As a Canadian, I have always had a distantly warm affection for the royals. My grandmother still goes gaga for them (she’s seen the Queen twice, despite my hometown of Prince George only having 80,000 residents) and as a nation, we seem to like them quite a lot considering it is only through old colonial ties that this relationship even exists.
And so, as I journeyed up to Royal Lochnagar (RL) distillery, which sits just down the road from Balmoral Castle, I couldn’t help but think of the fact first off that my grandmother would probably be rather excited, not by the fact I was heading to a whisky distillery, but that I would be relaxing in the shadow of one of the most famous royal castles.
I’d gone up to the distillery as part of the Malt Advocates course, which the team at Diageo puts on each year for small groups in the whisky world. It had been on my calendar for months and I was giddy with excitement to go behind the scenes and get seriously geeky for a couple of days.
When the day finally came around, however, I was sick as a dog – the irony of going on an advanced whisky course when I couldn’t smell a thing was not lost on me. In my fuddled state, I also forgot my camera, which means that all of the pictures on this post are care of and copyright of the lovely folks at the Whisky For Everyone site as they were happy to share.
Luckily I was still compos mentis enough to make notes about this lovely little distillery and as we toured I found out – as always – that there is something to learn every time I go to a new distillery.
As background, RL is based near Braemer and is just over an hour’s drive from Aberdeen. It was built in 1845 and originally called “New Lochnagar” as there was a previous distillery nearby that had burnt down a few years prior. It received its royal warrant from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1848, following their visits to Balmoral, and acted as a whisky supplier to the Queen.
Today, it is the smallest distillery in the Diageo staple, producing only around 550,000 litres per annum. We started our summer day’s visit wandering the grounds – which include a reservoir with some happy ducks – before heading inside to check out the set-up.
For production at RL, the team uses Concerto malt with a delicate smokiness. We were told it is one of the more common malts for Diageo to use, but that across its productions there are three types of barley used (out of the approximate 100 strains that are appropriate for malting). As a whole, Diageo only uses barley grown in Scotland for the majority of its distilleries except for Islay, where the barley comes from England. If the Scottish barley growers have a bad year, however, they will go into East Anglia rather than stopping production. RL uses around 27 tonnes a week and are currently getting around 410 litres of mash out of each tonne. Before mashing, of course, the barley is ground down into grist and at RL a Boby mill is used and grist produced at a ratio of 70% grits, 20% husks, 10% flour.
Mashing is done five times a week, using 5.4 tonnes of barley each time to 21,000 litres of water. We were told the team wants to create a clear wort at RL and so does a slower mash running for eight hours. This means the particles get stuck on the bed and don’t get pulled through so you end up with a clearer wort. They use four waters with temperature increasing from 64.5 degrees to about 80c by fourth, although only first and second are used for fermentation while the third and fourth are recycled as waters in the next cycle.
Heading over to the washbacks, we were told the team uses creamed yeast and does quite a long fermentation of 68-103 hours although they try to ensure it doesn’t go over 120 hours and also doesn’t go above 32 degrees. This is because they are after a lighter, grassier spirit character and the longer you have the fermentation happening, the more grassy notes come through.
There are only two stills at RL. Each are of a shorter, squatter shape but as they are run slowly (4 hours) and charged lower (6,000 litres of wash is added to the 7,410 litre capacity wash still, for instance), it aids in creating a lighter spirit. On the 5,450 litre spirit still, foreshots run for about 20 minutes and the cut is taken between 75-68%. Very interestingly, at RL they use worm tubs, which are run hot to continue the copper contact for as long as possible.
The alcohol is also reduced in a Spirit Receiving Warehouse Vat, and reduced down to the standard 63.5% before casking, with a vast majority of the spirit going into hogsheads.
RL is also unique in that it is the only distillery that fills on-site for Diageo, rather than having the spirit tankered off to a filling warehouse. It is mainly matured, however, at Glen Lossie or in the central belt. The dunnage warehouse on site is also the only duty paid warehouse in Scotland that has casks from across the whole Diageo range.
After the distillery tour, we were also taken through a range of the RL spirit. I have very few notes on these due to said aforementioned cold, which prevented me from really getting to know the liquid.
However, I did spend a lot of time really trying to work through the fog of my blocked nose and brain in order to note that the RL Special Reserve was quite orangey, with notes of vanilla, nutmeg and black pepper on the nose, with citrus, pepper and figs on the palate.
All in all, it was a great little distillery to visit. As it is off the beaten path slightly, it gets fewer visitors than others in the Diageo line-up (around 10,000 a year) but still has comprehensive and competitively priced tours, meaning you still can get to know the distillery, just in a more peaceful environment than others. For more information on those tours, head here.
The rest of the time at RL was spent working my way through the nitty, gritty details of whisky making during the Malt Advocates course and, despite feeling more run down than I had in a long time, it will firmly stick in my mind (and, in the copy on this site, as I learned a lot of very interesting facts about whisky in general which will inevitably help inform my writing here on Miss Whisky).
Thank you to Diageo for bringing me along on the Malt Advocates course and putting up with a slightly less enthusiastic Miss Whisky.
Thank you also to Whisky For Everyone for providing images for this post. All are copyright of Whisky For Everyone. For more information on what they do, head here.