IT is the birthplace of the “water of life”. Now, the site where the first recorded drop of whisky was made in 1494 is to be restored to its former glory with a new distillery and visitor centre.
The derelict Lindores Abbey in Fife, where monks made whisky for King James IV in the 15th century, will undergo a £5 million makeover in a bid to attract visitors worldwide and distil whisky once more.
The abbey, on the outskirts of Newburgh, is known as “the spiritual home of whisky” thanks to Friar John Cor, who in 1494 paid duty on malt in order to make “acqua vitae” (sic) for the king, a move that was recorded in the Exchequer roll and is the first written evidence of whisky distillation in Scotland.
The famed whisky writer, the late Michael Jackson, wrote that for those who enjoyed a dram a visit to the abbey was essential, declaring that “for the whisky lovers, it is a pilgrimage”.
The abbey has been a ruin since 1559, when it was sacked at the behest of the reformer, John Knox.
Andrew McKenzie Smith, whose family has owned the land the abbey stands on for a century and is heading the project, said: “I only came across the actual whisky link relatively recently and realised I should try to do something about it.
“The place has an incredible history.
“We’re very excited about getting the project off the ground and having a working distillery once again.”
The whisky will be distilled using barley from nearby fields and the water will come from the “Holy Burn”, which was dug by the abbey’s monks to make whisky, meaning it is likely to bear at least some resemblance to the original whisky made more than 500 years ago.
The distillery itself will be built on farmland near the abbey, along with a visitor’s centre. Iain Cram, project director for Bell Ingram, which has been involved in the project from the beginning, said: “The original steading’s stone walls will play a significant part in the construction as we’ll use part of this structure to make the visitor centre which will hopefully encourage locals and tourists to find out more about the whole distillation process.
“However, there was never a fully functional distillery on the site like we see nowadays with copper stills which is what we wish to create here. It will attract people from across the world as well as create jobs and give a great boost to the local area.”
The family, who are seeking investors in the £5m venture, hope to have the first stone of the distillery laid within 18 months.
“We would hope to open our doors within two to three years,” said McKenzie Smith. “Whisky, of course, is not something that can be made overnight but we would hope to have a very saleable product on the shelves within four to five years.
“We want it to be something that will taste good and also respect the history.
“What Friar John Cor would have made would have been pretty rough stuff flavoured with locally grown herbs, which are still in the area.
“But we would hope that what we would produce would be a little more refined than that.”
McKenzie Smith is also looking into producing a gin or flavoured liqueur – which can be made more quickly than whisky, which needs to sit for at least three years in the barrel before it can be called Scotch – while the whisky matures.
Cor was of the Tironensian order of monks – named after their home monastery, the Abbaye de la Sainte-Trinité de Tiron, near Chartres in France – who brought the art of distillation and brewing along with their fruit-growing horticultural skills to Scotland.
The Exchequer roll, which is held in the Scottish National Archives in Edinburgh reads: “To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, VIII bolls of malt, wherewith to make acqua vitae [water of life, or uisge beatha in Gaelic].”
Eight bolls of malt was enough barley to produce around 1,500 of today’s bottles of whisky.
However, in 1559 the abbey was destroyed by Knox and his supporters and began to fall into decline. The structure is now crumbling into disrepair. In 1913, the McKenzie Smith family purchased the abbey and hope that as part of the whisky project, they will also be able to restore the abbey itself with the help of Historic Scotland.