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Kingsbarns Distillery

By Dominic Roskrow

We're stood high up in a field in the middle of the Kingdom of Fife, and we make a motley crew. It's a brittle, bracing, blustery sunny day and the scent of winter is still in the air. But the sun's a welcome bonus, and there's a vitality, a distinct Springliness, in the air. Helped just a wee bit by the smooth, deliciously honeyed and rich malt that at least some of us are sipping.

We are at the heart of the serene and tourist friendly region known as the Kingdom of Fife. Somewhere out beyond us is Scotland's East coastline, back down the road we've come are a number of golf courses including The Old Course and St Andrew's, and scattered around are any number of gardens, guest houses, and hotels. It's all serene, sleepy and waking up to Spring. And it's hard to imagine that this was once a powerhouse region, much of Scotland's coal seams beneath its surface, and a pattern quilt of small illicit stills producing farm whisky above it.

But it did. And in a funny sort of way that's why we're here - rebuilding a historic link between Fife's former industries and linking them up with the present. Because where we're standing is about to be turned in to Scotland's newest distillery. And the whisky we're drinking is The Hive, an eight year old blended whisky from independent distiller Wemyss and as good a symbol of the marriage of tradition and progression as you can get.

I said we're a motley crew, and we are. There's me, dishevelled and a mite shell shocked having overslept in Edinburgh. Typical: didn't sleep for weeks, now falling asleep constantly. So after a pleasant night in Edinburgh's newest hotel I'm late to meet William Wemyss for a lift North.

And of course he is politeness personified, not letting on for a minute that my tardiness and general chaos is of even the slightest irritation and answering questions all the way to the site.

"In a sense this is coming home for me," he says. "Fife is where the Wemyss family comes from, and where we have land. There are villages here with the Wemyss name and Castle Wemyss is in this area. That makes this special."

The Wemyss family has interests as far away as Australia, where it owns vineyards, but the family originally made its money when the post war Labour Government nationalised the coal industry. Just as the small whisky stills slipped away, so eventually did the Scottish coal industry. The latter might be gone forever, but the huge number of golfers and American tourists passing through the region suggest that demand for a local distillery will be high.

When we visit, though, that dream is still a way off. As we stand sipping our malt in one group, William leads the other group round to the disused and unsafe buildings that will one day be the new distillery. There's been a slight alteration to the building plans so this group is here to be appeased and consists of planners, council officers, surveyors, Historic Scotland. Formal suited folk. So we go round one way, they go the other. With me is Wemyss whisky enthusiast Karen Stewart, and arguably the proudest man in all Fife, Doug Clement, who is watching a dream come true. This is the first time we've met but strangely we've waltzed around each other for a couple of years now, and while other distillery projects have flickered and gone out, he has almost single-handedly kept the flame burning for this one.

He is a golf professional and took the view that this part of Kingsbarns would make a great whisky distillery after caddying and playing golf with hundreds of wealthy Americans who were eager to visit a distillery but not eager enough to travel too far and sacrifice too much golfing.

And when Doug's ideas were largely dismissed as unworkable locally it took the intervention of Greg Ramsey to set the project in motion.

Name ring a bell? This is the same Greg Ramsey that now owns the NZ Whisky Company and with whom I have worked on various projects. And having built one of the world's best links golf courses in Tasmania he'd been involved with the building of Keith Batt's Nant Distillery in Tasmania close to the course. That project had a link to Bill Lark - as all whisky in Tassie does - and before you could say'strewth me dingo' the Aussies we're exporting coal to Newcastle - or at least distillery info to Fife.

"But it was very hard to raise the finance because what sort of investor is going to get involved in a project this uncertain, with years before there's any pay back and there's no guarantee of success? There were times when I though ti had gone but then we got a major grant and Wiliam Wemyss got involved and that was the turning point."

It's hard to see how such a distillery could fail - purpose built making a non peated Lowland style whisky in an area with provenance and heritage. Even so, they're taking no chances. "We are being modest with our visitor number projections," says William. "But it's better to be pessimistic than plan too high. And to be honest, no-one really knows."

Maybe not, but the odds are in their favour. Good people, sensible project, great site, yours, golf, and whisky.

Sounds like a winner to me. Before we know it we'll be sipping new make here and then malt.

What a marvellous thing to look forward to.