Some of the very best ideas seem, with hindsight, to be some of the most obvious ideas: the sort of ideas that leave you wondering why no-one ever thought of them before. And yet, no-one did. The magnificent Lindores Abbey Distillery, which opened for business in the autumn of 2017, is the result of just such a stroke of inspiration.
As anyone reading this will know, Scotch whisky is one of Scotland's great gifts to the world. There has been a very welcome trend of late for new distilleries to be built, each of which has added (or will add) to the diversity of Scotch on offer; and many of these have also been developed into very successful visitor attractions.
The origins of whisky and its distillation from malted barley are lost in the mists of time. We do know, however, that the first ever written record of whisky production in Scotland was in 1494. The exchequer roll - in effect the record of the king's financial and trading transactions - records that King James IV commissioned Brother John Cor, a monk at Lindores Abbey near Newburgh in Fife to turn eight bolls of malt into aqua vitae. Eight bolls of malt comes to around 500kg, which using modern methods would have been enough to make about 400 bottles of whisky.
It was this snippet of historical record which prompted Drew McKenzie Smith to have his lightbulb moment. His grandfather had bought the Lindores Abbey Farm, which included the ruins of the abbey itself, in 1913, and Drew had inherited the title of Custodian of Lindores. Why not, he reasoned, build a distillery close to the site of Lindores Abbey, which could then market itself as The Spiritual Home of Scotch Whisky? (Continues below image...)
Lindores Abbey Distillery is the result, some two decades after the idea first struck. It combines a state-of-the-art distillery with outstanding visitor facilities. These include the ruins of Lindores Abbey, which provides an intriguing diversion for the inner archaeologist that can be found within each of us: and some nice views across the road to the distillery. The ruins also provide a romantic setting which complements nicely the distillery's business as a venue for weddings.
There's no doubting that you are in the right place when you get close to the distillery. Many Scotch whisky distilleries, especially those found on islands, identify themselves by means of large - sometimes really large - renditions of their names in black paint on a white-painted warehouse or other building. This practice has been followed at Lindores, with one significant difference. Here the name is painted in white on a black building. This struck us as a nicely whimsical approach that shows a willingness to chart a distinct and individual course: while still acknowledging the traditions of the industry.
Distillery visitor centres range in scale and ambition from those that are added on as an afterthought, right through to those that are an integral part of the operation, or, indeed, which seem as or more important than the production side. Lindores Abbey Distillery is very much at the latter end of the scale. Yes, what has emerged is a world-class distillery capable of producing 150,000 litres of spirit a year, but it is the range and quality of visitor facilities which really make the distillery stand out.
The visitor reception area is large and welcoming, with a shop off to one side, selling the sorts of things you would expect from an upmarket distillery shop: including the distillery's own-produced Aqua Vitae. A quick explanatory diversion is called for here. A major impediment to gaining funding support for a distillery project is the fact that once the big money has been spent and production starts, it is three years before the maturing spirit can be legally called (and sold as) Scotch whisky: and up to eight or ten or more years before the spirit is likely to be deemed sufficiently matured to be sold as the distillery's single malt Scotch whisky.
Some new distilleries have sought to work around this the long-delayed return on investment by turning some of the spirit they produce into gin, which can be sold as soon as it is produced. Lindores Abbey Distillery is again taking a distinctive approach, by producing and selling "Aqua Vitae" This of course recognises its own heritage, dating back to Brother John Cor in 1494. It is produced by a process similar to gin, but using different botanicals and no juniper. The distillery itself says: "Today, our Aqua Vitae is distilled in pot stills and then infused with a blend of spices and herbs, including cleavers, lemon verbena, douglas fir and sweet cicely, which all grow in our gardens, amidst the grounds of the ancient Abbey."
Visitors to the distillery are also able to enjoy eating and drinking in the atmospheric refectory, or take part in an apothecary experience, which allows the hands-on making of your own take on Aqua Vitae using your own choice of flavourings. There is also the marvellous Legacy Bar, which serves afternoon teas amongst other things and enjoys great views over the abbey ruins. Or you can sit in the semi-enclosed courtyard. Meanwhile, an area which has successfully captured the sense of a medieval abbey cloister is home to background information and exhibits (and can serve as a large function room).
For those who want to see what lies under the bonnet, there are a number of distillery tours run each day. See the info panel on this page for links to more detailed information. To reach the production area you pass through the cloister. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process. The first you encounter is the mainly white malt mill, looking decidedly more modern in design than most you will see in Scottish distilleries.
The rest of the production area is on one large upper floor. Here you can find mash tun and four pine washbacks. The highlight of any distillery tour is inevitably the stills. At Lindores they are set close to the huge glass wall that forms the north side of the upper floor of the distillery. This looks out across a minor road to the ruins of Lindores Abbey and provides a stunning backdrop. From a photographer's point of view this also means that the stills can only be seen obliquely, or in silhouette. However you look at them, there's no escaping the fact that those at Lindores are rather unusual. There are three stills, a large wash still and two smaller spirit stills, which work in parallel. This approach offers more contact with the copper of the spirit stills, which is believed to have a beneficial effect on the product, and at a more prosaic level it got round an issue over the available height in the production building.
Every distillery has it's own unique features, and as we've already said, Lindores Abbey Distillery has several of them. Not unique, but certainly unusual, is the presence near the wash still of a wash safe, through which flows the output of the wash safe in very much the same way as the spirit safe, also on view, handles the output of the spirit stills.
You leave Lindores Abbey Distillery with a welcome sense that it provides evidence that even in the modern world it is possible for someone with a dream to realise that dream: and do so in a way that simply exudes quality and careful design. It is worth noting in concluding, that we have a separate feature about Lindores Abbey ruins, which can be seen here.