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Lindores Abbey Distillery – A Site Of Real Family Business History!

Lindores Abbey Distillery has been developed on a special site of historic interest. Perhaps the most important and historic event ever witnessed at Lindores Abbey was the meeting there in 1306 of three puissant knights, Sir Gilbert Hay of Errol, Sir Neil Campbell of Lochaw, and Sir Alexander Seton. It was at the Abbey that they undertook the sealing before the high altar of the vow they made to ”defend the King Robert Bruce and his crown to the last of their blood and fortunes.” These Knights were some of the Bruce’s staunchest friends and they were all well rewarded for their loyalty by the King when he took power. Lindores Abbey Distillery respectfully references the past in the way that it has been restored into the business that it has become today. Paul Andrews spoke to Drew McKenzie-Smith, founder and Managing Director to find out more.

When was the business founded?

The Lindores Distilling Co. Ltd was founded in 2013 (but there is a history of distilling here that dates back to 1494)

What does it do?

We are a Scotch whisky distillery with an historical visitor attraction and brand home.

Tell me a little about the history of the business and the location itself?

Lindores Abbey was founded in 1191 by David, Earl of Huntingdon and populated by Tironensian Monks from Thiron in France. The Abbey has a rich and varied history but most importantly it was what happened in 1494 that leads directly to where we are today.

The Exchequer roll (the Royal accounts) of 1494 record ‘To Friar John Cor, VIII bolls of malt wherewith to make Aqua Vitae for the King’, this is the earliest written evidence of whisky production in Scotland and Friar John Cor was a monk of Lindores Abbey.

We were totally unaware of this until 2001 when a chap knocked on the front door and asked my Father if he could take a walk around the Abbey ruins. This had never really happened before and my Father said to go ahead and thought no more of it. Then several months later a lovely hardback book called ‘Scotland and its whiskies’ arrived in the post and the author (Michael Jackson, the leading whisky writer of his day) had written on the inside, ‘Dear Ken, many thanks, turn to page 127.’ On that page was a lovely photograph of the Abbey and the chapter was entitled ‘For the whisky-lover it is a pilgrimage’ and then goes on to record him walking amongst the ruins saying a silent but happy prayer of thanks to Friar John Cor’, so that is what ignited my desire to celebrate that historic event in 1494 by establishing a distillery on the site of whisky’s birthplace.

Are there any other family members working in the business?

Currently there is myself, Helen (wife), elder daughter Poppy who does our PR, brother Robbie who helps Brother-in-Law Ross do the gardening and Ross’s wife Jane (my Sister) is our membership manager and her daughter (my niece) Charley is our bee keeper and waitress!

How important is family to you and how is that incorporated into the business?

Having sadly lost my Mother, Father and elder brother Grant my family is very important to me and we are very much a ‘family’ business and it means a lot to me that by starting the distillery we can keep the farm in the family for future generations.

What was your journey into the family business and what is your role now?

My personal ‘Lindores’ journey really began 20+ years ago with the arrival of the aforementioned book by Michael Jackson. I had always wanted to find a way to make Lindores pay and to learn you have the spiritual home of Scotch whisky in your back garden seemed too good an opportunity to pass up!

However twenty years ago the whisky business wasn’t in a good place so seeking any kind of investment was an uphill struggle, plenty of enthusiasm, support and advice but no actual cash so after a couple of years trying I decided that I needed to get back to the day job, which back then was running luxury exclusive use properties with Helen where she was the boss and I was the chef but the dream of building a distillery never really left me.

Then around seven years ago I took a phone call from an old friend in the industry who told me that new distilleries were popping up all over the place and in his (very qualified) opinion the one place there should be one was at Lindores, so after the call I thought ‘Carpe Diem and re-ignited the project and secured a £5K grant from Fife Business Gateway towards a £10K feasibility study. Fast forward and I am now the founder and MD of the Lindores Distilling Co sitting in my office looking out of the window at the state of the art Lindores Abbey whisky distillery!

What have been the biggest challenges to date?

There have been many hurdles, in fact straight after the phone call mentioned above I went online to check I still had the trademarks and I’d let ‘Lindores’ lapse so renewed it only to get a letter of objection from ‘Lindt’ who make the golden ‘Lindor’ chocolate bunnies. They objected that the two names were too similar and were both luxury products. I knew I couldn’t go head to head with a multinational so I went back to them saying that the Abbey was built by the brother of the King etc and after a lot of calls I managed to get them to withdraw their objection as long as I (legally) promised not to make chocolates with Lindores whisky in them, which was an easy promise to make.

The build was relatively straightforward though we had to carry out a lot of archaeology which actually threw up some very interesting finds such as Abbey walls that hadn’t been seen for over 500 years and most importantly we uncovered what is believed to be an original whisky still, a clay bowl that has traces of carbon and barley, we’ve kept it (physically) under wraps whilst we work out how best to preserve it whilst also making it viewable to the public, a big challenge indeed.

But by far the biggest challenges have been the dual effects of Covid (unavoidable) and Brexit (avoidable). We actually navigated our way through the former OK but Brexit has caused many issues and now the supply chains for glass, cardboard etc are having serious knock-on effects for us and the rest of the industry.

What values are important to the family and the business?

We treat our 40 staff members like family and we also have an extended membership of almost 1500 members that are part of the wider ‘Lindores’ community. I believe the most important thing is to treat people as you would like to be treated yourself so we like to think we are good employers with very high staff retention and glowing reviews in our visitors book which have resulted in our visitor centre being awarded 5 stars and given a tripadvisor travellers choice award, placing us in the top 10% of worldwide visitor attractions.

Do you build the family ownership into the marketing and brand narrative and if so, how?

Absolutely! Its one of the things that separates us from many of the larger distilleries. Our narrative is genuine in that my Great Grandfather bought the abbey and our tours are as much about the ‘story’ and the history as they are about actual whisky production.

My name is on every bottle so its hard to avoid but also, very importantly, we set up the ‘Lindores Preservation Society’ whereby a percentage of proceeds from bottle sales goes in to the actual physical preservation of the Abbey ruins with a view to keeping them intact for future generations.

What do you think makes working in a family business special?

Helen and I have worked together for about twenty years and its been great. There may have been ‘moments’ along the way but its great to bounce ideas off each other and I do think we make a great team, the only downside is that sometimes it’s hard to switch off and talk about things other than the business! It does become all consuming and I think in the past the kids got fed up that every trip would include a trip to yet another distillery, all in the name of research!

Are there any disadvantages associated with working in a family business?

I think none thing is that it is harder to tell a family member off at work than it is for a normal employee as its more personal, I think for me that’s the only downside.

Have you taken any particular steps in terms of governance to help protect the business for the future?

Not in a legal sense just yet, we are thinking of succession planning though and there is a possibility our elder daughter may take up the reigns in a few years time but she’s happy in London just now and not quite ready for the bright lights of Newburgh!

As a relatively new family business, what do you see for the business in the future?

As a business we are still in the foothills with our first whisky only being released a few months ago. It has done extremely well and has garnered great reviews so we are doing something right. We are planning to build three more warehouses and we can up production from 250K litres per annum to around 400K with some capex and an increase in staffing levels and that’s the size I would like us to grow to, bigger than that and the whole place would change, that may happen one day and it would be great, but for me its very important to retain the integrity of a small family business.

What advice would you give to anyone in the next generation considering starting a family firm?

If you feel it can work for you and your family then I would go for it. There are so many advantages BUT as I mentioned earlier there is sometimes an issue that sometimes there will be fall outs, as there is in any business, and you must keep business and your family life separate as I have heard of some monumental fall outs that affect both the company and the wider family.

If you could talk to your younger self before you joined the business, what would you say?

I would say that ‘Everything will be ok.’ Whilst I had a career in hospitality I did drift through my twenties so possibly the distillery project was always meant to happen, it certainly gave me the focus I needed to follow my dream.

If you could sum up the family business in three words, what would they be?

Work and Play!

Find out more by visiting their website here

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