Monday, June 29, 2015

Might not have hearts yet, but plenty of soul - Kingsbarns Distillery

Graham has a quote: "A man is at his happiest on the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it to another sailor." I had never really considered that saying until I met Douglas Clements.

Douglas has always been the face of Kingsbarns Distillery. I met him at a few events in Scotland last year and thought he was quite an interesting person with a great story. It wasn't until I was back home in Canada that I ended up doing research and piecing the whole puzzle together. In the event you do not know you can find it here:

This year we revisited Scotland for three weeks having decided that we wanted to go to Feis Ile 2015. We snuck in a few days in Edinburgh and so it was an easy decision to also book a tour of Kingsbarns, which is only about an hour away. Doug met us at the door on Sunday May 17th and we spent the next two hours doing a walk through, visiting all parts of the new distillery and in the end getting lunch in their little café (which was really good!). When we left and were driving back to Edinburgh I found myself doing much thinking about what we had just experienced.

1. It is a somewhat small but brand new distillery so there are no mouldy dank warehouses with 200 years of ghost stories, pagodas or barrels of whisky (Kingsbarns only has spirit ageing at the moment - not yet whisky). 

2. It is state of the art, stainless steel, clean, shiny and, well... sterile feeling.

3. It is not exactly in the heart of 'whisky country' as far as location and still needs a little work as far as landscaping, etc.. but it is quite picturesque on the banks of the North Sea.

I was feeling a bit perplexed. What was it about Kingsbarns that I was initially so enthusiastic about seeing but yet now that I had been came away feeling weird? Hmmmm, I really had to think about that for a few weeks. I replayed conversations Douglas and I had as he walked us through the tour. I looked at the photos I took of the distillery. I drank the whiskies we bought and yet still, I was baffled as to how I could turn my distillery visit into a written piece that meant something to me.

I spoke to Graham about my dilemma and what I was trying to say but not say. I sort of felt like something was missing while we were at the distillery. There was no 'spark' and or maybe like the building did not have a heart yet? It was, and I will use the words again: new and sterile. I mean, it is a great story but somehow, I was almost feeling sad for Douglas because it started with HIS dream and it become something else. 

Douglas worked extremely hard to realize the first leg of that desire and then found himself without the proper resources to make it come to fruition. In walks the Wemyss family with an offer he can't refuse. I was stuck on 'how could he do that, how does one sign the papers and give up on a dream'. Was I somehow transposing how I would feel about this type of project? And that's where Graham in is moments of pure genius pulled out the quote in my first sentence. It all snapped into place after that...

You see, I rarely come up with genuine new ideas but if someone presents one to me I am a pragmatic project manager who can close her eyes and map every step necessary to make the idea come to life. The people who come up with what others might think are crazy pipe dreams - they are visionary individuals. They have thoughts that pop into their head like: "I think St. Andrews should have a distillery". They start forging forward sometimes without a concrete plan or regardless of how insurmountable the list might seem. They keep moving forward...

As we stood in the doocot quietly admiring the first cask filled with Kingsbarns spirits ageing, I thought I could detect sadness when he spoke of some of the things he wanted to do had he continued on his own to build the distillery. As I listened to Douglas during the tour I quickly realized how passionate and dedicated he was/is to making sure the distillery came to life. The ideas were quite good! It was not sadness at all but the reality for him that building a distillery, making spirits and then running that business for years before profit existed was not exactly what he had in mind to do all on his own. He loves what he does now as the Visitor Center Manager. It allows him the opportunity to talk to people, be a fantastic ambassador for Fife, golf and be part of Kingsbarns Whiskies. He is exactly where is he supposed to be and is quite happy. 

Now after hearing Graham quote the sailboat analogy, it makes sense to me. Doug is a Fifer to the core of his soul. He has a deep and long respect for the game of golf combined with enjoyment of whisky. He did not give up on his dream, he chose to let it go to the 'next sailor'. The Wemyss family had everything they needed to launch and Douglas saw that. That takes courage, trust and the personality of a visionary. I admire people like Doug and wish I could be more like sometimes. I am adventurous but often shoot down my own ideas because I think they will fail.

I also realized while writing this that Kingsbarns is a new breed of distillery, not like some of the others we are hearing about. No marketing spin, gimmick stories, having royal stamps since 1608 or anything else that many of us think is so over marketed that we roll our eyes in boredom. It isn't complicated and is simply about a man, a dream and what he was willing to do to ensure it happened. 

Kingsbarns may not have a long history yet I am quite confident that it is already developing a reputation for the little distillery to visit in St. Andrews where one can see for themselves how a dream of whisky flowing in the land of Fife comes true. 

Here is to you, Douglas Clement, for seeing the vision that has become a lovely reality, may it be a long delicious legacy to leave to the #whiskyfabric. 




  1. Nice analogy, Johanne. Like so many others, I've followed Douglas' dream from the beginning. His and the distillery's stories are great ones. All the best to both of them.


    1. Thanks for the comment! I'm glad I visited, and even more glad to have met and spent time with Douglas. He's a very interesting person and I look forward to what will be next for him.

  2. Did you sample the new make spirit of this distillery?

    1. Unfortunately, no... The day we were there (Sunday), there was no production going on at the time.

    2. Too bad. Sometimes new make hints at greatness to come.