Interview: John Campbell on Lochlea’s fifth anniversary and the ‘milestone’ age statement

Interview: John Campbell on Lochlea’s fifth anniversary and the ‘milestone’ age statement

A lot can happen in five years, as the Lochlea Distillery team knows. As the Scotch producer marks the occasion with its first age statement, production director John Campbell shares his take on its first half-decade.

News 23 Jan 2024 | By Kristiane Sherry

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Ayrshire’s rolling arable hills gleam like diamonds. It’s fallow season, the dense frost catching in the bright January sun. Frozen fields stretch to the horizon in a palette of soft golds and muted browns, lifted by the vibrance of the unbroken blue sky. Lochlea Distillery nestles in this undulating landscape. It’s a maker in tune with the rhythms of the earth – perhaps more so than most, as it only uses barley grown in its own fields that directly surround the distillery. (This ethos has been recognised by the Icons of Whisky, which named it single estate distillery of the year in 2023.)

 

Lochlea is so aligned with the seasons it’s even named its limited releases after them. From Fallow and Ploughing to Sowing and Harvest, everything comes back to the ground. But now it's taking in those cycles from a wider aspect. Lochlea is celebrating its fifth anniversary since its spirit first flowed, and with it, the maker has released its first age-statement whisky: Lochlea 5 Years Old.

 

“I feel like we’re giving a wee bit of ourselves,” says John Campbell, Lochlea’s production director, about the expression. The release is a vatting of five casks, two of which were filled in the very first week of the distillery’s production back in 2018. Casks 20 and 25, both ex-bourbon vessels, shine in the vatting. The other three are a first-fill oloroso sherry, a double-matured oloroso sherry, and a double matured Pedro Ximénez sherry. It’s a lusciously full, surprisingly complex expression for such a young spirit – but more on that later.

Production director John Campbell

Campbell joined Lochlea from Laphroaig in 2021. While he hasn’t been there for the whole journey, he is almost evangelical about what makes the distillery so special.

 

“Everyone’s pushing and pushing and stretching and twisting,” he says of the team. He’s found them to be like family. It makes sense – Lochlea is a tiny team. At the beginning it was just Neil and Jen McGeoch, who have called the farm home since 2006. They were initially livestock farmers, rearing pedigree beef cattle until 2014. Then they pivoted into barley, which had been grown on the land around the farm before. Trials were a success. Now to convert the farm into a distillery.

 

“Every building has been repurposed apart from the warehouse,” explained commercial director David Ferguson. Work started in 2017, a remarkably fast project ahead of commissioning. The team has never rested. “Long term, we want to be completely single site.” It’s a bold aim: Lochlea uses its own barley, but only has capacity to malt around 10–15 per cent of it at present. The only other gaps are in bottling and waste processing.

 

For Campbell, it’s the team that makes this level of detail, and the extent to which they have control over production, possible. The full head count stands at 20. “We all want each other to do well,” he says. “We’re such a small business that we all just have to help each other out. We can integrate it.” Core values are radical honesty, he continues. “You’re not afraid to have a voice, to voice challenge. That’s really important, especially when the pace of development will speed up, which it undoubtedly will because we’ve got big plans.”

Lochlea 5 Years Old

Those plans include installing a malting floor on-site. There’s a chance we could see it in a year or so, but certainly within five. And the team has already experimented. An experimental run is being laid down as part of the James Eadie project, a venture into heritage distilling. The new make is bolder, rounder, and more cereal driven than the current distillery character. There’s palpable excitement as to how this development will change things over the next five years and beyond.

 

“That’s where the passion is,” Campbell continues. “Then we just need to get it how we want it.” There’s also a lot of momentum around wood sourcing. To date, 26 different cask types sit in the Lochlea warehouse among the 6,500 maturing vessels. It gives Campbell and the team a vast flavour spectrum to play with.

 

“Some people love [the cask detail],” he says. “But not everyone will want it. We’ll always give the details if people need.” He jokes that some whisky lovers want to know exactly the angle of the slope and when the sun rose on the grapes that went on to make the wine that seasoned a barrel. Part of the joy of direct sourcing – which is the only way Lochlea acquires its casks – is that the team is able to share a whole load of information.

The fermenters and stills at Lochlea Distillery

Wrapped up warm inside the sleek-yet-cosy tasting space, it’s time to dig into Lochlea 5 Years Old. It’s being released to coincide with Burns Night on 25 January (Robert Burns himself once lived and worked at Lochlea Farm). Before Campbell unveils the five-year-old, there are the component parts to sample – a real treat.

 

“It’s about honesty and transparency,” Campbell says of the cask selection. It’s about sharing part of what makes the distillery unique. Of 29 casks filled in the first week, two of them are in this release. Part of the Lochlea archive has gone out into the world. He keeps using the word ‘milestone’, and it really feels like it. The team selected the casks and agreed as a group on the proportion and vatting. It’s a bottling from the very heart of the distillery.

 

It’s surprisingly floral at first, with redcurrants and sherbet on the nose. With time, an incense-like quality comes out – that PX cask coming to the fore. The palate builds with pastries, cola cube sweets, and even crystallised ginger. The finish is long and toasty with drying cinnamon. It’s an assured, confident release, one that will make people sit up and take notice, if they haven’t already.

 

After the tasting, snow starts to fall on Lochlea. It’s another reminder of the seasonality of barley, the naturalness of the crop that underpins everything whisky. We’re in another winter at the start of a new year, a new seasonal cycle. Five winters have passed since those casks were filled. Campbell and the team are in it for many more to come. “Lots and lots of things are changing,” he says. More markets are opening up, and Lochlea’s profile is rising. This presents a challenge for a maker that can only produce 200,000 litres of spirit a year from its own fields, but plans are afoot. The malting floor will change the game, as will the arrival of the bottling line. Lochlea will be one of just a handful of global players controlling every stage from gain to glass. “It’s all about the 25-year focus,” Campbell adds.

 

Yes, five years is an achievement. But really, Lochlea is just getting started.

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