This is not strictly part of my Speyside adventure – Lochnagar clearly lies beside the River Dee, but it is at the other end of the immensely scenic A939 and so had to be visited. If you read Iain Banks’ ‘Raw Spirit you will find he spends more time eulogising about this road than he does on any of the distilleries he visits. It is majestic but as I do not get the same pleasure from driving as he did I will pass it by without much comment. Instead I will merely mention the contrast between the austere beauty of the bare highlands with the lush, peaceful setting of the distillery in the valley of the Dee.It is still and peaceful here, off the main road, close to Balmoral Castle. It nestles into the landscape. Like most distilleries open to the public it is immaculately maintained. All is ship shape, solid stone and wood, classy and well polished. What else would expect from whisky suppliers to royalty?
There was an introductory video, showing the scenery, story of the distillery’s foundation, and the process of selecting the casks for their Special Reserve.
The visitors centre stretches across the frontage and suggests straight away that tourism is an important activity and it is well organised. The size of the reception area is an interesting contrast with the actually size of the distillery, which is rather small with a capacity of only 500,000 litres. The rooms are quite cramped, for example you saw the wash backs through a window because there wasn’t the space to walk round them and the spirit safe was in a different room to the stills. If you were designing the layout from scratch, with optimal workflow, you wouldn’t design it like this. They are however maintaining their traditional methods of production. For example The mash tun is old style, open topped with a vertical rake arms and cooling takes place in cast iron worm tubs.
Every distillery visit throws up something new, unusual or worth noting. Lochnagar, for example, is small enough to fill casks on site (many of the larger distilleries ship the whisky out to a central facility) It is satisfying to see this done because it completes the manufacturing process, in other visits this detail is skipped completely. However the most unusual part of the tour was a small warehouse containing casks from various Diageo distilleries. I just love warehouses and the sweet smell they have but this was specially because it is used to train staff so they have a fuller understanding the differences and characteristics of the different whiskies. There were some rare and old whiskies here.
After the visit there was of course the tasting. Now the price of the standard tour was £7 but for £3 more you could taste the Special Reserve as well as the 12 year old. That extra £3 is a bargain because the difference between the 12 year old and the Select Reserve is huge. The standard bottling is perfectly pleasant, but a little reserved and rather short. However the Select Reserve has a much bigger presence, a good rich nose, some sherry sweetness, some toffee, fruit crumble. Rather magnificent. Interestingly, if I was tasting these two blind I would not believe they came from the same distillery, so different are they in character. It only goes to show that judging a distillery is not simple and that a single bottling might not give you the full story
My guess is that the bottle of Royal Lochnagar, given by the Queen to the Pope, was not the 12 year old.