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Featuring Lindores Abbey Distillery Founder Drew McKenzie-Smith

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Featuring Lindores Abbey Distillery Founder Drew McKenzie-Smith

An entry in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland in 1494 points to Friar John Cor and a group of Tironensian monks as the likely source of the first aqua vitae provided to the king. This record has brought the home of these monks, Lindores Abbey, fame as the spiritual home of scotch whisky. But is it?

Join me and Drew McKenzie-Smith, founder of Lindores Abbey Distillery, as we look further into the history of distillation on this historic property.

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.

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Transcript

The twelfth century started poorly for Bernard of Abbeville (Ah-bah-veel). Having spent nearly twenty years waiting for a chance to become abbot of his Benedictine abbey at Saint-Savin, he was unceremoniously rejected by Pope Paschal II.

He turned to a life as a hermit. At one point Bernard lived in a cave and braved harsh conditions and poverty in the Channel Islands off Normandy until some friends enticed him to make his return to mainland France.

He returned to find an era of reform for the monestaries. The traditionalists felt the Benedictines had moved far beyond the Rule of St. Benedict and they wanted to get back to a simpler life. The ways of the hermit drew many followers to Bernard. He established a community in Tiron, France and soon began construction of an abbey.

Known as the “grey monks” because of their grey robes, the Tironensian monks insisted on a life of manual labor and strict pentenance. The order attracted artistans who were required to provide their skills in helping the community. The abbey became a soup kitchen and shelter for local families during a time of great famine.

Word spread quickly of the Tironensian Order and soon there were several monestaries developing north of the English Channel.

Nestled between England and Scotland, the Principality of the Cumbrians was ruled by a prince named David. David had some powerful connections. His brother-in-law was King Henry I of England and his wife Matilda was an ancestor of Alfred the Great and was the great grand neice of William the Conqueror.

With his wife Matilda’s wealth at hand, he set about modernizing his territory and developed Scotland’s first two towns Roxburgh and Berwick. He also had a fascination with the Tironensian monks and helped them by founding their abbey at Selkirk. When David ascended to the throne of Scotland as David I, he had the order moved closer to his home in Roxburgh and founded Kelso Abbey.

With all of this royal attention and the beginning of the Second Cruisade, the once impoverished order began accumulating wealth and lands by providing prayers for knights headed to the holy lands and the families they left behind.

After nearly a century of growth in Scotland, the Tironensian monks were ready for a daughter abbey. It would be David I’s grandson David, Earl of Huntingdon, that would take lands bequeathed by his brother King William the Lion to provide a second home for the order. In 1191, he founded Lindores Abbey, near the banks of the River Tay.

Today, the land surrounding the ruins of Lindores Abbey is the ancestrial home of Drew McKenzie-Smith and his family. Twenty years ago, a visitor enlightened him to Lindores Abbey’s status as the spiritual home of scotch whisky. This set him on a quest to discover what ties the abbey had to Scotland’s national spirit. It also led him to a preservation campaign and the founding of the Lindores Abbey Distillery.

According to his research, the monks at Lindores Abbey carried on the traditions of their brothers in Tiron, France. They were manual laborors and artisans, practicing the science of alchemy. One of their many practices was the art of distilling. Which leads to the question, what was their purpose for making alcohol both in France and Scotland?

Drew McKenzie-Smith: Their monestry still exists and they still have their physics garden, so a physics garden is like an alchemist's garden. And there is where the monks, going back centuries, were growing plants to mix with distilled spirit to make - not necessarily something you would drink - they were making something that was like a rubbing alcohol. And it had been used for centuries and centuries. And that is what came to Lindores.

There was plenty of need for medicinal alcohol throughout the late medieval period, especially when the Black Death made its way around Scotland.

But it is hard to imagine there wasn’t some interest in drinking alcohol as well. These were hard times. It was the era of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and the Wars for Scottish Independence. In fact, William Wallace’s last victory was won on Black Earnside, a hill that hovers near the ruins of the abbey. You would think surely there would be quite the victory celebration. But these were also monks committed to the Rules of St. Benedict.

Drew McKenzie-Smith: The monks had a pretty austere life, but I think they knew how to enjoy themselves as well. One of the late, the soonest entries after the abbey was founded was quite a sad tale, I think it was the bishop of Durham was up visiting Lindores it's recorded that he and his manservant sadly burnt to death in their room, because they were very very drunk. Now we don’t know if they were drunk on aqua vitae but this was 1302 or something like that, and people were drinking lots of beer, remember that they didn’t drink a lot of water then, and so there are records of brewing at Lindores from way before 1494. But we assume the logistical thing, if the monks can make beer, then they would have had the knowledge - as we do in any distillery, you’re brewing before you’re distilling - they were just doing the same thing.

So how is it that in recent years, Lindores Abbey earned the nickname “the spiritual home of scotch whisky?”

It starts with a king, a Tironensian monk, and an entry in the king's register of income and expendatures, known as the Exchequer Rolls.

By 1494, Europe was deep into the societal and cultural revolution known as The Renaisance. Religion was evolving with the rise of protestantism, art was elevating to new heights, the age of explorers was at hand, and science was coming out of the shadows.

Scotland’s King James IV embraced The Renaissance and became the perfect king for the times. He spoke several languages fluently, including being the last king of Scotland to speak Scots Gaelic. He was a patron of the arts, he supported Scotland’s first printing press, he was well read and a lover of history, and he was the first king of Scotland to embrace education.

Three of his other pursuits had interesting relationships with distilled spirits. First, he had a keen interest in medicine and alcohol was seen as a cure-all in many societies. In fact, it was referred to as aqua vitae. Aqua vitae, roughly translated from Latin means “water of life.” It was prescribed for good health, preservation of life, the relief of colic, smallpox, palsy and other afflictions.

He used spirits in the manufacture of gunpowder.  And he was fascinated by alchemy, the very science that advanced the art of distillation.

So it should be no surprise that a record in the 1494 Exchequer Rolls lists the following order from Lindores Abbey.

“To Friar John Cor, 8 bolls of malt, wherewith to make aqua vitae for the King.”

Bolls is not a measurement we are familiar with today. How much aqua vitae was the king expecting the monks to produce?

Drew McKenzie-Smith: What we do know is that 8 bolls of malt was enough to make the equivalent today of about 1500 bottles of whisky. So we know it wasn’t a small operation.

So in 1494, Lindores Abbey had to have some renound as a place that could output such a large quantity of spirits.

But is it right to make the leap from a king’s request for a large quantity of aqua vitae - and Brother John Cor’s ability to deliver on that request - to the assertion that by this era aqua vitae was consumed recreationally, the way we drink scotch today?

Drew McKenzie-Smith: I think that’s one part of the jigsaw that still has never really been answered is, when did it turn into being something that people drank for pleasure, rather than using it to help sick people?  My theory is, you get eight guys in a room, be they monks or not, and someone’s going to try drinking it at some point. And then human nature is, if you’re going to drink it, why not try to make it taste nice? That’s slightly glib but I do think that’s really how distilling progressed.

Well, we know that scotch whisky evolved from aqua vitae. And we know this because the Scot Gaelic translation of aqua vitae is uisge beatha which later evolved into the English word whisky.

It is hard to prove if the monks were drinking anything harder than beer. But let’s look a little closer at the purchaser, King James IV and see if we can find any evidence of recreational use. 

Beyond being a man of the Renassance - by most accounts King James IV was a wise and effective king. He brought centurys of strife with the antagonistic Lords of the Isles to an end and his marriage to Margaret Tudor, through future generations, would produce kings that would unite England and Scotland, after Queen Elizabeth I died without an heir.

But things started harshly for James IV. His father, King James III was never a popular king and faced two rebellions. In the second rebellion, his own son took up arms against him. His father became collateral damage as he was killed on the battlefield, although his son had explicitly asked the rebels not to touch him.

The event had two profound effects on the 15-year old. First, it caused his early ascention to the throne and second, he would be thrust into a life of guilt for playing a part in the murder of his father.

His guilt drove him to wearing a heavy chain around his waist and taking annual pilgramages to a holy shrine in Highland town of Tain, near the present day Glenmorrange Distillery. 

But an article on ScotchWhisky.com suggests these trips may have been a bit more fun than just penatance. It is highly possible that good King James IV liked to have some spirits on hand for the journey.

The Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland show several entries between 1505 and 1507 that suggest the consumption of alcohol by the king.

First, in 1505, he gave the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh a monopoly over the production of aqua vitae. This would point to its medicinal value. However, there is also an entry that asks the Barbers to send a flask of aqua vitae to the king for his pleasure while playing cards. And in 1507, there is an entry where a man was paid for bringing aqua vitae and glasses to an event with the king. 

So it can be deduced that the king at some point found out the potent pleasure of consuming distilled spirits.

So while we can’t nail down the exact uses for the 8 bolls of malt, there is a good chance some found its way down the king’s throat. And this would help the argument that Lindores Abbey is the valid spiritual home of scotch whisky. Now keep in mind, what they were drinking then was unaged, more harsh, and nowhere near as refined as today’s scotch. But this is our first legitimate if still slightly hazy record of the consumption of whisky in Scotland.

So what was Brother John Cor’s reward for producing so much aqua vitae for the king? Well, little is known about the Friar. One wonders if he would be pleased or dismayed by his now legendary relationship to scotch whisky, rather than his vows of strict penetance, his work ethic, and devotion to God. There is a 1494 record of him receiving black cloth from Flanders, and apparently this rare and expensive cloth was used to outfit his monks. This would earn them the nickname the “black monks” of Lindores Abbey, but I could find no further records of him beyond that.

As for his home, a couple of events seemed to remove Lindores Abbey from any future notoriety as a fine producer of aqua vitae. 

The first was the monopoly over spirits production granted by the king to the Guild of Surgeon Barber’s in 1505. The second was Henry VIII’s need for divorce and his move to establish the Church of England, thus leading to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. The abbey was sacked in 1543 by a mob from nearby Dundee. And in 1559 the abbey came to a harsh end.

Drew McKenzie-Smith: What is recorded at Lindores, so John Knox came here with his followers, I can’t remember the exact quote, but it was - they overturned the altars and threw out the monkish habits. So sadly for Lindores, you know it was a hugely important, visually impressive building but it became, I supposed, like the local rock quarry. People would pull bits of it down. And so sadly that why so little of it - it’s a very beautiful ruin and we can never rebuild it, but we can preserve it. So in a way, that is what we do through our preservation society. 

So let’s turn the calendar forward to 1913 when Drew’s great-grandfather paid 3000? to purchase a plot of land called Lindores Abbey farms in Fife. The land quietly passed down from generation to generation as the family farm. 

One day, 20 years ago, a man came to their home asking to see the ruins. Drew’s father obliged the man and that seemed to be the end of the story. Then a few months later, a book showed up in the mail with a lovely thank you note and an instruction to turn to page 70. The book was from a popular whisky writer at the time, Michael Jackson. And the book displayed a photo of the abbey, suggesting that, “for the whisky lover, it is a pilgramage” and to offer up a prayer to Friar John Cor. Up until that point, they had no idea of the historical significance of this piece of their farm. 

This started a twenty year research project that culminated in the development of Lindores Abbey Distillery. 

With the whisky boom in full swing, the ultimate goal is to sell their now aging whisky, but until it is ready, Drew has set his sights on keeping with the tradition of the abbey, so they are producing an unaged spirit, that harkens back to the monk’s aqua vitae. 

But really, what was aqua vitae? It is difficult to say.

So working with Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Starting by sourcing botanicals that Friar John may have used to tame the taste of the spirit. But some like Garlic just weren’t going to fly. But with some creative thinking, they found the best way to finish off the spirit.

Drew McKenzie-Smith: We know that our monks traded with Flanders in Europe, and the currency the monks of Lindores had was salmon from the River Tay, so we have record of them trading with Flanders to really minute detail - to rotten barrels of salmon being thrown overboard. But when they got to Flanders, it gave them access to among other things, dates and raisons. We thought well there’s one way of sweetening it and again a lot of trial and error, too much dates and raisons and it’s too sweet. So we worked out the right quantities. The nice upshot from that is two-fold. It gave us a spirit that eventually - because a lot of times, we would go through, very excited to meet the gang to try the aqua vitae or try the prototype aqua vitae and I gotta say, being very disappointed. You know, we had our hearts set on something. So the day that we got there and it was right, was a eureka moment - and it was just bang on for us.  The unexpected upshot was the dates and raisins have given us an amber spirit, 

One thing you will notice when you walk into the visitor’s center, it is an elegant facility, but it harkens more to a Harry Potter feel than a high-tech feel. As with everything else, this was very intentional. There always seems to be an honoring of the past. 

Sitting at the foot of Black Earnside where William Wallace won his last battle, Drew says the grounds just keep giving more and more historical surprises. Namely the first physical evidence of distilling on the site. A kiln that more than likely was the base of a still.

Drew McKenzie-Smith: We’ve had it carbon dated, it’s been confirmed that that structure has been where it is from - I mean the abbey was built and founded in 1191. There was a mill here in 1198. So there is not reason to think that potentially that that still wasn’t here in 1198, which obviously predeces 1494 by a considerable period. And supposed what is a bit difficult about Lindores is, when we’re talking about 18th Century techniques, there is evidence of how these structures worked. You going back to 13th Century makes things a little more tricky. But we’ll keep looking.

So how do they know how old this kiln is?

Drew McKenzie-Smith: There’s an archaological term called flot testing, I haven’t got a clue what flot stands for, I’m sure it will say it on the forms. It’s a scientific test, a bit like carbon dating, so what is great is, we can pinpoint how early it dates back to. So it dates back to eleventh and twelfth centuries. It’s not a later addition. And equally importantly with the clay itself, the whole thing for me depended on it having carbon, because no one that saw it at first could tell what it was for. It could have been for salting salmon or it could have been for dying wool. No one really knew, but we all had a belief. So we were hugely excited and a little bit relieved if I’m honest, that when we did the flot test it has shown signs of carbon, which obviously you would have to have if there was burning there.  And signs of wood and signs of barley, so for us that’s what you had to have to find in a still in a monestry, so yeah, to pair that at Lindores is huge. 

Very protective of these historic artifac:ts, we weren’t able to go down and view the kiln and unfortunately it is not currently accessible to the public. But with all of these amazing discoveries and such a rich history of the abbey, Drew is determined to preserve it through his Lindores Abbey Preservation Society.

Drew McKenzie-Smith: The main thrust of the preservation is actually  just keeping the ivy at bay and things like that. So what we do have lasts for another 500 years, but that’s why the original still we were talking about, this is why discoveries like that are so important. So we can try to raise funds through the preservation society to genuinely preserve that for another 500 years. But it’s such an important structure, we’re keeping it under cover for the time being, but we are exploring ways of making it open to the general public. And the people who do see it, the whisky afficianados especially, when they come to Lindores and they see Lindores as the spiritual home of scotch whisky, so to then find the base of a spirit still there is like the holy grail. Because I live here I slightly take it for granted, but it still freaks me out a little bit. (Laughs)

Drew understands the nature of being the first at anything. It can instantly garner you attention. But he also knows that there is always a chance a major discovery elsewhere could potentially draw some attention away from Lindores Abbey. In fact, just recently the University of Aberdeen suggested they had the oldest record of a pot still, dating back to 1505.

However, 8 bolls of malt coverted into aqua vitae could not have been made in 1494 without the services of a pot still, so for now, James IV’s legal records hold sway and Lindores Abbey’s status as the spiritual home of scotch whisky is secure.

Drew McKenzie-Smith: No one really knows who the first historian was that saw that entry in the exchequer rolls. I’ve had the honor of seeing the exchequer rolls, they still exist there in West Registry House in Edinburgh. You have to get special permission, but I went and they unrolled the parchment which is about 30 yards long, buried deep in the middle of it is the famous entry in Latin, but it is buried amongst thousands and thousands of other entries and is barely legible. So, I’ve got a huge debt of gratitude to whoever it was that found it and thank you very much.

I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore.

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life

Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush

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