By Rose Murray Brown MW   Published in The Scotsman 21 April 2018

A new C21st Aqua Vitae has just hit the market, believed to be a close copy of the original herbal spirit produced by Tironensian monks 500 years ago in Fife, now made by one of Scotland’s newest distilleries.

Lindores Abbey Distillery Aqua VitaeTwenty years ago Drew Mackenzie Smith of Lindores Abbey Distillery came across a reference to his family farm on the banks of the River Tay, which includes the ruins of Lindores Abbey, recognising it as the spiritual home of Scotch Whisky. 

“It was just two lines in the tax record in connection with Friar John Cor, who in 1494 was commissioned by King James IV to turn 8 bolls of malt into Aqua Vitae”. 

“Since this is the first written reference of Scotch whisky, my mission has been to return distilling back to Lindores.  For our initial product we decided to continue where the good Friar left off, making something authentic, not just another gin”, says Mackenzie Smith.

Lindores Abbey Distillery Aqua VitaeThe monks, who came from Tiron 40 miles southwest of Paris, were very advanced in science and horticulture.  At Lindores they had Scotland’s largest pear tree and orchard (the ‘Lundoris’ pear is particularly sour) and bee hives, with extensive herb gardens.  On the Tay estuary they exchanged salmon and fleeces for spices on the boats from Flanders.

Aqua Vitae, the herby spicy spirit drink they made from local malted barley, was used as a medicine or tincture (it was also used to dry gunpowder).  In a C13 treatise, Theoricus had described that ‘it killed fleshe wormes if you wash your hands therewith’, ‘moderately taken it sloeth age and strengtheneth youth’, ‘kepeth the stomach from wambling, belly from wirtchyng and bones from acheing’.

James IV of Scotland was a man well-learned in medicine, who actually paid people to let him dress their wounds or draw their teeth.  He had his own alchemist in Stirling Castle making herbal tonics – they distilled everything from dew to human blood (apparently very popular).  Since the Black Death of 1350, alchemists had become popular tasked with curing ailments and prolonging life; the average life expectancy in C15 was 30 years.  In 1505 King James also gave the Guild of Surgeon Barbers exclusive licence to manufacture Aqua Vitae in the burgh of Edinburgh.

Lindores Abbey DistilleryToday, the man tasked with creating this limited edition Aqua Vitae is the new Lindores apothecary, Tim Foster.  Just two years ago Foster was selling software to councils, before he decided to change career and embark on Heriot Watt’s Brewing and Distilling course supervised by Dr Annie Hill.  Foster’s project was on Aqua Vitae.

“I discovered that if you want to extract the best flavour you need to do it under vacuum”, says Foster. 

The Aqua Vitae is distilled in pot stills, then infused with a blend of Sweet Cicely, Fennel, Cleavers, Lemon Verbena and Douglas Fir, macerated by hand for seven days in the 100% Fife new make spirit, before bottling is done off-site.  No oak is used, although the distillery have purchased Tiron, bourbon and sherry casks for finishing their malt whisky.

Lindores Abbey DistilleryWith all this macerating of botanicals, you would be forgiven for thinking the new Aqua Vitae spirit sounds a bit like gin – but no juniper is used.  Aqua Vitae is actually closer to other famous herbal liqueurs, originally made by monks using age old recipes, like Benedictine and Chartreuse.

Tastewise, it reminded me of two other famous liqueurs – Drambuie (which is much more honeyed) and Cointreau (the famous triple sec which has more orange flavour).

So how do you enjoy this new Aqua Vitae?  “My favourite serve is in a rocks glass over a block of ice with a twist of orange peel – or for a longer drink, pour over ice and add ginger beer and grapefruit juice”, says Mackenzie Smith.

The team at Edinburgh’s Timberyard have also been experimenting with new Aqua Vitae cocktails:

‘After a Dark ‘n’ Stormy’
50ml Aqua Vitae
25ml Grapefruit
Good pinch of salt
Serve in highball over block of ice, top with ginger ale and garnish with grapefruit twist

‘After a Rusty Nail’
35ml Aqua Vitae
15ml blended Scotch
10ml honey syrup
Stir down and strain off into rocks glass over block of ice and garnish with lemon twist

‘After a White Manhattan’
45ml Aqua Vitae
15ml White Vermouth (Cocchi)
5ml Dry Vermouth (Great British)
Stir down and drain into coupe with Pastis rinse. Garnish with lemon twist.

Visit the Apothecary at Lindores Abbey: distillery tours daily 10.30am, 12 noon and 2pm: £12.50 per person

Aqua Vitae Lindores Abbey DistilleryLINDORES ABBEY AQUAVITAE
Alcohol: 40%
Price: £40 (70cl) from distillery gift shop or online 

Taste: Aromas are very subtle – slight hint of ginger and clove.  Palate has a welcoming citric burst with pineapple and caramel backnotes, smooth, rounded, slightly oily in texture, finishing with a dry bitter lemon twist.



Origin: Baden, SW Germany
Alcohol: 13%
Price: £14.85
Taste: Very popular in our recent German tasting.  A stylish Pinot Gris from one of Baden’s top producers on the banks of the Rhine where Cistercian monks brought vines from Burgundy to grow on the Kaiserstuhl slopes.  Greengage and green apple aromas, smooth rounded texture, juicy and vibrant, with Pinot Gris’ sweet sour notes.  Serve with fish, chicken or goats cheese.


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