When spirit first flowed from the stills of Lindores Abbey Distillery on 13 December 2017 a historical connection going back more than 500 years was triumphantly restored.
For Lindores was once home to the famous Friar John Cor, who features in the earliest known reference to Scotch whisky, dating from 1494. The Exchequer Rolls record – in translation from the original Latin - “…eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae for the king.” The monarch in question was King James IV and eight bolls equates to around 500kg in modern terms. It is estimated that this would probably have been sufficient to produce the equivalent of 400 70cl bottles of whisky.
Lindores Abbey had been founded in 1191 by David Earl of Huntingdon, on land overlooking the estuary of the River Tay, on the outskirts of the present town of Newburgh in Fife. The monks who built the abbey came from Kelso Abbey in the Scottish Borders and were Benedictines of the Order of Tiron, France. The Tironensian monks were practical men who practised farming, gardening, brewing and distilling, and were also craftsmen and teachers.
Abbey life came to an end, however, with the Reformation of the 16th century, when Scotland broke with the Papacy and developed a predominantly Calvinist national church, which was strongly Presbyterian. During the Reformation, Lindores Abbey was attacked and damaged on two occasions, and by the 1560s, the abbey was in ruins, and became a valuable source of red sandstone for new buildings around Newburgh.
The notion of restoring whisky-making to Lindores came from Drew McKenzie Smith and his wife Helen, with McKenzie Smith explaining, “My great-grandfather bought the Lindores Abbey farm in 1913 and my grandfather gifted to my mum when she got married.”
McKenzie Smith had been musing on the idea of creating a distillery at Lindores for the best part of 20 years before setting about the task of putting funds in place via three European investors, and the £10 million project got under way in 2013, utilising a 250-year-old farm steading opposite the abbey.
Being inquisitive and passionate about whisky is in my blood. I grew up surrounded by the distilleries of Blair Athol, Aberfeldy and Dalwhinnie. Both my grandfathers greatly enjoyed and were fascinated by the story of Scotch, so from a young age I was intrigued.
McKenzie Smith recalls, “Before we started the build we had to do a great deal of archaeological work and the first thing that we discovered were more abbey walls, buried for more than 500 years and also a number of carved stones which were embedded in the steading walls. It had been built with stone from the abbey.”
The services of the late Dr. Jim Swan were called upon to help determine the production and maturation regimes, while Organic Distilleries Ltd., run by architect Gareth Roberts, was engaged to create the distillery and visitor centre buildings.
When it comes to working with a historic site like Lindores, where the medieval abbey ruins stand opposite the distillery, an architect’s sensitivity to the issues of merging old and new is essential. Roberts says, “We kept as much of the old material as we could. If you’d come along before we started on the distillery, you’d have seen three gables just like now, and we’ve used Fife pantile roofs and slates. It’s an authentic local roof, rebuilt as it was previously, but there’s a new steel structure in place under that.
“Two-thirds of the buildings are devoted to history and interpretation, there’s lots of story to tell. You had historical precedent as well as just an old steading. We incorporated some pieces of columns and stones that were uncovered during construction and examined by archaeologists, to give them a new lease of life. The distillery buildings face the abbey, look straight into it, so you have a real link between the old and the new.”
Inside the distillery, the mash tun and three stills were fabricated by renowned copper-smiths Forsyth’s of Rothes, while the wooden washbacks were made a few miles away by Joseph Brown Vats of Dufftown. Although Lindores boasts three stills, this does not signify a return to the old Lowland practice of triple distillation, rather one large wash still serves two relatively small spirit stills, ensuring a significant amount of copper contact, leading to a clean, delicate style of spirit.
Former Cragganmore Distillery manager Gary Haggart was recruited to run Lindores, and upon his appointment in May 2017 he declared, “Being inquisitive and passionate about whisky is in my blood. I grew up surrounded by the distilleries of Blair Athol, Aberfeldy and Dalwhinnie. Both my grandfathers greatly enjoyed and were fascinated by the story of Scotch, so from a young age I was intrigued.
“Joining Lindores Abbey Distillery feels like a little bit of destiny coming true. Scotch is such a friendly industry and has such a pull, that when I heard that Drew and Helen were looking to build a distilling team here at the site of the earliest recording of Scotch, I knew I had found where I wanted to be.
"I want the Lindores Abbey Distillery spirit to be known throughout the industry and around the world. That’s what this unique place deserves.”
While that spirit matures, in a partially-heated dunnage warehouse, no less, Lindores is bottling aqua vitae; new-make spirit infused with a blend of spices and herbs, including cleavers, lemon verbena, Douglas fir and sweet cicely, all of which grow in the grounds of the abbey.
Lindores is surely the only whisky distillery in the world to have appointed an apothecary, namely Tim Foster, who presides over the Apothecary Room within the visitor centre, and ultimately it is anticipated that guests will be able to create their own aqua vitae recipes.
According to Drew McKenzie Smith, “This will be a truly unique experience, where Lindores Abbey Distillery visitors can select their own ingredients, hopefully directly from the Abbey’s gardens and herb beds, mix them with spices which were originally brought over by the Abbey’s founding monks from Flanders, and create their very own recipe, which we will store in our great ledger.”
The Lindores Abbey Preservation Society has also been launched, and McKenzie Smith says, “The Preservation Society is our way of sharing the Lindores story with as many people as possible, by ensuring the preservation of Lindores Abbey itself and bringing back many of the ancient traditions of Scotch whisky’s oldest landmark from more than 500 years’ ago.
“The Preservation Society ‘1494’ members will have the opportunity to plant their own tree in the ancient orchards we are re-establishing and, once ready, we will use the fruit in the distillery as we explore further spirit opportunities such as Calvados, from the apples or Perry from the pears.”
McKenzie Smith adds, “Who knows, Lindores Abbey distillery might even restore the great tradition of mead making, first introduced here by the Tironensian monks following their arrival in the 12th century.
"It would be made from our very own honey bees, which are due to join us once we have prepared their hives.”
Lindores Abbey Distillery really is not your typical start-up Scotch whisky distillery!
- Semi-lauter mash tun – 2 tonnes capacity
- 4 x Douglas Fir washbacks, each filled with 10,000 litres
- Fermentation time – 72-96 hours
- 1 x wash still – 10,000 litres capacity
- 2 x spirit stills – 3,500 litres capacity
- Annual distillery capacity – 150,000 litres
The stills at Lindores
Casks maturing in the warehouse
Cask number 01