Kingsbarns Balcomie

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Kingsbarns Distillery released their first core range single malt in 2019 and whilst perhaps not the catchiest of titles, Dream to Dram was an appropriate name for a whisky ten years in the making. Kingsbarns was originally conceptualised by former golf caddie Douglas Clement in 2009 though he eventually partnered in 2014 with the Wemyss Family in order to see the project through.

The first regular addition to the distillery’s range came in the form of the Family Reserve, a cask strength version of Dream to Dram, but this has now been followed by Balcomie, a five year old malt aged in “100% ex-oloroso American oak casks from Jerez, chosen specifically by Isabella Wemyss for their gentle oak flavours and sherry rich sweetness…”

Now, I have a bit of a grumble to make here. We did a virtual mini-tasting of the two core range drams in the Glasgow Whisky Group recently and we were joined by distillery manager Peter Holroyd – for which I was very grateful by the way – but he explained that the casks used to mature Balcomie were ex-solera casks and I can’t help but feel that is a detail that should have been mentioned in the marketing.

For those that don’t know, a solera is a system of maturation used by the sherry bodegas of Spain whereby casks are stored in three tiers with wine always taken from the one on the bottom. When wine is removed, the cask is re-filled from the one above, which is re-filled from the one above that… Casks reside within the solera sometimes for decades, or until they literally fall apart. They are rarely used for the maturation of whisky because they either spend their entire lifespan in the solera, or simply don’t have much left to give by the time they make it to Scotland. It’s quite interesting then to find Kingsbarns using such casks, but I felt that it should have been given a little more prominence in the story of this single malt because all the talk of rich, sherry sweetness painted a picture, at least to me, of a very different experience to that found in the Balcomie.

The malt is named after a nearby Castle, built in the 16th Century on land that was once owned by John De Balcomie. Mary of Guise stayed there on her way to marry King James V before the two had a daughter that would grow up to become known as Mary, Queen of Scots. Today the castle is used as a farmhouse, with self catering accommodation for visitors to the East Neuk of Fife.

Kingsbarns Balcomie is bottled at 46% abv and retails for around £50.

*Full disclosure: I was sent this sample free of charge, in order to take part in a virtual tasting. As always I will strive to give an honest opinion on the inherent quality of the spirit and the value for money it represents.

Smell: Youthful nose. Lots of fruit like lemons and pineapple. Malt and honey. Some vanilla and toffee. Nutty with a wee hint of chocolate.

Taste: Honey and orange. Pepper and cinnamon. Lemon. Some warming ginger. Vanilla. Toffee. Subtle sherry oak influence comes through on the finish with some prune and more woody spice.

Thoughts: The price seems reasonable to me but the industry is still suffering the hangover from the days of price being justified by age and there are still many consumers who baulk at paying £50 for a five year old whisky. 46% bottling strength is a bonus of course.

Based on the drams I’ve tried so far, Kingsbarns deserve praise for the way they’ve allowed the character of their spirit to take centre stage. It must be tempting to mask its youth with over-active oak but thus far, they have resisted that temptation. I’m grateful too that the sample I was given was 5cl because it can make such a difference trying a whisky on two seperate occasions, under different circumstances. I was a little disappointed in Balcomie when I first encountered it at our virtual tasting, sat at my kitchen table on a dark December evening, but now, sitting at the same table, just back from walking the dog on an unusually bright Sunday in January, it’s like a different experience altogether. That’s all part of the magic of whisky – the quality of a dram is almost unquantifiable due to the enormous role context has to play.

Possibly the whisky has benefited from a bit of air in its little bottle but whatever the case, I like it more second time around. I still feel like they talked up the sherry too much but I’m finding more of it now, particularly on the finish. I’ve gone from considering Balcomie the first mis-step in the Kingsbarns story, to wanting to try a little more of it. We also have to remember that the liquid is only five years old, what additional complexities might it pick up after an additional two years, or five years, or ten years..? At the very least, it’s another interesting release from one of the best of Scotland’s new breed of distilleries.

For more on Kingsbarns visit here.

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