Another day, and yet another distillery has released their first whisky.
But this time it is not just any distillery that has reached this long-awaited landmark; it is Lindores Abbey, a distillery with a claim to whisky heritage like no other. It’s been built on the site of the oldest known distilling in Scotland, with documented evidence pointing to aqua vitae production going back to 1494, and most likely even earlier.
Jason visited the distillery back in 2019 and wrote about the history then, so, rather than tell the story again in my own words, I decided to get in touch with Murray Stevenson, Lindores’ Brand Ambassador, to request an interview. As a result, I met with him, alongside Managing Director and Founder, Drew Mackenzie-Smith, for a long chat on Zoom. Many thanks to them for their openness and generosity in giving their time and for sending some samples to taste. Much of the conversation is transcribed below (abridged!) and is followed by a review of the Lindores Abbey Single Malt.
Malt: Lindores Abbey has such a long whisky history. Can you tell us a bit about your story and how the distillery as it is today came into being?
Drew: Our story goes quite a long way back, we could go back as far as 1191 in terms of records from the Abbey, but the big year for us is 1494, when we there are documents that point to distillation taking place here.
My family history here started in 1913 when my great-grandad bought the farm, of which Lindores Abbey was a part. Yet, the most important year for us, and the reason that I’m sitting here now, is the year 2001. My dad was living here, and a guy came and knocked on the door of the house and asked for a walk around the abbey ruins. It seemed quite a strange thing, the abbey was just a part of the farm, no-one ever asked to go around it, but this guy did.
Dad thought no more of it, and then six months later a book arrived in the post, Scotland and Its Whiskies, by Michael Jackson. Of course, it was him that came here. Inside it said “Dear Ken, thank you very much, turn to page 127,” and there the top of page says that “for a whisky lover a visit to Lindores is a pilgrimage.” He also refers to Friar John Cor, and it was the first time we knew of the link between Lindores Abbey and the Exchequer’s Roll of 1494, and its important place in whisky history.
I did try to get some interest and finance to get something off the ground then, even just to mark the importance of the location, if not a distillery… but the whisky industry wasn’t in quite such a good place at the time, so nothing came of it. Then six or seven years ago I got a phone call from a friend in the industry, saying “There’s new distilleries popping up everywhere, why isn’t there one at Lindores?” That phone call sparked the work that led to us actually starting the distillery, reaching the point a few weeks ago where we now have our own whisky.
Malt: Does much of the Abbey still stand today?
Drew: Not a lot. When the monasteries were dissolved under Henry VIII, the monks stayed around as they liked living here, but then John Knox (a Protestant reformer) came along and kicked them off the land. Then the locals started nicking all the stone; it became a quarry, if you like. So, it’s now a beautiful ruin. One of the driving factors for me in building the distillery, and the whole project, was ensuring that we have a “Preservation Society,” so that we can have royalties go towards the preservation of what is left of the Abbey. When we set up the Society, which it costs £500 to join, I was a little naïve, as I thought people were all joining to help preserve the Abbey. Yet, I realise now that the real hook was early access to new releases!
Malt: How have you found it entering the whisky market at this time, when there is a lot of hype around new whisky, and so much of it finding its way to auction?
Drew: I’ve really had my eyes opened. When we did our first member’s bottling, I knew that many people wouldn’t drink it. It’s a special design, a one-off, with only 1494 bottles, and we used some wood from the dunnage warehouse in the presentation of it. So, we added 5cl bottles with the release, with the label encouraging people to ‘open and enjoy’. Within 24 hours I saw one of these miniatures on an auction site for £65, so I soon realised that maybe the “Preservation Society” membership wasn’t quite as altruistic as I had thought! Having said all that, it is resulting in funds being raised for the Abbey, so it is working to a certain extent.
Malt: Did the whisky flipping side of things influence how you came to release your first core bottling?
Drew: I know that flippers are not doing anything illegal, and I understand why you would do it. If you could turn £50 into £500 at a few clicks of a button, then why wouldn’t you? But I really don’t like it, especially for the people working in the distilleries, who put their heart and soul into creating whisky, and then someone comes along and makes easy money from it like that.
So, it was a big factor in the way we decided to launch our whisky. We could have taken a different route, going to town on it, with more limited and fancy releases. Perhaps the bank manager would have preferred that! But my thinking was that to do that just invites flipping, and also people are starting to get fed up with overpriced young whisky. We are very aware that although we believe we’ve released a cracking dram that has received a lot of positive feedback, it is still a very young whisky. If you charge £80 there is a lot of other whisky you can buy for that price.
We decided to develop the Commemorative Release with as minimal a difference as possible to the core release. The liquid is the same, but the label is slightly different. It has worked I think, there’s been loads of Commemorative bottles on the auction sites, but it’s not selling for bumper figures. I’m happy that people who wanted to make a quick profit off of it have not been able to do so. What we wanted was for people to drink it, and most importantly enjoy it, so that they would come back for more.
Murray: It was a different way of doing things, and we just had to wait and see how it went. The Commemorative and non-Commemorative labels could have led to a lot of backlash. From the start Drew and Gary stuck to their guns, making it clear what they wanted the whisky to be, and who they wanted the whisky to be aimed at. Hopefully it didn’t alienate anybody in the market. For those who wanted to scramble over a commemorative bottle, it was there, and those who just wanted to join the party and open a bottle straight away could do so, too. Or of course you could get both if you wanted one to keep and one to drink!
Malt: Was it quite a large run for a first release?
Drew: The Commemorative was a release of 12,000 worldwide, so there was enough to go around whilst still being limited. We soon realised in the build-up that we’d underestimated demand, and could have potentially doubled it, but we decided to keep it as it was so that we didn’t overly diminish stocks for the coming years, and also to keep it special. Still, there was too much to make it highly flippable. It’s hard to stand on a podium and say you don’t like flipping if all of your releases are small batch and hard to obtain!
Malt: I managed to pick up a Commemorative bottling, which is open, and it’s been good to be able to access an early release without too much difficulty or extra expense! I’ve been enjoying it, the youthfulness of the spirit is evident, but there’s loads of promise for what’s to come.
Drew: We’re really proud of it. We’re acutely aware that is a young whisky, as we should be. It’s been matured in Bourbon, Sherry and STR [Shaving, Toasting and Re-Charring – ed.] casks, giving it plenty of layers, especially when left for a while to open up in the glass.
Malt: How does Lindores compare to other new distilleries? What makes it different?
Drew – Like many of the newer distilleries we had Jim Swan as our lead consultant, and you’ll know the signature of nearly all of them is the use of a similar type of casks, especially the STRs. Where we differ is that tragically Jim Swan died before we got to distil any spirit. He had been on board for a long time and was hugely instrumental right up until his death. Sadly, Jim passed away on the day of our “topping out” ceremony, when the build was finished, but before Forsyth’s had delivered the stills.
He delivered to us the distillery and gave us so many contacts for casks and the like. Yet, where we differ – sadly because he died – is that there was no “file” on Lindores that would have been handed over at the end of the consultancy period. Jim would have commissioned the place, stayed with us a few months, got it all ticking over, and hand over his “file” at the end. With no disrespect to Jim, we’re still good friends with his family and indebted to the great work he did here, but his passing has meant that we are different to his other projects.
We then handed over the reins to Gary, our head distiller, and he had to work out the best way to use it without Jim’s lead. So, we do things a little differently. I know, for instance, that our fermentation is 117 hours, one of the longest. In conversations I’d had previously with Jim, he was looking at around 80 hours. He was thinking commercially, delivering a spirit that is commercially viable and good at a young age, as that was his job as a consultant. Today, commercial viability is my problem, but Gary is free from that to an extent, and entirely focused on producing the best tasting spirit possible, and if that requires a longer fermentation time, then so be it.
Malt: In a previous article on Malt, Jason wrote concerning the desire of Lindores to develop its own yeast strain. Is that still happening or in the pipeline?
Drew: Yes, so we are working with Herriot Watt University, and the yeast strain is still in their lab! Gary almost had a heart attack when I was first telling him about it, and he pointed out that if it’s not quite right it could close down the whole distillery at a point where we’re trying to ensure we get everything right and consistent. So, it’s a project that is ongoing, but will be next year at the earliest, as we want to get our first releases right, and then the more experimental stuff will follow.
Malt: You said that you’ve decided to extend the fermentation time, from 80 hours to 117. What is it you are trying to develop in the spirit through the longer fermentation?
Drew: There are three things that I believe are really affecting our spirit. The first is the two small spirit stills that aim to give a light spirit, with a lot of copper contact. The second is the high-quality casks we have access to through Jim Swan’s contacts. And the third is long fermentation.
Murray: This really gives a fruity character. This length of fermentation almost takes it to the edge, where it would dip and become really sour. We stop the fermentation at the really juicy, fruity spot before that. Even coming off the first distillation in the wash still, there is a phenomenal tropical and citrus note there. Once it comes through the spirit still you start to get more summer fruits, it’s quite hedgerow-y, with red apple in there too and the citrus note remains. That kind of citrus note and the mouthfeel is right there at the start even in the new make, and this carries through into the whisky.
It all helps the whisky hold its own at a young age, and we’re only releasing it now because we think it is ready. Obviously, we’re privately owned, with investors and the like, but we were never going to put something out onto the market that we weren’t 100% happy with. Through everything that we do, we’re not focused on a quick profit, but on matching up a great whisky with the great heritage that we have. We don’t want to solely rely on our history, putting out a lesser quality cheaply made whisky as a novelty from a tourist spot. We want to rely on creating great whisky.
Malt: With this great heritage, and the location, how have you tried to bring it through into the whisky that you’ve produced?
Drew: One of the things I wanted to do was make sure that all of our barley comes from Fife, and we’re small enough to do that. In the last 10 months, all of our barley has come from our two neighbouring farms. We like this for a number of reasons. If we’re going down the Friar John Cor route, the Abbey land was 4 miles by 5 miles, so you could say it all comes from old Abbey land, although the current farms stretch a bit further than that.
More importantly, it is about sustainability. It’s also another example of us putting quality and honouring the location above anything else. If it’s a really rubbish harvest, we’re committed to buying the barley off the local farms, so we could be creating problems for ourselves down the line!
We like to think now that this kind of approach is paying off. One of the biggest examples of trying to do it the right way, and being faithful to our heritage, was bringing out our Aqua Vitae. I was asked by lots of people about what gin we would release, and it’s not that I’m anti-gin, but it didn’t fit with what we were saying we were doing. If we’re looking back to 1494, then we know the monks were brewing and doing all sorts of stuff, but we also know they weren’t making gin!
The hard thing was with the Aqua Vitae, was that instead of gin, that we created our own category of spirit! So, it was a bit of a hard sell, and we had to persuade people that is not a gin, and it’s not aquavit. But, slowly but surely, it is starting to get its own following. More people are discovering it now that we have the whisky, and we’ve kept the moral high ground that we didn’t sell out and do a gin. It’s 100% natural, we have to pick the Sweet Sicily from the abbey ruin, strip pine needles off the Douglas Fir, and we’re making more of it at the moment.
Malt: So what is the base spirit in the Aqua Vitae?
Drew: It is our new make, which is then infused. We’re trying to recreate a little bit of what Friar John Cor did, not just him, but the monasteries across Europe, because they were not making whisky as we know it today. They were creating a spirit that was not necessarily for drinking. Aqua vitae started off as something that you rubbed on wounds and the like, but then as people started to drink it, they started to add things to try and make it taste better!
In effect that is what we did, in that we worked with Herriot Watt in developing this historically accurate spirit, but the problem was it didn’t taste nice. You can be as historically accurate as you like, but if it tastes rank it won’t sell much! So, we started working with bar tenders and mixologists in Edinburgh, and we wanted to make it a bit sweeter, as it was just too green and bitter, but we also wanted to maintain our integrity.
I’m probably the only person who has read all four books on Lindores Abbey, and from them I was aware that there are records of trade with Flanders. The monks at Lindores traded salmon, and we know at Flanders they had access to dates and raisins, so it seems probable that some of them would make their way to Lindores in return. We don’t know for definite, but there is enough evidence to say that these were ingredients that were accessible at the time. It made all the difference to the recipe, that allowed us to bottle it, not as a liqueur, but at a strength where the new make would come through, whilst being drinkable on its own or in a cocktail.
The way it has evolved is away from the honey serving recommendation on the back of the bottle, to a drink with ginger ale, ice and a slice of orange. The dates and raisins also give it the amber colour, showing that it is not just a new make or neutral spirit, making it that little bit more attractive to the eye.
I can’t pretend that it’s flown off the shelves, but we like it, and it’s a part of us, selling alongside the new make spirit and our whisky. For a whisky distillery – and, again, this is something I picked up from Jim Swan – the new make is our DNA, and if we get that right we’re well set. We won the best new make of the year of the award in 2020, so we’re confident our approach is on the right track.
Malt: Historically all whisky production would have involved peat, do you have any plans in this regard?
Drew: I have an ongoing discussion with Gary about the use of peat. At Lindores we have so much history that we’d like to tap into, and where appropriate we’d like to use it. One of the things that we know is that the monks had permission to take 200 cart loads of peat and brushwood from Kinloch. So, we know that the monastery was heated with peat. It means at some point it would be logical for Lindores to do a peated expression. What I really like about that is that it doesn’t come from market demands, or some need to have extra expressions to make more money. It’s just a part of our history.
Gary is resistant for understandable reasons, because afterwards you’ve got to clean out the whole system thoroughly, and our focus is still on the core new make. Yet, what we have noticed already is that in the use of ex-Islay casks, the spirit does work well with peat. So, it’s something to look forward to at some point in the future.
In the beginning with Jim Swan we considered the option of making a peated spirit here, as there’s no rule that a Lowland whisky shouldn’t be peated. Yet, in the end we didn’t see ourselves as being disruptors and didn’t want to produce a whisky that would be challenging to people who would expect something different from a Fife distillery.
Murray: There was an opportunity for us to be agitators at every corner but – going back to your question about putting forward the heritage and history into our whisky – this for us is not only about the story of Lindores, it’s also about the story of our geographical location in today’s context. We are happy to be part of a growing “Lowland scene.” We’re right on the boundary line between the Lowlands and the Highlands, and we hope that is present in our whisky too.
This isn’t just light and soft, like a ‘breakfast whisky’ (as “Lowland whisky is traditionally though of), there’s plenty of complexity and fruity flavour too, so we think it can hold its own with whisky from Speyside and the Highlands.
In the past, whisky lists in bars would have pages of Islay, Speyside, and Highland whisky, and then just one or two Lowland whiskies such as Glenkinchie at the back. We’re part of a group of distilleries that are changing that! We get asked regularly if we want to campaign for Fife to become its own whisky region with the increase in distilling here, but I’m just excited to be part of a scene that is elevating the Lowlands with the amount of exciting things happening.
This also links back to the decision to release our core release as an ongoing product, rather than releasing it by batch, so that we look for consistency in product, but also ongoing availability, so that it can become a fixture on bar and restaurant menus. Obviously, over the years the whisky in the bottle will change slightly, but we don’t want to create a market for different batches, where they will sell out and stay on collectors’ shelves.
Drew: My background is in hospitality, and I had the privilege of working with Stephen Doherty, who had been head chef at a Michelin star restaurant. The main lesson at that level is that you have to be consistent. Your service has to be as good on a Tuesday lunchtime as it is on a big Friday night. We aim for such consistency with the core whisky. In the distillery it’s probably a bit boring for Gary, you get up in the morning and do the same thing each day, so that your spirit will be the same.
Malt: It must have been difficult releasing a whisky in the midst of Covid restrictions and the like. How have you gone about getting your whisky out to market?
Drew: We’ve been very intentional about trying to build good relationships with all the independent whisky shops in Scotland. Murray has been out across the country delivering whisky and tasting it with retailers on Zoom. It was good to meet people at the sharp end of the trade. We only released the Commemorative release through retailers and have not been selling it ourselves – except to our members – even at the distillery. It’s a way of thanking these shops for stocking our whisky, especially those who did us a favour in stocking the Aqua Vitae, which they didn’t have to!
Murray: We could have sold all the Commemorative bottles ourselves and taken all of the profit. Yet we chose to sell it through independent retailers, as we want to be a part of that scene going forward. We’re not an operation that is entirely focused on our own short-term gain. We are a distillery with an incredible heritage, and we want to go about things in a way that gets people into the shops on the high street and builds up our community.
Whisky for me, and all of us at Lindores, is something to be shared with friends and family, and the human interaction is a big part of it. We’re a family run operation, and if you come to visit Lindores you will find that 99% of the people working here are from the local area, we haven’t shipped in people from across the country. Those involved in making the whisky, and working front of house, are passionate locals, who have learnt the ropes at Lindores. We’re seeking longevity through our community spirit, as well as in the whisky industry as a whole.
Malt: Finally, can you tell us a bit about what you’re planning to do in the coming months? Are there more releases on the way?
Drew: We have recently done our first organic distillation, but on the whole the focus for the next year or so will be on the core release. There will be some limited editions, but we’re unashamedly following the method that Kilchoman took. They had “Machir Bay,” their core release, and did a few special releases, whilst the core release stayed the same for a couple of years (although it gradually changed as it was older each time). We want to do something similar. We have done lots of experimentation with casks, so we do have a few things in the pipeline, but the main thing is the filling of STR, bourbon and sherry casks for the core release.
As we bring out further releases, that will focus on single cask types, we hope that you’ll be able to pick up the house style. The first of these will be a bourbon cask. Before we did our first release, we did quite a lot of “deconstructed” tastings, where developing spirit from each of the cask types could be tasted. Pretty much invariably it was the bourbon one that people rated the highest. It’s good because there is nowhere to hide with that, no sherry or peat to take over or rely upon for flavour; you have to take it as you find it. It’s here that we can really detect the creamy kind of mouthfeel that we even find in the new make. So, we’re looking forward to that release in particular.
Malt: We’ve covered a lot of ground, so thanks a lot for your openness and your time. It has been great to hear your story, and of your wholistic approach to honouring the past, whilst building a sustainable future too. All that remains is for me to taste some whisky!
Lindores Abbey Single Malt Whisky – 46%
Colour: Pale gold
On the nose: Apple tart, cinnamon, strawberries, vanilla cream, with a background of malt biscuits, citrus, some herbal grassy notes and cocoa. Baking spices, dates and figs, dark caramel, freshly varnished wood, a little char and some more berries. The sherry and STR cask influences come and go. It’s a bit prickly at first, but time in the glass helps it open up.
In the mouth: A summer fruit pudding, red berries, and blackberries, all smothered in cream. Vanilla, apples, and citrus notes intermingle with pastry, shortbread and spices, such as nutmeg and cinnamon. The rawness of the spirit comes through, with chilli, resinous wood, and pepper that builds through the dram, but the mouthfeel is thick and creamy, giving a pleasant texture and the aftertaste is one of caramel and lingering dried fruits.
Malt’s scoring bands can be found here.
For such a young whisky, and as the first core release from the distillery, a 5 is a respectable score. Both the Commemorative and regular release were priced at £45, which seems both fair and good value.
There’s a lot to commend at Lindores: the ways in which the distillery is approaching the whisky market, seeking to preserve the Abbey, using local ingredients, and building up the local community, are all refreshing. When it comes to the whisky itself, there’s a lot of promise in this release, but I can’t help feeling that its full potential has not been reached as it’s been bottled so soon. Unsurprisingly, the youthfulness of the spirit is evident, and remains throughout, yet there is good depth, fruitiness and complexity too. It will be interesting to see how it develops in the coming years.
There is a sense of déjà vu when tasting the Lindores single malt, mainly due to the use of STR casks so familiar in recent releases from other new distilleries. It’s clear that Dr. Jim Swan’s influence remains intact, even if Lindores have stepped away from his proposed fermentation schedules. Given the remarkable heritage at Lindores Abbey, and its unique claim to the past, it is a shame that this first single malt release seems a little formulaic and similar to inaugural releases from elsewhere. It’s highly competent, but also quite safe, taking a tried and tested path that ensures there is enough flavour to facilitate an early release.
In the end: a good back story, the best intentions, and a skilled consultant can only take a distillery so far, and what really matters is the quality of the whisky. It’s not possible to judge that from one early release, although I would say there are signs that a decent foundation has been laid. The upcoming bourbon cask bottling should give more of an indication of where things stand, and I’m looking forward to tasting it (if I can get hold of some!). What we really need is some patience, as more maturation time is the main missing ingredient that will allow us to see if the Lindores single malt will live up to its heritage. In the grand scheme of things, what’s a few more years when Lindores Abbey’s stills have laid dormant so long?