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Where it all began
Legendary whisky writer Michael Jackson once described Lindores Abbey as a pilgrimage for the whisky lover. When he wrote those words there was only a ruin where the Abbey once stood. Those who make the journey today, however, will be rewarded with far more than a site of historical interest.
Lindores was a 12th century Abbey on the outskirts of Newburgh, in Fife. Its historical significance to Scotch whisky stems from a note in the Royal exchequer rolls of 1495 that reads ‘To Brother John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae, VIII bolls of malt.‘ This one solitary note tells us that the monks of Lindores were distilling Aqua Vitae, the “Water of Life”. It is the earliest written record of the practice.
Lindores was rather tragically sacked in 1559 by John Knox, with much of its stonework redistributed throughout Newburgh. Today, it lies in ruins with the task of its preservation falling on local landowner Andrew Mackenzie-Smith. Mackenzie-Smith dreamed of building a distillery on the site and in 2013, work finally began on converting some old farm buildings.
In late November, a happy coincidence saw me bound for the Kingdom of Fife. Since I was passing, I couldn’t resist stopping by the Abbey for a look around. The distillery and visitor centre have been finished to a very high standard and the still-room in particular, complete with floor to ceiling windows that overlook the ruined abbey, is a beautiful site to behold. It is here, standing by a trio of gleaming copper stills and gazing upon the crumbling walls of the abbey that the weight of history begins to sink in. In 2017, distilling will return to Lindores, some 522 years after John Cor and his brethren operated their own still on behalf of the King. One can’t help but wonder what those monks would say now, were they to catch site of this new, modern distillery.
At the time of my visit, the Lindores stills were silent but I was informed by my excellent guide John that their license was en-route and testing of the new equipment would begin upon its arrival.
So while a Lindores Abbey single malt remains a long way off, a visit to the distillery is an enriching enough experience to warrant the journey. Go and admire the gleaming new distillery. Wander amongst the stones of the Abbey and walk in the footsteps of Scotland’s earliest distillers. Nowhere in this country, perhaps the world, will you get a better sense of history and the place whisky holds within it. Like the great man said, ‘For the whisky lover, it is a pilgrimage‘.