve done has been so strong that it would justify the increase.”
While it’s mostly ex-Bourbon barrels from Heaven Hill in the filling station, some more esoteric casks are getting a look-in, too. “We’re also using some ex-wine casks, and we’re doing some other bits of experimentation with Port casks and rum casks, but in a very small way,” he discloses. “In the future, some of these casks will produce really interesting spirit and whiskies.”
With this success, it’s clear Wemyss and the team got proceedings off to a strong start – in a large part thank to the Founders’ Club. Founders’ clubs are relatively established concepts within the world of whisky now [just a couple of weeks ago we delved into the world of York-based distillery Cooper King and its own incarnation of a members club] that when we speak I’m surprised to discover that Kingsbarns was the Scotch pioneer when it comes to the notion.
“We wanted to do something different to selling barrels of new-make to whisky investors and other collectors,” he explains. “We felt that doing something like the Founders’ Club, whereby whisky enthusiasts could get a collection of exclusive bottles from the Kingsbarns Distillery, including the first-ever bottle of single malt to be released, would attract something different.”
What is the Kingsbarns Distillery Founders’ Club?
The Kingsbarns Distillery Founders’ Club was launched in November 2015 to mark the distillery’s first anniversary, and while the concept does flag up the distillery, it genuinely is built on a desire to engage with ordinary whisky fans.
“It was never just about selling Kingsbarns fan club membership; we want to have an ongoing relationship with these whisky enthusiasts,” Wemyss states emphatically. As well as “tickling taste-buds,” he wants genuine feedback. “You know, these guys know as much about whisky as we do; engaging with them and getting their feedback is an important part of what we’re trying to achieve at the distillery.”
So what exactly does the Founders’ Club look like? The initial Welcome Pack contains a 200ml bottle of Kingsbarns New Make, a branded Glencairn glass, a membership badge and invites to events. But then it really starts to get interesting.
Membership brings with it the first-ever bottling of Kingsbarns Single Malt – Founders Reserve after it comes of age in May 2018. After that, members can expect to receive a further four 700ml bottlings, one per year from 2019 to 2022. And only members can get their mitts on these expressions. It costs £500 to sign up, but options are available to spread the cost.
“We’ve had various different types of people become members,” he says, as we talk through the success of the Club so far. Just 3,000 places have been allocated, so people need to get in quick. “We’ve had massive single malts fans who want to get their hands on the first bottle of single malt ever to come out of the distillery, and more general whisky fans. And we’ve had people buying memberships as 18th and 21st birthday presents.” He also adds that while he’s not qualified to give out financial advice, some have spied the club as an investment opportunity.
“We weren’t really sure how it would be received, and it was something that people hadn’t really done before, so I guess there was always a risk with it,” he admits. Luckily it’s come up rosy. “For the true single malt enthusiast [the membership range] should be quite an exciting collection of bottles to have in one’s drinks cabinet or cellar.”
Keeping Scotch whisky fresh
The success of the Founders’ Club has set Kingsbarns up in good stead. But how can a new distillery meaningfully innovate in such a crowded category so dominated by established – and enormous – companies?
“I certainly think a lot of the innovation is done by the smaller players, and I think having this lifeblood is really important,” Wemyss says when I put the question to him. “They’re small and nimble, they’ve got to be agile, and they’ve got to think of a different way of doing things.”
He gives innovation in distillation and maturation as a key opportunity, citing Kingsbarns’ experiments with Islay casks as an example [“We’re not doing any peated spirit but we are filling unpeated spirit into peated casks, so that’s quite novel,” he says. “It’s a way of getting peated whisky without having to peat the spirit itself]. Many claim the ‘rules’ around what makes Scotch a Scotch, generally enforced by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), stop this from happening.
“When I came into the industry I thought the policing done by the SWA really limited innovation. But my view has gone 360 degrees,” he says.
“We now, as independent bottlers Wemyss Malts and Kingsbarns, are members of the SWA and supporters. The thing that changed for me is the way they manage it from a consumer perspective, what Scotch is. A lot of the less-policed categories are stretched, as people strive for innovation they stretch category boundaries. Look at what happened with vodka: a few years ago it went from being a very pure white spirit into multiple different flavours, ending up with bubblegum. Those boundaries that the SWA set means people have to think harder and innovate within those boundaries so that the consumer knows that to expect.”
In addition to production, that innovation can come in the form of provenance and locality too, he continues. “That’s what we’re trying to do. Everything about Kingsbarns is from Fife; that local traceability aspect is very important. Nobody else has done it before, but we’re doing it all within the constraints of SWA guidelines.”
This pioneering spirit has been critical to the success of the venture so far – and as May 2018 comes around, with that all important coming-of-age, we’re excited to see how this might translate into whisky flavour and character.