Royal Lochnagar History
Whisky distilling was once an essential part of farming life in Scotland and Ireland. Not only was the spirit used for medicinal and recreational purposes, but it was a great way of turning surplus barley into cash. Farms and castles had their own still-houses on-site, and it was an additional means of local employment.
Farm distilling and the sale of whisky was legal until 1780 when it was banned. People continued the practice in secret though, running illicit stills throughout the highlands and lowlands. Stills were hidden away in caves or secreted in isolated bothies. Often the whisky was stored underground, or amongst the thick shrubs of heather in the hills. Business was lucrative despite the ban. Subsequently, with the removal of the ban in 1823, a number of the illicit distillers resented the competition from those who bought licenses.
James Robertson was one who received a licence, and in 1823 he established a distillery at Crathie on the north-side of the River Dee. However, he soon fell afoul of those who had been distilling illegally, and his distillery was burned to the ground by arsonists in 1826. Robertson rebuilt the distillery near Mount Lochnagar (also known as Beinn Chìochan), but by 1841 it too was destroyed by fire.
In 1845 John Begg established a separate distillery, on the south side of the Dee. He named his distillery New Lochnagar. Circumstances were much more favourable for Begg, as by this time legal distilling was acceptable, and most fortuitously, in 1848 he gained powerful new neighbours. At Begg’s invitation, the new inhabitants of Balmoral visited his little distillery. Begg’s whisky turned out to be especially popular with her highness, and subsequently, Queen Victoria issued a Royal Warrant for its ongoing supply to the Royal Household. Begg quickly renamed New Lochnagar Distillery to Royal Lochnagar.
- Three Malt Barns of triangular shape, between 60-90ft in length and 30-40ft width, with two levels, each holding 2,700 quarters (34,291 kg) of barley
- One Malt House (separate to the malt barns) 105ft long by 64ft wide, with stone floors and an ancient stone steep capable of wetting 30 quarters of barley,
- A Mash Tun 10ft diameter and 4ft depth, along with a Mashing Machine with revolving stirring rakes powered by a waterwheel,
- The Wort Cooler between the Underback and the five Washbacks was 54ft long and 27ft wide,
- The Washbacks hold 800 gallons / 3,028 litres each,
- Two Pot Stills, each with a capacity of 1,362 gallons / 5,115 litres (wash still) and 899 gallons /3, 403 litres (spirit still),
- Square Worm Tubs with a constant flow from the Craignagall dam/reservoir,
- Two duty-free warehouses. Most of the warehousing was in Aberdeen, where Royal Lochnagar had eight warehouses on the quay.
- 100 head of cattle on 130 acres of farmland. The cows are fed the draff and spent wash from the distillery,
- All power is from waterwheels; there is no steam heating,
- Output for the distillery year 1884-85 was 65,000 gallons / 246,051 litres of whisky.
Royal Lochnagar Distillery was shut down during both World Wars and later underwent a substantial reconstruction in 1963. The Mash Tun, Washbacks and Stills were all replaced although many traditional distilling methods were retained such as the use of worm tubs.
Notable differences between the Royal Lochnagar Distillery that Alfred Barnard visited in 1885-86 and now:
- If Barnard correctly noted the capacity rather than the charge, then the stills held roughly 2,000 fewer litres when he visited than those used today. Annual production in 2016-17 is around 200,000 litres more than it was in 1884-85.
- The worm tubs used water directly from the reservoir, via continuous stream, meaning it is most likely cold water. The use of hot water in the worm tubs today allows the spirit to remain as a vapour for longer. Subsequently, it continues to react with the copper, removing more of the heavier phenol properties, helping Royal Lochnagar to produce a ‘lighter’ spirit.
- The Malt Floors are now used for Warehousing and storage as the barley is malted off site and trucked in.
Where Is Royal Lochnagar Distillery
Royal Lochnagar Distillery is located in the eastern Highlands, in the middle of the Cairngorms National Park, off the A93/B976 (57.0346705,-3.2076434). The distillery is easy to find as there is a lot of prominent signage, even more than there is for Balmoral Castle!
Buses are available from Ballater and Braemar (the towns nearest and on either side of Balmoral) and are run by Stagecoach North Scotland. Both stop about 1 mile from the distillery.
Royal Lochnagar Tours and Bookings
For bookings Tel: 013397 42700 or email: [email protected]
Royal Lochnagar Distillery Tour – £8 – for a guided tour of the distillery including the filling store and warehouse, followed by a dram of the Royal Lochnagar 12-Year-Old.
Royal Lochnagar Tasting Tour – £12 – for a guided tour of the whole distillery, followed by a dram of the Royal Lochnagar 12-Year-Old and other exclusive whiskies.
Warehouse Experience – £20 – for veteran distillery visitors wanting to taste samples straight from the cask. Advanced booking required.
Dram at the Dam – £20 – for a guided tour of the whole distillery followed by a scenic walk to Royal Lochnagar’s Top Dam water supply, and a sample of an award winning malt. Advanced booking required.
Royal Tour – £35 – includes a welcoming coffee, homemade shortbread and an in-depth tour of how Royal Lochnagar makes their whisky. Advanced booking required.
Useful Visitor Information
As with all Diageo distilleries, photos are also not allowed in production areas, which is most of the distillery. No, it’s not because they think you’ll try and steal their ideas or equipment design! Ethanol is highly flammable, and electronic equipment poses a potential source of ignition. As such, they’ve implemented a policy on all their sites – no electronic devices to be in use in production areas, or where ethanol is likely to be in higher concentrations (like warehouses).
Royal Lochnagar is a small distillery. Bookings for groups of 8 or more are highly advisable, but even with smaller groups, it pays to book ahead where possible. Distillery tourism is becoming very popular, especially during the peak summer months, and many distilleries book out.
We stayed in the tiny village of Tarland, a 30-minute drive from Royal Lochnagar, where there is a good basic budget option at the Aberdeen Arms Hotel
Royal Lochnagar Whisky
Royal Lochnagar spirit is known for its light, fruity, nutty, grassy flavour. It is generally colour/caramel enhanced and chill filtered. Their whisky is predominantly used in Johnnie Walker blends, as well as Windsor (popular in Korea).
Queen Elizabeth’s 60 year Diamond Jubilee celebrations included a special edition Johnnie Walker blend, crafted using whiskies from 1952 (the year she acceded to the throne). Royal Lochnagar housed two of the Jubilee casks in their warehouses. Exquisitely bottled and packaged in hand crafted cabinets, 60 bottles went on sale from £100,000 each in 2012.