David Pearce, editor and founder of Clandestine Whisky Magazine, talks to Drew Mackenzie Smith, the producer of Lindores Abbey Single Malt, the latest custodian of the ‘spiritual home of Scottish Whisky’, who has renewed the historic site’s production of high-quality Scotch Whisky. Transcribed and written by Annie Bowles.
Lindores Abbey is a site steeped in rich history – this unique story plays an important part in the renewal of the production of local whisky in this small, family-run distillery. The history of whisky-making in Lindores Abbey dates back to 1494, when the earliest written reference to Scotch whisky appears on the Exchequer Roll, telling of Lindores monk John Cor, who was commissioned by King James IV to turn 8 bolls of malt into Aqua Vitae (an archaic alcoholic beverage – or medieval Scotch whisky). After 523 years, whisky began flowing once again from the distillery, with their first single malt being released this year.
Owned by the family of Drew Mackenzie Smith for the best part of a century, after his great-grandfather bought the small farm in Fife in 1913 – which just so happened to have the ruined abbey included in the land – the current story of the distillery goes back twenty years to 2001. Smith describes a ‘shambolic chap in a linen suit’ asking his father if he could have a look around the Abbey ruins. Six months later, a book arrived in the post – Scotland and its Whiskies by Michael Jackson, acclaimed whisky writer. Jackson writes that Lindores Abbey ‘for the whisky lover, [it] is a pilgrimage’. This visit and subsequent book reference was the push needed to turn the long-held fantasy of once more producing whisky at the abbey into a reality.
The road to production was a bumpy one. After taking on investors and wrestling with Lindor chocolates for trademark rights (which Smith solves by imploring, ‘This was built by the brother of the king in 1191, surely we can come to an agreement?’), the ball was set rolling by the right people. The build costing around seven million, a new, prominent date was added to the timeline of Lindores Abbey – distilling whisky at this historic site once again began in 2017.
The production of whisky has a certain alchemical element – one must trust that the whisky is doing the right thing in the cask. Smith continually commends Gary the distillery manager on the nerve-wracking task of marrying together different casks at the correct time, as sherry and bourbon casks mature at a much different rate. The distillery uses casks treated with the STR method (shaving, toasting and recharring) coined by the late Dr Jim Swan around twenty years ago. This rejuvenates a cask, the mixture inside maturing far more quickly – a practical method when a distillery doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for a 10-year-old, which has a high cost to produce. Tasting started early, the malt beginning to take shape after just one year.
Currently at Lindores, they have a couple of experiments running, including using casks ranging from sixty to seventy years old from Bodegas Toro Albala, which is reportedly already imparting a huge punch of flavour in their Lindores Lowland malt. Keeping in the tradition of the preservation of history, Lindores went across the channel to Thiron-Gardais, a small village fifty miles south of Paris, which still holds a rare, treasured monastery. They recently commissioned a number of casks made from the oak grown there, which is working brilliantly with the spirit, Smith reports. The first release in July of this year was limited to 44,000 bottles, strictly saving stock for long term investments in five, ten, and twenty-year-old malts. 2021 thus became another prime date in the chronicles of Lindores Abbey Distillery.
Drew Mackenzie Smith and Gary, the distillery manager, have a burden of expectation to bear as the current custodians of Lindores Abbey. Smith keeps true to the sacred nature of the site’s history but is by no means bound by tradition. Denying the title of whisky expert, Smith laments his lack of olfactory sophistication to draw flavours from the spirit, citing it is far better to be honest about what you draw from the experience of whisky drinking. Building up to their launch, which took place in the uncertain times of Covid, plenty of Zoom tastings were held. From this experience, Smith realised, every single tasting description was used throughout the tastings with confidence. He recalls an exhibition at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society on Edinburgh’s Queen Street, filled with artefacts in Perspex boxes, including pairs of trainers and boxing gloves – all objects used as descriptors for whisky.
“I like that about whisky – if you like it, you can wax lyrical about it, but your description will be completely different to someone else’s,”
Although Smith is loyal to Lindores’ history, there were two routes he could have gone down in the renewal of the abbey. One option was to spend half the amount of money, and to turn Lindores into a ‘Disneyland for whisky’ – in which the quality of the whisky itself was secondary. However, Smith felt honour bound to produce whisky that would match the heritage, as the ‘spiritual home of Scottish whisky’ carries a great weight of expectation.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve got Friar John Corr floating around in the corner, they don’t know that because it’s a blind tasting – so we’re pleased when the spirit is matching up to that,”
Their current website is heavy with history, but Lindores is stating its claim as a proper, grown-up whisky company. The history certainly won’t be going anywhere, but Smith wants to steer the conversation toward the distillery’s single malt and cask finishes, becoming decidedly more whisky-focused from here on in. Lindores has certainly put in the work, coming at distilling from both scientific and creative angles. As a throwback to the site’s origin story (and to avoid producing overcompetitive gin), Lindores’ Aqua Vitae – a spiced, citrus botanical spirit infused herbaceously with Douglas fir and sweet cicely – was initially produced as an experiment with PhD students at Heriot-Watt University, using the same techniques monks would have used over 500 years ago. However, there is an important balance to strike between historical accuracy and drinkability (‘and not making you blind,’ Smith quips) – the taste was like paint. After taking the beverage as far as they could with the students, they moved on to the cool mixologists of the bar world in Edinburgh, introducing dates and raisins to add sweetness and, unexpectedly, turning the spirit amber in colour.
Wanting to expand their audience to the younger generation, Lindores Abbey has opened their Legacy Bar, in which guests can enjoy an array of Aqua Vitae cocktails and drams. Outside of Scandinavia, Aqua Vitae is not typically consumed neat, so it is recommended to use the spirit as a replacement for whisky or bourbon in a cocktail, such as an Old Fashioned. The Legacy Bar’s most popular drink being their version of a perfect serve – Aqua Vitae, ginger ale, ice, and a twist of orange.
“If you thought about putting coke or ice in it, you would’ve been shot,”
Smith celebrates the modern route the whisky industry is headed, shedding the outdated notion of the ‘crusty old curdle’ that must be matured for at least ten years. The way to keep fresh is to break into a younger market, to feed the millennial drive for exploration. Consumers don’t just want to go for a traditional brand, but are looking for new experiences in whisky and other spirits – they want the story, the origin. Lindores has it all – their barley comes from within half a mile of the distillery, while the water is drawn from a borehole nearby, the same source used in 1494.
“The thing with Lindores, it’s hard to really get it unless you’ve been here,”
Lindores Abbey is certainly a pilgrimage for whisky lovers of all descriptions. There is a story to be told, and experience to be had at their brand-new distillery. Maintaining the iconic structure and character of the old historic buildings, the distillery is made fresh with bright, local wood and glass panels. It is an attraction for young and old alike, whether one wishes to delve into its unique history, or experience something new. Drew Mackenzie Smith has taken on this challenge of renewal with gusto, and it seems the hard work has paid off.
You can subscribe to our free whisky magazine here