Founder Series: William Wemyss, MD of Wemyss Vintage Malts and Kingsbarns Distillery

What does your company do?

Wemyss Vintage Malts is a Scottish family business which distills, blends and bottles a range of Scottish whiskies. We are primarily known for our award-winning portfolio of blended malts, however in addition to our Edinburgh-based bottling business, we also own Kingsbarns Distillery in Fife which produces our new single malt whisky ‘Dream to Dram’ and Darnley’s Gin.

What do you do there / what is your role?

I’m the CEO and Founder which means that my day-to-day responsibilities run right across the business and are very varied. For our most recent project at Kingsbarns I was involved in every aspect of development, from the initial plans to develop our distillery, to overseeing the design, build and putting in place our brilliant team to make, market and sell our whisky. I’m a great believer in finding great, skilled people and letting them get on with their jobs.

What is your background?

I’ve worked for the family business for the past fifteen years and prior to that I worked in financial services with a MBA from Imperial College.

What was the ‘aha’ moment that led to the company founding?

My family has lived and worked in Fife for generations and has a longstanding passion for whisky dating back to the 19th Century. As independent bottlers with experience in selecting casks, blending, bottling and marketing, it was a natural progression for me to launch Wemyss Malts. When it came to Kingsbarns though, this was more of a lightbulb moment! The derelict farm building was brought to my attention with an idea of turning it into a distillery. I had a long standing dream to make single malt whisky in Fife. Plus we realised that lots of tourists and golfers were coming to the St Andrews area and looking for a Scotch whisky experience – and the nearest distilleries were over an hour away. We saw the opportunity straight away. In addition, because of our links to Fife, it was really important to us to give back to the local economy and community.

Where did you get assistance when you started?

The whisky industry is incredibly friendly and various companies and individuals were very helpful with their advice. The people who helped me the most at the start and gave me the confidence to proceed were Lenny Russell of Ian Macleod Distillers and Operations Director Gordon Doctor. Lenny explained quite early on to me that because of the long term nature of the industry, everyone helps everyone else, from the big players in the industry to the smaller start-ups, which I find a really refreshing approach.

Give us a brief history of the growth of the company

In terms of Kingsbarns, the idea was hatched in 2010 when we were approached by a former professional Kingsbarns Golf Links caddy with the idea of converting the semi derelict B-listed farm steading at Kingsbarns into a new distillery for the ‘home of golf’. This set the wheels in motion and after a three year restoration project, which carefully retained the building’s ancient features and charm, the distillery was officially opened on St Andrew’s Day 2014, with the first whisky laid down in March 2015.

We opened our Kingsbarns Visitor Centre in 2015 when we started distilling, however we needed to wait three years and a day before we could consider bottling our own spirit. During that period, we were able to show visitors how we produced the sprit and they could also enjoy our café and retail shop on site, plus our Darnley’s Gin Cottage. In January this year, we released our first flagship single malt whisky ‘Dream to Dram’ from Kingsbarns Distillery to ship to global markets which was a huge milestone for us.  It followed a limited release of the exclusive ‘Founders Reserve’ for members of the Kingsbarns Distillery Founders Club in December 2018.

Have you taken any external funding? If so from who and when?

Yes, we were very fortunate to get a grant to help with the initial stages of building Kingsbarns Distillery, however the majority of the funding came from our own equity.

So what does it look like now with regard to staff and turnover?

This coming financial year we should reach a turnover of around £750,000 and employ the full time equivalent of ten staff, taking into account that some of these roles are seasonal based on the busy tourist season.

What’s the difference between when you started and now in your marketplace?

Over the past few years quite a few new whisky distilleries have been built in the Lowland region, so there is definitely more competition coming over the hill, although I feel this is also an advantage and helps to put our style of whisky on the map. Another plus for us is the continued growth in demand for spirits which are made in smaller batches, with a real connection to where they are made. Kingsbarns Dream to Dram really fits the bill. We make every drop using local Fife barley, and we ferment and distil very slowly to give our whisky its distinctive light, fruity quality.

What is your target market – who is buying your product?

Dream to Dram is a non-aged single malt and it is also light and fruity in style, so we believe it will have appeal for a wide range of consumers in different markets thanks to this easy drinking quality. We are focused currently on the UK, mainland Europe, Taiwan and Sweden, but our team are working on plans to take Dream to Dram as far and wide around the globe as possible.

What are your goals for your business?

Very simply to share our passion for our products with whisky lovers worldwide. Following the launch of our flagship malt, we also want to develop our range at Kingsbarns with new expressions and plenty of innovation over the next few years.

What are your biggest current challenges? What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Building the distillery was a huge undertaking for our team and we encountered many challenges along the way. Learning to distill and agree our product was also testing at times. Now that we are up and running, the challenge has switched to marketing and selling our whisky to multiple markets around the world – but it’s a challenge that we are more than ready to take on!

What do you do outside work?

I have a family with teenage children that keeps me busy. I also like cycling and watching sport.

What do you know now that you wished you had known earlier?  

I wish I had known that you can’t buy experience and that often it comes from learning from your mistakes.

What’s the secret to good leadership?

I believe that good leaders try to inspire progress and are loyal to their team.

Where do you see the company in five years?

I’d like our single malt established in more export markets and for Kingsbarns Distillery to release more new and exciting expressions.

How can the Scottish startup/entrepreneur landscape be improved to help more businesses start up and grow?  

I strongly feel that we need to attract dynamic people to come to Scotland to start and grow businesses. We need to create the right conditions to do this and to make Scotland attractive as a nation for ambitious entrepreneurs.  


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