Reinvigorating Fife's rich distilling heritage

The whisky produced in Fife, Scotland

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Reinvigorating Fife's rich distilling heritage

Daftmill Distillery in the Howe of Fife may be one of Scotland’s newest and smallest malt whisky distilleries, but it also revives a tradition of whisky making that was once a mainstay of many Fife communities.

The Cuthbert family has been growing malting barley near Bow of Fife for six generations and, with the completion of a micro-distillery on their farm, they hope to capture the spirit of the land in a bottle.

With the giant, Diageo-owned grain-distilling facility at Cameron Bridge the only centre for whisky production still operating in Fife, it is easy to overlook the county’s distilling pedigree. Arguably the best known independent whiskies with present-day Fife links are the blended Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose produced by Inverkeithing’s Spencerfield Spirit Company.

However, Fife was the setting for the first written reference to whisky, in the National Exchequer Rolls of Scotland in 1494 – where it was noted that the monks of Lindores Abbey received an order from James IV to purchase ‘eight bolls of malt’ with which to make uisge beatha, the ‘water of life’.

In more recent times, Fife was home to between 15 and 20 distilleries. One of these, Grange distillery at Burntisland, even had its own sales team in India – an indication of the significance of distilling to the Fife economy.

Now with the arrival of Daftmill, and a separate initiative under way to develop a new farm distillery at Kingsbarns between St Andrews and Crail, there are signs that Fife might be ready to return to its distilling roots.

Daftmill proprietors Francis and Ian Cuthbert are keeping their sights much closer to home, using their own highly prized barley and water from the farm’s artesian well. Their venture is rooted in the brothers’ passion for whisky and interest in growing and producing malting barley – a process which led to the Cuthberts being granted a distillers’ licence on St Andrew’s Day 2005.

The Cuthberts follow a production process broadly similar to that carried out at other smaller Scottish distilleries such as Edradour in Perthshire or Kilchoman on Islay. Francis Cuthbert says: ‘We’re basically doing what was done on farms 200 years ago. They would grow their own barley then, once it had been harvested and rested, they would start distilling through until the spring when they would go back to the land.’

The Cuthberts’ barley can’t be too bad, as they already supply the malt for such celebrated names as Tormore, Scapa and Ardbeg in the Allied Distillers portfolio.

‘We’re aiming to make a lowland style whisky, if there is such a thing,’ says Cuthbert. ‘Lightish with delicate, fruity and floral aromas, slightly grassy – though we’re not looking to copy any other whisky. We want to create something distinctive.’

What makes a whisky distinctive is, of course, something of an elusive question, dependent on a combination of factors that include the location, the water source, the strain of barley, the type of still and even the people who operate it.

‘We’re not really in a desperate hurry to bottle it. We’d rather hold off until it’s right. So that will most likely mean waiting another five years.

‘However it turns out, we will definitely savour it. After all, if it’s really good, then there’s every chance we might drink it all ourselves. And if it’s really bad, we’ll probably have to!’

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