When David Ferguson started selling used Maker’s Mark
casks to Malcolm Rennie, he knew the whisky veteran was up to something. That something was Lochlea Distillery
, the only independent whisky distillery in Ayrshire – and, at the end of this year, it will release its first single malt Scotch whisky.
If you’re scratching your head wondering why you haven’t heard of Lochlea until now, stop: its goings on have been a well-kept secret since the wheels really started turning on the project in 2015. Such was the level of secrecy that when the Malt Whisky Yearbook came out last year, Lochlea was the only operating distillery not included.
The radio silence was a deliberate move, allowing distillery manager Rennie and his team to work on their liquid without disturbance – bar some input from close industry pals.
I think it was a conscious decision in the earlier days,” explains Rennie. “We didn’t want people turning up on site, we just wanted to go about our business, get our heads down and then put our heads over the parapet when the time is right.” That time is now: 2021 will also see the launch of its core single malt. Lochlea is finally ready to come out of the shadows.
Malcolm Rennie, distillery manager
The team have a fascinating story to tell. The distillery is housed on Lochlea Farm, which was once owned by Robert Burns’ family, and on which Burns himself actually lived and worked from 1777-1784. Current owner Neil McGeoch gained planning permission in 2014 and the last six years have seen the farm’s existing buildings converted to make way for a state-of-the-art distillery. Now, it can produce around 200,000 litres of pure alcohol a year.
The man behind that liquid is Rennie; having worked for some of the Scotch category’s biggest names, including Bruichladdich
, he brings with him more than 30 years of whisky-making nous. “I first had contact with Neil on a consultancy basis,” he explains of his route into the project. “Neil had previously produced some spirits from barley and he thought to himself, ‘maybe I’ll have my own distillery on the farm’, so… I came on board as a consultant in 2015 and led everything through the planning stage to the start of production in 2018.”
The barley is Lochlea’s calling card. Taking five to six months to mature and ripen, it’s grown in fields a mere 150 yards from the distillery farm and is only used by Lochlea to make whisky. Not only does that give the brand its own unique character, it also means that for commercial director Ferguson (who joined the team from Beam Suntory in early 2021) it has other benefits too: “The industry is moving towards traceability… we naturally fall into [that] category,” he says. “We are the only people who use our barley so we can have people to the site and take them over to the field and go through the process.”
Sampling the whisky
Working for an independent distillery also means a relative freedom for Rennie to create the whiskies. He’s changed the distillation process to allow for a longer-maturing, more congener-heavy profile that can spend more time in cask. When it comes to the casks, Rennie is having some fun too: ex-Bourbon and oloroso will be regulars, and Maker’s Mark and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks have already been filled, as well as some STRs (shaved, toasted, recharred). There are also some limited-edition ‘wild cards’ which he’s keeping close to his chest. Having put in plenty of ground work, the spirit is so far living up to Rennie’s expectations: “We’ve not really had any hiccups in the production, it went 100 per cent smoothly and I’ve never had that before… We’re very, very happy with the spirit – it’s as good as anything else I’ve ever produced.”
According to the Lochlea team, everything possible has been done to get that spirit to the level it is. From the pot stills made in North East Scotland, which were designed to maximise the liquid’s lightness and elegance, to the Douglas fir washbacks, the two-tonne mash tun and the use of racking in the warehouse, there has been no cutting of corners. The distillery’s slogan, ‘Dare to be honest’, is also a central part of the brand, and Ferguson is keen not to hide behind marketing: “I think we’re quite down-to-earth people.”
That Lochlea is bringing a three-year-old single malt to market is also reflective of the wider industry, where age statements are becoming less pivotal as a barometer of quality; for them, younger spirits are much more favourable and everything is focused on the quality of the spirit. Ferguson believes that although the export market might be moving more slowly in that department, it is becoming more open: “…it doesn’t have to be a 12 Years Old, there is interest there for something that is new and different.”
When Lochlea has its liquid in bottle, it will be the UK that gets first dibs on supply with some retailers already keen to support the distillery, says Ferguson, while the export side will see Europe and North America served first in an effort to make sure that demand doesn’t overwhelm supply: “I think we could expand further than that,” he admits, “but we only produce a certain amount of spirit and we don’t want to stretch ourselves too thin. We’re doing it methodically; we want to support and grow the brand here.”
When it comes to the branding, the team are almost there in terms of the look and feel of the pack, thickness of the paper and type of cork. They are yet to release a name, though rumour has it that it will reference the distillery’s connection to Burns.
Despite not having even launched liquid yet, there is plenty in the pipeline for the future of Lochlea Distillery. With McGeoch still living on the farm, the scope of visits for the public is slim and the prospect of a visitor centre has been knocked down the pecking order. Instead, renovations are in order to create tasting rooms for customers, trade and the industry – something that importers see as a selling point, admits Ferguson, as they quite like the idea that you have to know someone to get behind the curtain.
There are even plans to build another warehouse on site, with Rennie and Co. making a conscious decision to keep everything on site. And as whisky lovers no doubt clamber to get their hands on the first bottles, the team will be growing to meet demand.
For Rennie, though, he just can’t wait to get his whisky out to the masses who he hopes will be cracking open those bottles, enjoying sharing and drinking it and not keeping it gathering dust in a cabinet: “I’m just excited that as many people as possible will taste it – that’s why we’re making it, for people to enjoy it.”