Whisky’s heroes

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it was most interesting to see there are plans to build a distillery and visitor centre on the ruins of Lindores Abbey (your report, 30 September). No malt whisky aficionado would object to another distillery in Scotland, wherever it may be built.

But this seems an appropriate time to lay to rest the myth that Lindores Abbey is either the “birthplace of the water of life” or the spiritual home of John Cor.

John Cor was a Dominican friar from Edinburgh Priory and there is no mention in the literature of aqua vitae having been distilled at Lindores.

The famous reference in the 1494 Exchequer Rolls is best translated as: “And by payment made to Brother John Cor by precept of the comptroller, as he asserts, by the King’s command, to make aqua vitae within the period of the account, eight bolls of malt.”

A bit of a mouthful, and nowhere is Cor’s provenance noted. But he is mentioned in the contemporary Peter Marche Protocol Book when friar John Cor witnessed a sasine by John Baty to Prior Thomas Sclater OP.

It is hardly likely that the head of the Dominican order in Edinburgh would have a transfer of feudal property to him witnessed by a Tironensian monk from Fifeshire.

Cor’s religious affiliation was known in 1962 when historian Fr Anthony Ross OP of St Albert’s Priory in Edinburgh wrote notes on religious orders in pre-Reformation Scotland and stated that John Cor could be identified as an Edinburgh Dominican. So how and when did the supposed Lindores Abbey connection come about? There is not one mention of the place in any Scotch whisky literature written prior to 1994, the 500th anniversary of the Exchequer Rolls reference to Cor and aqua vitae.

It would appear that the Lindores connection was bootstrapped into existence at that time, based on no evidence at all.

So if not the Lindores monks, who should we salute as the distillers of the day? In 1506 King James IV conferred a monopoly to make aqua vitae on the Guild of Barber Surgeons in the City of Edinburgh, and it is probably they who were the king’s favoured distillers, not the religious houses.

The liquor was used in alchemical experiments and for gunpowder manufacture, though no doubt a few drams were taken too.

The scale of the enterprise in 1494 appears to have been underestimated. The sentence in the Exchequer Rolls immediately after the reference to John Cor translates as “And for the making of nine chalders of the aforesaid malt, six bolls of barley”.

The aforesaid 8 bolls of malt were for aqua vitae manufacture, and 9 chalders (roughly 15.7 tonnes) was 18 times as much. One wonders whether the Dominicans really were distillers on such a scale, or whether John Cor was acting as an intermediary between King James’ stax men and the barber-surgeons of Edinburgh, the real whisky heroes of the day. As Anthony Ross pointed out, one Dominican house became “a convenient meeting place for the officials of the exchequer”.

Peter Wood


New Zealand