For a long time, the Kingdom of Fife has been a region where the Cameronbridge grain distillery was the only whisky distillery miles around. Nowadays, as you have seen the last few weeks from our earlier articles, there are a handful of other distilleries in the area. When Francis Cuthbert and his Brother Ian started planning and building in 2003, they were the first Single Malt distillery in many years. Daftmill distillery has been operating for short periods per year ever since, and chances are you have never heard of them yet. Simple reason; as long as they are not completely satisfied with the maturity of the whisky, they are not releasing any yet. Makes complete sense to us – being in the area anyway, to send the brothers an email requesting a visit.
On our first day of our Epic Scotland Trip 2016, we received an answer from Francis, in which he agreed to meet us on the day and time we suggested. Only two and a half weeks later, starting in the Lakes district in England, via the Lowlands, Spirit of Speyside festival, Orkney islands, the isle of Skye and some short stops at a Highland distillery or two in between, we had been staying for a couple of days in the Kingdom of Fife. Leaving our morning appointment with the Eden Mill distillery, eat a non-mentionable bite*, drive through the green fields under the blue skies, we were ready to see what all the fuzz is about.
Easier said than done. We arrived on time at the location our GPS had given us, and… realised the distillery could impossibly be located at the Pitlair House nursing home in front of us. Following the road didn’t give us much hope either, cell reception got worse and attempts to call out to Francis were cut off or didn’t go out at all, the forest thickened and the road got worse. Dark, ominous clouds rolled in from the south and at a certain point we were sure we were chased by clowns with chainsaws… or we were just missing our horror shows on Netflix and ended up at the A914 through Pitlessie, where we saw a set of Pagoda chimneys at the side of the road. Still not the distillery though but the defunct Priestfield Maltings, converted into apartments where the chimneys are kept in tact and only serve as a landmark, a reminder of the distilling and brewing history of the area.
So, back to the drawing board for us. Turning off the car’s GPS and use the phone’s Google maps, that already seemed to have a different choice of road for us. Next time, we really should remember downloading the area before getting on the road, so our data bundle wouldn’t drain as much. Google turned out to have been there before, and instantly showed us the right road to turn in to, where the sign “Daftmill Farm” at the side of the A91 gave away what to expect at the end of the narrow path alongside the Ballantagar burn. Due to the layout of the land, the burn seems to be flowing the wrong way, which is a little… daft, hence the name of the estate, the former mill and now, the Daftmill distillery.
On the narrow, winding path leading to the farm and distillery buildings, we pushed a car into the bushes (sorry Minnie). We hate to be late for our appointments and knowing Francis is a busy man, we were extra stressed / worried / ashamed** we arrived almost 45 minutes late. We would have understood if we were politely pitchforked off the property, but Francis, being the nice man that he is, took another 45 minutes of his time to do a quick walk around the distillery. By the looks of things afterwards, we could have taken a turn onto a dirt road without any clowns next to the Pitlair House, and end up on the other side of the farm. Just our luck.
(Wow, that was a whole page of us getting lost and trying to get to the distillery).
As said, in 2003, the Cuthbert brothers decided to convert some of the obsolete buildings on the estate into the area’s first single malt distillery in ages. In the months their cattle and crops need only little attention, they were looking for a way to spend their time in a useful fashion. Being whisky enthusiasts themselves, they looked into the idea of purchasing a set of equipment and start distilling in June / July and the winter months from November to February, very likely the same periods the illicit stills of yesteryear would have been used producing a little pick me up from the best portions of last year’s crops. Supplying their award winning barley (favoured by the Edrington Group) to industrial maltsters on a large scale, they have arranged they can retrieve small malted portions back for their own use.
Still not a large distillery, but with one tonne malt per batch much bigger than the clandestine operations of old, they squeeze out about 20.000 litres spirit per year. In the old kiln the milled barley is collected in wheelie bins for easy transportation from the mill somewhere else on the farm, which we haven’t seen, but we are sure it is a daft one (ba-dum tsss), after it comes back from the maltsters. The bins are emptied and conveyed through the wall into the old mill room, where the water wheel powered milling stones made room for the mash house equipment. Here the husks grist and flour are mixed with fresh spring water from the on-site artesian well which is clean enough to be used as their residential drinking water, as well as production and cooling water without any need of cleaning or filtration.
Three times per week, the copper topped, semilauter, stainless steel mashtun, slowly releases circa 5.000 litres of clear wort into one of the two, also stainless washbacks. One kilo of dried yeast per 1.000 litres of wash (do your math) is added and vigorously ferments the wort for the following 72 to 100 hours until half of the wash is pumped into the small, daftly*** shaped wash still. Both stills have a wide, shallow pot, broad but short necks and lye arms, and for the size of the stills, huge condensers maximising copper contact. Because of their small size, they are heated by serpentine coils instead of large steam pots or standard steam coils, in order to save space and still assure proper heating.
The 800-900 litres low wines are collected into a wash charger until enough is gathered to fill the 1.500 litre spirit still. Around 5-7 minutes into the boil, the spirit reaches 78% abv, is water-tested and upon approval, the single lever on top of the spirit safe is switched to collect the heart of the run into the spirit charger. When circa 73% abv is reached, the same lever switches the flow back to the wash charger to be re-distilled in the next run. This way, in about four to six days the spirit receiver is filled with enough spirit to be pumped into casks and rolled into the warehouse.
Before filling, the spirit is reduced to 63,5% abv and most of it is put into (preferably) Heaven Hill ex-Bourbon casks, whereas roughly ten percent is put into ex-Sherry casks. Each year, the 20.000 litres is good for filling about 100 casks, which are rolled up-hill in the dunnage style warehouses and the recently built racked warehouse.
After years of planning, refurbishing, building and eventually distilling their first spirit on the 16th of December 2005, their mother filled the first cask and they agreed not to release any of their product for the next ten years – at least. Those ten years have now amply passed, yet still there are no signals that they are bottling any time soon. Several people have tested the spirit over the time and wholeheartedly approved of the quality, but the brothers still hold to their principle to only release their whisky when they feel the time is right, no sooner, but maybe a little later. Patience truly is a virtue.
We’ve raced through Fife on our last week of the trip, visited Kingsbarns Distillery, Eden Mill Distillery & Brewery and the guys from St.Andrews Brewery. Whenever you are in the area, they are all these relative young businesses in the craft of brewing and distilling and are great places to touch down, relax and be surprised. We will come back soon to try and visit the recently opened Inchdairnie and still building Lindores distilleries. Daftmill was the last stop in Fife – distillery wise, but not to worry, we skipped a few others and have more to tell about from our amazing adventure through Scotland, so stay tuned coming weeks for more expeditions where we will talk potatoes, see where Unicorns make rainbows and feel like giants before crisscrossing through the country. Have we ever told you we have a shitload of pictures at the ready to be released on a weekly base at our Facebook page?
Thomas & Ansgar
* whenever you are in the area and are really cold, old, or both, visit the Scottish Deer Centre. For a good lunch, there are many good alternatives, like eating that soft banana that has been in your warm car for a couple of days or a sun-dried rice cracker without any toppings
** pick any one of these emotions, all were correct at the time
*** we couldn’t resist, asterisks stop here