Distillery Focus

On her Majesty's service (Royal Lochnagar)

Royal Lochnagar is an iconic distillery that ticks all the whisky lovers' boxes. Ian Buxton visited it
By Ian Buxton
Imagine one of those ‘50 things to do before you die’ lists. ‘Visit a distillery’ would have to be right up there (even for non whisky drinkers). But which one?Well, we will all have our favourites, but a very reasonable case could be made for Royal Lochnagar. If you could only ever visit one distillery in your life this might just be the one to choose.High praise indeed, so what makes it so special?For one thing, it’s small. That means it’s easy for the visitor, even one uninitiated in the mysteries of malt, to appreciate what’s going on. Everything is on a human scale.Secondly, it’s very beautiful. The setting helps, of course. Royal Lochnagar’s next door neighbour is Balmoral, holiday home to our royal family, and they have an eye for the finer things in life.All the surrounding countryside in the valley of the lovely River Dee is outstandingly attractive. It’s sheltered and lush, with gently rolling hills, yet with the Cairngorms at its back. But if the location is a handsome one, the distillery lives up to it – trim, scrupulously clean and tidy and with elegant public facilities.Thirdly, as we shall discover, there are one or two features that stand out for the enthusiast in the distilling process itself.And finally, in case I don’t mention this later, it makes some very fine whisky.However, it hasn’t always been such an idyllic place. There was an earlier Lochnagar distillery, founded by James Robertson, a former illicit distiller. Having fought the law, Robertson decided the law had won and obtained a licence, only to see his new venture burnt down by jealous rivals in 1841.It was rebuilt and carried on operation until 1860, but is not related to the present distillery.It’s a vivid reminder, however, of how common small stills were in Scotland until comparatively recently, and how violent and lawless a place this was little more than 150 years ago. ‘Good old days,’ indeed.The Lochnagar of present concern was founded in 1845, south of the river Dee, by the firm of Begg & Buyers and known, in a huge creative leap by some nascent marketing department, as New Lochnagar.Though it looks traditional enough, and is still intimate in scale, it has in fact been rebuilt several times – in 1906 and then again between 1963 and 1967.The original distillery farm steading survives however, and gives a sense of the operation seen by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1848, on the occasion of their famous visit.It’s interesting to consider that only seven years previously the neighbouring distillery just over the river had been burnt down by a marauding gang of criminals and, having been rebuilt, was still in production. It is not recorded what the proprietors made of their New Lochnagar rival, then a three year old stripling upstart, hosting a regal visit and smartly appropriating the prefix Royal to its brand name. It probably wasn’t printable anyway.John Begg soon took over sole responsibility, after which his son continued operations. In 1916, however, it passed out of private hands and was acquired by John Dewar & Sons, which in turned merged with the Distillers Company. Thus, today, Royal Lochnagar is in the hands of Diageo.Except, most unusually, it doesn’t actually own it. Begg & Buyers only ever obtained a lease on the property from the Abergeldie Estate which has always shrewdly refused to sell the distillery the grounds it occupied, seeing the value increase as the distillery flourished and expanded.As a result, Royal Lochnagar is unique within the whole of Diageo, though it seems unlikely that it will give up the tenancy any day soon. Once again, it points up the intimate relationship of land, farming and distilling that shaped Scotland’s whisky heritage.Today it’s a prized asset and used extensively by Diageo for internal training and corporate hospitality.Around 450,000 litres of alcohol are produced here each year, making this by some distance the smallest of Diageo’s operations.By contrast, tiny Edradour has a capacity of 90,000 litres per annum compared to a giant such as Glenfiddich which can produce up to 10 million litres.So Royal Lochanagar is pretty exclusive and rather precious. Not only is it small, but the production process is unusual, with a small, open mash tun, lengthy mash cycle, extended fermentation times of up to 100 hours, small stills and an unusual management regime on the traditional worm tubs. All in all, the more you look about you here the more you can learn.The differences start at the malt mill: it’s a Boby type, rather than the normal Porteus.Not that it makes the slightest difference to the job in hand but it’s a shock not to see that comforting warm red case and the familiar flowing script on the side of the machine.Inside the mash tun the traditional rakes can be easily seen. There’s also relatively little automation here and the distillery still employs a team of six operators. Donald Renwick, the site operations manager, sings their praises: “You can’t remove the human element from distilling,” he says, “and the experience and dedication of the team here is critical to our quality management.” “If there was ever a problem,” he adds “the boys would turn out at any hour of day or night, rain or shine.” They’ll probably be looking for a pay rise after that, but the condition of the distillery and the gleaming plant is testimony to their evident passion for the place. It’s just not something that you can fake.There are just three washbacks, all pine, where the long fermentations take place.There are four mashes per week, with two washbacks used during the week and the third pressed into service over the weekend.Unusually, Royal Lochnagar ferments for lengthy periods: three mashes fermented for more than 100 hours and the fourth for more than 80. Donald Renwick explained that the aim was to create a light, grassy, hay-like character in the spirit.This aim then dictates the rest of the distilling style. The small wash still has a capacity of 6,500 litres and the spirit still just 4,500 but they are charged to give lots of head space and run very slowly. Extensive reflux is encouraged. The stills then get long rest periods to encourage rejuvenation of the copper and the distillery is running at well under its capacity to ensure the spirit character remains consistent.The new make is run to a worm tub, but even this operates unusually. Conventionally, we think of worm tubs as giving a heavier, oilier, fuller spirit character due to the rapid condensation of the spirit.Here the worm tubs are kept very hot. The ‘cooling water’ is maintained at more than 50°C and, as a result, the spirit vapour takes longer to condense and the final distillate is received significantly hotter than is normal.This ‘hot worm’ promotes more contact with the copper of the worm, removing sulphury elements and resulting in a lighter and more ethereal spirit. But it’s different from the spirit character associated with modern (and very efficient) shell and tube condensers.Somehow, Royal Lochnagar maintains a fullness of character but a delicacy of body that is quite delightful and a key signature note for the distillery.You can experience this currently in three expressions: the standard 12 year old and a premium Select Reserve are probably the easiest to find, though quantities of a necessarily more limited Rare Malts bottling of a 30 year old remain available.The distillery’s own tasting notes suggest the nose of the 12 year old to feature amongst other things ‘varnish, linseed oil and turpentine’. I thought they were being a little harsh on themselves. These aren’t the most attractive notes to find and, while the nose is not the most expansive, the palate is wellrounded, full of complex and attractive aromatic woods, liquorice root and subtle hints of mint. There is a satisfying and rounded finish.This expression uses a high percentage of refill wood, dominated by European oak. The very much more expensive Select Reserve (non age and bottled at 43% ABV) relies more heavily on sherry casks, a fact which is immediately obvious as a dram is poured. Its darker colour is immediately apparent and the nose markedly more forward. This has a rich, fruit cake aroma, with loads more wine flavours; a full, sweet, mouth-filling taste with toffee hints and some subtle smokiness appearing after a few moments. The finish is quite abrupt however. A little would go quite a long way. At a typical United Kingdom retail price of £170 that’s just as well.If you track down a bottle of the Rare Malts expression, however, a treat is in store. This is an eye-opener: a complex, peppery, spicy dram that dances and charms on the palate.However, there’s very little of this nectar left even in specialists, so let’s hope that another parcel can be identified in Diageo’s stocks.So there we are: lots of reasons to make the pilgrimage to Royal Lochnagar before you die. I haven’t space to mention the attractive little visitor centre, or even suggest that you drop in on the neighbours and offer to walk the corgis.I asked Nick Morgan, Diageo’s marketing director for premium malt whiskies about Royal Lochnagar but he could only offer this tantalising hint: “If you think that Royal Lochnagar’s a forgotten malt then you're wrong, as you’ll be seeing a bit more of it over the next few years…” Well, I didn’t think it was forgotten, but it does suggest that we might not have seen the best of this little gem quite yet. Just try not to die before then.