Thursday, July 11, 2013

Distillery visit - Royal Lochnagar

The road leading to Royal Lochnagar

The Royal Lochnagar distillery is located in the east Highlands close to the hamlet of Crathie and next to Balmoral Castle, the Summer residence of the British Royal family. It sits on the southern shore of the River Dee and is named after the imposing Lochnagar mountain which overlooks it.  The distillery is owned by Diageo and is the smallest in their portfolio of 28 single malt distilleries with an annual production capacity of just 450,000 litres.

The distillery was founded in 1845 by John Begg and was named as New Lochnagar.  This was so named as the original Lochnagar distillery on the north shore of the River Dee had been burnt down by arsonists in the early 1840s.  In 1848 the new distillery was issued with a Royal Warrant, allowing them to change the name to Royal Lochnagar.  This followed a visit from Queen Victoria while she was holidaying at Balmoral.  The distillery underwent major reconstruction in the 1960s and includes John Dewar's & Sons among its previous owners.

Royal Lochnagar is the home to Diageo's Malt Advocates course.  This is a five day course which teaches new recruits to the company and employees from around the world about the science of whisky, with particular emphasis on the Diageo single malts and the role that each one plays within the  company.  Once a year, a condensed two day version of the course is operated to a select group of journalists, bloggers and whisky commentators.  This year's course including our very own Matt C and he got an 'access all areas' tour as part of it.

The visitor centre and shop at Royal Lochnagar

Outside of the Malt Advocates course, the distillery is open to the public all year round.  It attracts around 10,000 visitors a year, despite being slightly off the beaten track, and they have three different tours on offer - the Lochnagar Tour, the Lochnagar Family of Whisky Tour and the Royal Tour.  These are priced at £7, £12 and £30 respectively.  For more details on each tour, including the timings of tours throughout the year, please visit Diageo's Discovering Distilleries website.

The courtyard

The Royal Lochnagar distillery is based around a central courtyard and this is where the tour began.  The buildings are a mixture of old converted farm buildings and a specially constructed building housing all of the production facilities.  To the rear of this main building are the old malting floors and pagoda, which are now used for warehousing.  Malting changes the internal starch in the barley to sugar and the malt used at Royal Lochnagar now comes from Diageo's malting facility at Roseisle in Speyside.  The distillery is currently operating on 'lightly peated malt' and is using a strain of barley called Concerto - this produces around 400 litres of alcohol per tonne of barley.

The old pagoda and malting building

Once the malted barley has been delivered, the grain is milled on site.  There are three components to the final milled barley, which is called grist - these are the flour, husks and grits.  These must be found in the correct proportions to allow the maximum amount of soluble sugars to be extracted during the mashing process.  At Royal Lochnagar these proportions are 10%, 20% and 70% respectively.  If one were to change, the mash would become too thin or too thick.

The next stop was a visit to the mash room.  Here water is added to the grist, which hydrates and natural enzymes begin working with soluble sugars are extracted.  The mash tun at Royal Lochnagar is quite unique as it is an open cast iron mash tun with rotating rakes.  The majority of mash tuns around the industry are enclosed with a copper dome, but the lack of this made the mash room very steamy and not the place to be wearing glasses ...

The open cast iron mash tun

The mash tun holds just over five tonnes of grist and 21,000 litres of water are used in the first water, which is introduced at 64.5°C.  Three further waters are added at increased temperatures each time (these are in the mid-70s°C, then early 80s°C and finally in the mid 80s°C) and each water draws out more of the soluble sugars from the grist.  The sugary water, which is then called wort, is then drained off and cooled before moving on to the next stage of the process.  What remains is called draff and this is collected and sent to a local farmer to use as cattle feed.  This 'draffing out' process was happening during the visit and can be seen in the photo above.

The washbacks

The tour moved on to a viewing ledge looking over the washbacks, where the fermentation stage of the process takes place.  Royal Lochnagar has three wooden washbacks, which are jammed in to a tiny room, and each of these holds 24,000 litres of wort.  Dried distillers yeast is mixed with water to produce a paste and this is added to the wort.  Royal Lochnagar is slightly unusual in that it does not have a fixed fermentation time - it ranges between 68 and 103 hours, and this helps to create the fruity flavours that they are aiming for.  After fermentation, the liquid is between 8-10% ABV and called wash.

The stills at Royal Lochnagar

The still room houses one pair of stills and both are small compared to most of the other distilleries that we have visited.  The wash still (above, on the left) has a capacity of around 6,000 litres and the spirit still a capacity of just 5,000 litres.  The 'cut' of the spirit run that will be used to mature in to whisky is taken off the spirit still at 68% ABV.  The spirit vapours are condensed back to a liquid via a wormtub system - this is located outside and is a coiled copper tube that runs through a tank of water.  There are not many of these left in Scotland and Royal Lochnagar's is unique in that the water is warm at around 80°C - this increases the time the vapours have in contact with the copper and helps create the lighter style of spirit required.

The wormtub tank

The final spirit is reduced to 63.5% ABV for filling to casks.  Royal Lochnagar is the only one of Diageo's 28 single malt distilleries where the filling takes place on sight.  This takes place on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday each week with a total of 35 casks being filled per week.  Luckily this was happening during our tour.  The spirit is gravity fed in to the casks, all of which are currently ex-European oak butts, from a large storage tank.  Each cask then gets its own barcode and becomes part of Diageo's massive inventory of maturing stock.

A European oak butt being filled

A small amount of the casks are stored at the distillery in the old malting buildings pictured towards the beginning of this post.  The rest are transported to Diageo maturation warehouses in different areas of Scotland.  There is also another small Duty Paid Warehouse, which is home to a selection of rare and special casks from around the Diageo estate.  After visiting the filling store, this warehouse was visited and each of the members of the Malt Advocates course had the opportunity to pull a sample from a cask, which was not as easy as the experts make it look.

Matt drawing a sample from a cask

The range of single malts from Royal Lochnagar is small, as the majority of the whisky produced there is used in Diageo's vast portfolio of blended whiskies.  Older casks are particularly earmarked for use in their premium and super premium blends such as the iconic Johnnie Walker Blue Label.  The cornerstone of the single malt range is the 12 years old and this is joined by two more limited releases - the Distillers Edition which is part matured in ex-Muscat casks and the Select Reserve which is produced in small batches from some of the best and most exclusive casks from the distillery's stock.

We highly recommend a visit to Royal Lochnagar.  It is an almost quintessential Scottish distillery - not only is it located slightly off the beaten track (therefore avoiding masses of tourists) but it is located within some of the most picturesque countryside available.  It is a good distillery to visit, especially as a whisky beginner, as everything is set out in a compact space and each area has easy access.  This makes the production process very easy to follow.  We look forward to another visit there soon ...

To see more photos from Matt's visit, please visit the Royal Lochnagar photo album on the Whisky For Everyone Facebook page.


Scotch Cyclist said...

A lovely post, Matt, and I second your praise for Royal Lochnagar. It is an excellent candidate for a whisky visitor - newbie or connoisseur.

There is one detail I was looking for in your write up and didn't find, however: was Nigel, the distillery cat, around? He has to be one of the friendliest felines in existence.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Unfortunately Nigel has retired, he now rests his paws in the quiet village of Ballater.