Living in Scotland, a regular tradition is to jump in the car and hit the road to a distillery. A fortunate advantage of living in the Central Belt is the immediate access to several such destinations within an hour’s drive. This number of distilleries has swelled in recent years as the Kingdom of Fife has become a distilling hotbed.
A glorious sunny day greeted our arrival at Lindores Abbey or Church by the water, which is situated on the outskirts of Newburgh in northern Fife. Lindores is one of the new wave of Fife distilleries, which includes Eden Mill, Inchdarnie and Kingsbarns. By the time you read this article, another distillery may have been announced, given how popular building a distillery has become. It’s challenging to keep up with such developments. Each must have its own modus operandi to set it apart and stand out from the crowd. In this regard, arguably no other distillery has a stronger historical emphasis than Lindores Abbey.
The Kingdom of Fife was aptly named. Historically, this was the land of kings and queens, the rich and famous attracted by the corridors of power and influence. Produce from the sea and land was bountiful, as was religion and learning. Battles were fought and treaties sought. Amongst it all was the importance of faith represented by the men of god. Lindores Abbey itself was founded in 1191 by the Order of Tiron, who heralded from Northern France via the borders of Scotland.
These men brought knowledge and skills to the region. They were self-sufficient from the land, using their skills to trade and barter. Amongst these was the mysterious art of distilling. The first record of this practice was documented in 1494. Recent discoveries on site suggest that the monks were distilling possibly 150 years before this, but for now, 1494 seems as far back as documentation goes. The key document is the Exchequer Roll, a detailed record of financial transactions that reveals Brother John Cor of Lindores Abbey being commissioned by King James IV to produce Aqua Vitae from eight bolls of malt, which is about half a ton today.
We’ll never know where distilling was first discovered, or where in Scotland did it deliver its first drop, nor whether Campbeltown taught Ireland or vice versa. Such things are best left to speculation, but from a historical sense, the best place currently to plonk a pin on the Scottish map is Lindores Abbey.
The Abbey was ransacked and destroyed in 1559, and the remnants include a red stone archway that is directly opposite the distillery still house. A chance meeting with the whisky writer Michael Jackson on-site, prompted the current owner to pursue the possibility of a distillery. Fanning the desire was the rising whisky boom that has engulfed Scotland and beyond. The project to Lindores was a considerable buy-in of at least £5 million from investors to renovate the old stables, which now constitute the main hall and the cowshed that now houses the new liquid from Lindores.
For our visit, I wanted to experience the standard tour that any visitor would receive at the distillery. Priced at £12.50, this includes the modern-day version of Aqua Vitae and some other treats at the end of the journey. No expense has been spared in creating this homage to distilling, and to the history of the site. The main hall showcases the skills of the monks and the aforementioned background. In summary, it is a unique opening amongst distillery tours, and one that any visitor can appreciate, whether from Scotland or abroad.
Beyond the impressive doors of the hall resides the hub of the distillery and the heartbeat of Lindores. Our weekend visit meant the distillery wasn’t in production, and the sounds and smells we all usually enjoy were missing. However, there’s a tangible trade-off present in being able to touch and explore normally hot devices and juddering mechanical apparatuses that—this day—were calm and tranquil.
Once you walk through those doors, the scale of the Lindores enterprise becomes clear. There is an adherence to doing things the right way with a focus on locality. The water source comes from a 75ft borehole, and the barley used is the popular concerto variety. This is grown across Fife and then traditionally floor-malted by an external company. The plan going forward is to have a nearby farm provide all of Lindores’ requirements.
The style of spirit is unpeated, even though the monks themselves would have used peat from the nearby bog at Ladybank. Whilst peat has become scarce in this region due to the bountiful centuries of agriculture, my personal thoughts are that we wrongly associate peat with Islay today. The bruising malts are not indicative of a Lowland style, a style that has only really taken shape in the last century.
An emphasis has been placed on cultivating a strain of yeast as part of the distilling process, where fermentation takes from 90 to 110 hours; it is a pleasing approach, and one that should pay dividends with flavour in the long term. After all, once Lindores is bottled, many won’t appreciate or care about the history or the origins of the site itself. It’ll come down to the whisky, which always should be the case.
A staggered approach to fermentation keeps the team occupied during the week. A couple of the washbacks during our visit offered slumbering contents waiting for the week ahead. There are four wooden washbacks with space incorporated into the cavernous main area, with room for four more. Already you feel there is a sense that Lindores is looking towards the future, beyond this mere start-up approach. The stills themselves are an impressive sight, and overlook the aforementioned Abbey—what would the monks have thought of these towering and impressive copper beasts?
A quirk has already been noticed by the distillery team regarding the two spirit stills. Despite their identical twin status, the spirit produced by each is subtly different. The general thought is that the proximity of a still towards an outer wall may account for this slight difference. However, as the spirit from both is contained within the same tank before being pumped to the warehouse, it is of no consequence.
I’m pleased that Lindores is maturing whisky on site, as this is where some of their Fife counterparts ship casks off to Inchdarnie in Glenrothes or elsewhere for maturation. There’s something special about whisky being matured on site. Daftmill will forever hold the advantage with its single farm ethic, but credit where credit is due: Lindores has a growing assortment of cask types maturing in the former cow shed.
The journey then took us back into the main area and a pleasantly decorated hub where you can create your own Aqua Vitae as a separate option, or just sip a creation of the team while everyone awaits the first drop of whisky in the near future.
The tour at Lindores is a unique experience from a historical perspective, as well as a fusion with the current distilling boom in Scotland. A welcome addition to the distilling landscape of Fife, it’s a tour option for all ages, and several languages are available by prior arrangement. I left feeling satisfied and reflective about the history of the Kingdom and what awaits Fife in all things whisky.
My thanks to the team at Lindores for the complimentary tour and in particular Ronnie for guiding us around.