A visit to Daftmill

Daftmill is one of Scotland’s smallest distilleries, situated near Bow of Fife near Cupar. In 2003, two brothers, Francis and Ian Cuthbert, applied for planning permission to convert the old mill into a distillery and the first spirit came off the stills in December 2005.

Eleven years later and the whisky produced at Daftmill is still to be bottled. Meanwhile, the whisky community waits with bated breath for the first release…

I was lucky enough to have a look around Daftmill, courtesy of Francis Cuthbert. Although I disagree, I have often heard the argument that ‘all distillery tours are the same’. This certainly wasn’t! Two hours in the company of Francis was nothing less than an education.

Amongst other activities, Daftmill Farm grows malting barley. Most of what they grow, they sell on to other distillers with Edrington (known for The Macallan, Highland Park and The Famous Grouse) being their biggest customer. A while ago, they gave Daftmill an award for the best supply of barley; Francis joked that he didn’t have the heart to tell them that he’d kept the best for himself!

One hundred tons of barley is kept for Daftmill’s own use which they send to a local maltings in Alloa before it comes straight back to Daftmill. As one hundred tons is the minimum amount the maltings will take, Daftmill has to deliver the barley to the maltings when it has an empty space, just to keep things as simple as possible for the maltings.

The engineer who designed Daftmill also designed Kininvie and Kilchoman. In fact, he designed Daftmill and Kilchoman at the same time. Having now visited both, I’ll reserve judgement regarding any similarities.

At Daftmill, they aim for a nice clear wort.

The stills are steam heated and were built by Forsyths; ordered on the Monday and started building on the Tuesday. There was clearly no waiting list back then!

Sulphur is a fault in Daftmill whisky so Francis runs the distillation slowly so there’s lots of contact with the copper. The Lyne arm runs upwards so that the heavier oils drop back down to be re-distilled.

Daftmill has an abundance of water which, as it comes out of the ground from an artesian well, has a temperature of 10ºC during both the summer and winter months. Francis told me that he thinks he can make better spirit in the summer. When it’s warmer, he achieves better fermentation but the water is still the same temperature. Collecting the spirit at a temperature higher than 20 ºC would cause a lot of the flavours to evaporate. Therefore, the water temperature enables Francis to produce exactly the kind of spirit he wants as the colder water all year round causes it to condense very quickly.

The new make spirit is clean, fresh and fruity (if the aromas from the spirit tank were anything to go by!)

The spirit goes into the casks at 63.5% abv.

With no experience of distilling before starting out, Francis informed me that he ‘just read a book’ and made it up as he went along. I asked if he’s making whisky according to the style he likes to drink. Yes, was the answer and, after a couple of wee tasters in the warehouse, I’m sure everyone else will enjoy drinking it too.

Daftmill uses casks mainly from Heaven Hill but there are also some from Makers Mark and Jim Beam. There are also some sherry casks from Jerez but, for the most part, the casks are bourbon barrels as that suits the style of whisky Francis is trying to make. As he liked the way the whisky in the sherry casks was maturing, he still fills a few every year.

When they do bottle the whisky, Francis hinted that they may release a single cask, cask strength whisky as well as one at 46%. Moreover, they’re more likely to release a summer and winter batch each year.

The whisky I tried came from two different casks: the same spirit, the same age with some matured in a bourbon cask and some in an Oloroso sherry cask ( at approximately 60% abv).

Bourbon cask: On the nose, there was plenty of toffee and butterscotch with fruity, lemon citrus notes. On the palate, there was a buttery, creamy texture with plenty of green apple on the finish.

Sherry Cask: On both the nose and the palate, there were the expected raisins, sultanas and dates but with an unexpected underlying apple taste all through to the finish.

To date, none of the whisky has been bottled for sale. Francis acknowledged that his approach to making whisky has been from a practical (farming) perspective and not a sales, marketing and brand building point of view.

Money this year has been spent on building a third warehouse. So the whisky community will have to wait just that bit longer until the first bottles of Daftmill appear on the shelves. What’s certain is that stock levels at Daftmill are minute in comparison to many other distilleries and, when the quality of the whisky is this good, it won’t be on those shelves for long.

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