It’s been a long time coming, but Daftmill distillery is finally making its debut on the whisky scene. We’ve got a sample of the enigmatic Lowlander’s Inaugural Release which I’ll be trying shortly, but first here’s some history and background on this most unusual and enigmatic of distilleries.
What’s so unusual about Daftmill? Well, they just do everything their own way. The distillery is a side-project on a working farm in Fife, an hour’s drive north of Edinburgh, and distillation takes place sporadically during the main farm’s quiet periods: two months in summer and then between November and February.
If you’ve never heard of Daftmill before and are wondering what all the fuss is about, here’s a few facts and a potted history.
Daftmill was established by brothers Francis and Ian Cuthbert in 2003 with the conversion of old mill buildings on the farm into a microdistillery. The License to Distil was granted in 2005 on St. Andrew’s Day (30th November) and the first cask was filled on 16th December of that year.
The Cuthbert family have been producing malting barley in Fife for six generations – Francis and Ian’s grandfather finally bought the estate in 1984 – and also grow potatoes and herd cattle. The Cuthberts are believed to be only the third owners of their land since the 13th century.
Aside from the barley they keep for their own distilling, Daftmill sell the rest of their crop to other distillers, with Edrington Group (Macallan and Highland Park) being their biggest customer.
The distillery is, therefore, arguably the most self-sufficient in Scotland, with their own barley and water from the Daftmill stream. There is a story that Daftmill got its name because this stream, which originally served the mill, appears to run uphill.
Apart from the stills, the spirit safe and the mash tun which were made in Rothes, all the equipment and work to convert the old mill into a distillery was sourced within a few miles of the distillery. Francis conducts almost the entirety of the distillation process himself with occasional help from his brother Ian, whose day job is running the estate quarry.
The production process is geared towards generating a fruity spirit, which means clear wort, long, slow fermentations of 96-100 hours and slow distillation with minimal foreshots and very narrow cut points. The stills are small, are charged below capacity and have large condensers, all to ensure lots of copper contact for the spirit, again to try and ensure a light, fruity style.
Byproducts of the brewing and distillation process are used on the farm, with a heat exchanger heating water to help prevent the duck pond freezing over in winter, spent grains being fed to the family’s prize beef herd and even the distillery effluent being used as fertiliser.
The distillery currently produces just 20,000 litres of alcohol per year and even during the distilling seasons production is not continuous as the main business of the farm must take precedence. In practice, this has led to the filling of around 100 casks per year, making Daftmill one of the lowest-producing distilleries in Scotland.
Around 90% of Daftmill’s new make is filled into fresh bourbon casks, the majority of which are from Heaven Hill, with the remainder being sherry hogsheads and butts. The casks mature onsite in the distillery’s dunnage warehouses.
This small scale production was certainly rare when Daftmill began production, if not unique – Kilchoman, which also began production in 2005, originally shared many of the same characteristics. But in many other ways – most obviously commercially – these two distilleries are poles apart.
Kilchoman were straight to market the moment their spirit came of age, with a high profile press launch and accompanying hoopla, a robust marketing strategy, an expanding range packaged in bespoke bottles and literally hundreds of single cask releases for shops and independent retailers around the world.
An expansion in its third year of production now means that Kilchoman’s theoretical capacity is already over six times larger than Daftmill’s 20,000 litres a year. Indeed, with well over 400 different bottlings in just ten years since their spirit became whisky, Kilchoman’s Whiskybase page would already make a completist collector weep.
Daftmill, on the other hand, might appear to a casual observer to be almost deliberately obscurist. Marketing has been almost nil – the distillery’s website could easily be believed to have been created in 2005 and not updated since. There is no visitor centre on Daftmill farm and tours are available only by appointment in advance.
But all this is because Daftmill are only interested in their product, only concerned with the quality of their whisky. Back in the mists of 2013, I attended the inaugural Dramboree whisky festival in Aberfeldy, the highlight of which was the first Daftmill whisky tasting ever to have been conducted outside of the distillery, which was then in its eighth year of production. The spirits we tasted were already fantastic, but Francis’s mantra has been nothing if not consistent: “We’ll release it when we think it’s ready.”
That moment has finally arrived. The Inaugural Release of Daftmill is a small bottling of just three casks, but its impact will be far-ranging. This is not just another very welcome addition to the expanding range of Lowland distilleries. With Daftmill, we whisky fans are blessed with a fully evolved new single malt in a style that was almost extinct.
The first fill bourbon casks used for the inaugural release come from the earliest distillations at Daftmill; the whisky is twelve years old and has been bottled at 55.8%. The release is limited to 629 bottles: 250 of these were allocated by ballot by the company’s distributor, Berry Bros & Rudd with another 250 being split between eager retailers in the UK and internationally. We are very excited to have got our hands on a few bottles of this historic whisky, which will be available on our website from Sunday 17th June at approximately 5pm. We have a small allocation so it’s first come first served.
Daftmill Inaugural Release Tasting Notes by Whisky-Online
Nose: Very clean with the expected vanilla from the first fill bourbon, and underlying notes of autumn leaves and old polished bookcases. A little nervous at first, but settles down quickly and the vanilla fades into the background behind porridge, cereals, cream, honey and cranachan. Develops ripe green apples, nougat, milky Weetabix, hard icing sugar and faint scratched lemon peel. Water releases sweet cinnamon and milk chocolate aromas.
Palate: Medium-full, sweet but lively mouthfeel – not cloying at all. Mostly the cereal, patisserie and sweetshop flavours from the nose: marshmallows, nougat, honey, plus the Weetabix and a more noticeable nuttiness – unsalted almonds and brazil nuts. Faint Playdoh puttiness and pastry dough offset by a citric note. Water smooths the edges and adds notes of flapjacks and very faint summer fruit.
Finish: Good length, drying, sweet notes of pastry and a returning polished oakiness.
Comment: A startlingly mature release from a distinctly leftfield operation. Very high quality spirit – remarkable, considering that this is from among the very first casks to be distilled at Daftmill.
Daftmill Inaugural Release will be followed by annual Summer and Winter releases reflecting the distillery’s production cycles – this philosophy was already in place at the 2013 Dramboree tasting and the differences between the Summer and Winter output are striking. There are also plans for four single cask releases each year.
Just about everyone at that fabled Dramboree tasting five years ago would have bottled some of the six and seven year old whiskies we tasted that night on the spot if they’d had the option, but despite its modest, self-effacing demeanour Daftmill has always had luxuries that few, if any other recently-founded distilleries could afford.
Where the vast majority of new distillers are hamstrung by crippling start-up costs, Daftmill already owned their site and their raw materials, so only needed to renovate their building and pay for their equipment. With no staff to pay, the company only needs to sustain its running costs.
And while other new distillers have to produce gin or vodka to bring revenue in and make ends meet while they wait for their whisky to mature – not to mention paying for advertising and marketing costs – the distillery remains a side project from a working, profitable family farm business.
Daftmill answers to no investors hungry for a quick buck; there is no marketing department, no focus group, no overwhelming drive to expand or conquer the world. The Cuthberts have been able to make their own decisions on how and when to distil and how and when to come to market. Their only goal throughout all of this has been to make the best Lowland-style whisky that they are capable of producing. For the future, their sales need only to pay to keep the distillery running. The product design is in keeping with the rest of Daftmill project: minimal, unfussy.
But this image of the distillery as a side project – almost a glorified hobby for a man with a demanding full-time job – completely belies the pride that anyone who has met Francis Cuthbert will have detected as soon as he opens his mouth to talk about it.
Now, finally, we have a product to put with the name. Daftmill was almost a secret, or at least a frequently forgotten, almost theoretical whisky. You can be sure that if Francis had never thought it good enough, the product would never have been bottled.
With these new whiskies, the genie is finally out of the bottle and that forgotten status is irrevocably changed. It’s probably fair to expect that a lot more people will be phoning up for those appointment-only guided tours. But don’t expect a visitor centre just yet…