A press release announcing that Scotch whisky’s birthplace was "back in production" caught my eye recently. I had always thought its origins were lost in the mists of time, with unproven suggestions of it having been a fiery Irish or even European import. So where on earth was its birthplace?
It turns out to be at an ancient abbey in Fife. In 1494, on the banks of the Tay, a Tironension monk, Friar John Cor, paid duty on "eight Bols of malt wherewith to make Aqua Vitae for King James IV"; enough to make him about 1,500 bottles of whisky. This is the earliest written reference to whisky in Scotland, listed in the Exchequer Rolls.
Intrigued by the idea that someone had begun production 510 years later on the very spot that the good friar had started, I headed off in search of Lindores Abbey. What I found was a very sorry sight.
On a narrow side-road, on the outskirts of Newburgh, now encroached by petrol pumps, modern housing estates and run-down Victorian farm-buildings, was the whisky industry’s most important historic monument lying in ruins. No sign, no plaque, no reference. All that remains of a once very substantial mediaeval monastery is just a pile of crumbling walls, arches and enclaves, never rebuilt after John Knox’s sacking in 1559.
Needless to say, there was no sign of any distilling going on here either. Only one wall of the monks’ old granary store, nestled in a sheltered hollow, was still intact. I drank the water from the fast flowing stream nearby, which the monks would have used for making whisky.
What should now be an important archaeological site is now just of a mucky run-down farm meadow. Where the substantial fruit orchards once stood (they would have used fruits for flavouring their fiery clear spirit), only a few fruit trees remained.
In the visitor’s handbook in the Laing Museum in Newburgh, I found details about everything. When the abbey was built in 1191, the height of the red sandstone monastery walls, when it was sacked and ruined by John Knox, where the Benedictine monks came from in France, about their peat bogs, reed beds, mill and artisans. Nowhere was there any mention of "Aqua Vitae".
Walking through the ruins with Drew Mackenzie Smith, whose family have owned the ruins and surrounding farms since 1905, I am told that while the whisky industry has always known about Lindores, his family have only just discovered the significance of the ruin in their back garden.
"I found out by chance about its whisky heritage a few years ago", says Mackenzie Smith. "I was trawling through the internet and found mention of our abbey on a website (www.connoisseurscotland.co.uk). I was amazed to find that my childhood playground among the overgrown crumbling ruins was, in fact, the birthplace of Scotch whisky," he says.
Even in 1994, when the whisky industry celebrated its 500th anniversary, no-one bothered with Lindores. At that time the Mackenzie Smiths had no idea of its significance. To celebrate this anniversary, the Scotch Whisky Association simply ran a bottling competition won by Whyte and Mackay, and Diageo brought out a "Friar John Cor" bottle. But Lindores remained neglected.
Now in a bid to preserve this historic monument as a mecca for whisky lovers, Mackenzie Smith has made several pleas to the whisky industry for assistance. "No-one seems willing to do anything," he says. So today the site still lies in ruins, effectively closed to the public, desperately in need of preservation - with a very real threat of housing development around it.
"It seems crazy not to do something," he adds. So with no interest from the industry, he has funded his own project. Trademarking the name, setting up Lindores Abbey Charitable Trust and setting up a series of projects, he hopes to raise an initial 10,000 to make the site safe and open to visitors who want to see it.
His first project is a limited edition of 500 bottles of "pure malt", each packaged in a wooden box, with an "Angels Share" certificate sent to every purchaser stating that 10 per cent of the proceeds from each bottle will go to restoring the abbey. The blend, created by Euan Shand of whisky brokers Duncan Taylor & Co, of ten different 30-35-year-old malts, includes 1968 Macallan, 1969 Glenlivet and 1967 Springbank. The bottles may be interesting collectors’ items, but in a market swamped with "special" labels it’s a hard sell for someone outside the industry.
Within a week of launching his new dram, interest has begun to stir. The same week of my visit, a representative from Scotland’s largest drinks company, Diageo, arrived to inspect the site and was enthusiastic about development plans.
"Lindores has enormous potential," says Ken Robertson of Diageo. "I see it as a chance to do something authentic and of great quality. It would be ideal for a micro distillery, scientific and educational centre, showing how mediaeval Scotch whisky was made using the same water and barley. There’s potential here for making fruit liqueurs and for artisan workshops. It has to be done as an industry initiative, not by one company," he says.
After the recent Cardhu pure malt controversy, Diageo sees this as an ideal way to court public sympathy as main sponsor of the project. In such a brand-focused industry, it would be a perfect opportunity for the Scotch Whisky Association to encourage its members to do something for the industry - for generic education, which is surprisingly poor at present.
"Unfortunately, the SWA’s job is a bit like herding cats," says Robertson. So will Diageo’s ideas for Lindores ever get off the ground? Campbell Evans, of the SWA, who has never visited the historic Lindores site, is disparaging of development ideas. "I think it’s unlikely that something like this will ever happen when we already have a heritage centre in Edinburgh," he says.
So while there may be little chance of production starting again at Lindores Abbey, there is something you can do to help. For the first time ever you can raise a glass of "Lindores Abbey" on Burns night this year - and help preserve the birthplace of our beloved Scotch.
Lindores Abbey history
1191: Abbey founded by David, Earl of Huntingdon, on land granted by his brother William I (Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman is based on Prince David)
• 1298: William Wallace visits Lindores Abbey after his victory at Battle of Blackearnside
• 1306: Three puissant knights, Sir Gilbert Hay of Errol, Sir Neil Campbell of Lochaw and Sir Alexander Seton, vows at Lindores’ high altar to "defend the King Robert Bruce and his crown"
• 1401: David Duke of Rothesay, the ill-fated heir to the Scottish throne, buried at Lindores Abbey, having been executed in Falkland Palace
• 1494: Earliest known recording of "Aqua Vitae" in Exchequer Rolls refers to Friar John Cor, a Tironension monk of Lindores Abbey
• 1559: John Knox and his zealous reformers sack the Abbey after his speech at Perth, leaving it in an abandoned state; stonework dispersed throughout Newburgh
• 1793: Title of Lord Lindores becomes dormant; old abbey lands divided between separate families
• 1905: Abbey and neighbouring Parkhill Farm purchased by Mackenzie-Smith family
• 1994: In the 500th anniversary of Scotch whisky organised by SWA, no moves made to preserve Lindores Abbey
• 2004: First 500 bottles of limited edition Lindores Abbey "pure malt" launched
LINDORES ABBEY "PURE MALT" (40 per cent)
Tasting note: Sweet fudge and vanilla aromas with distinct sherry undertones, rich sweet mouthfilling palate with hints of heather and pepper - and a light soft rounded finish.
Stockists: Royal Mile Whiskies, Edinburgh, tel: 0131-225 3383; Luvians, Cupar and St Andrews, tel: 01334 654820/477752; Duncan Taylor & Co, www.scotchwhisky.net; in gift box with share certificate. 10 per cent to Lindores Abbey Charitable Trust.