The Royal Lochnagar Distillery can be found in Easter Balmoral, where it is signposted from the B976, the road that runs along the south side of the River Dee between Balmoral and Ballater. The distillery has very distinguished neighbours: a mile to its north west is Balmoral Castle, the Scottish holiday retreat of the Royal Family since 1848.
Royal Lochnagar Distillery enjoys a magnificent setting. It sits at a height of a little over 1000ft, a quarter of a mile from the River Dee and on slopes which rise steadily for five miles to the south to the summit of Lochnagar, the 1155m or 3789ft mountain which dominates this part of Aberdeenshire, and from which the distillery took its name.
If there is a single word which can summarise every aspect of Royal Lochnagar Distillery, it is "quality", both in terms of the visitor experience and the product. This is the smallest of Diageo's distilleries, and it is clear throughout that the emphasis is on producing the best possible single malt scotch whisky. Production is constrained by the physical capacity of the equipment, and it is further constrained by the decision to allow the stills to "rest" or re-oxidise between distillations, in order to ensure the highest quality of spirit. The design of the worm condensers, which sit within water that is allowed to become hot, is likewise intended to be as gentle as possible on the spirit in order to produce the best possible results.
From a visitor's point of view, the emphasis on quality is best illustrated by the distillery's designation by VisitScotland as a 5 Star Visitor Attraction. On arrival you find yourself in the spacious visitor car park with the distillery laid out in front of you against a background of the conifer clad hills of the Balmoral Estate to the west. The visitor centre itself is housed in the range of buildings facing you, which was converted from a farm steading in 1987.
The front part of the visitor centre is home to the reception and shop. Royal Lochnagar Distillery serves as a flagship for Diageo's range of single malts, and this is reflected in the selection of whiskies on offer here. The shop also offers a range of other goods, and it is worth noting that the selection of whisky books is especially good. Elsewhere in the visitor centre is a small but very classy exhibition area complete with an illicit still and a magnificent antique glass dispenser for Royal Lochnagar Pure Highland Malt. There is also a waiting area for tours to start. It is worth checking the distillery's website (see links on right) for information about the different tours available, ranging from a standard tour and tasting to the much more in-depth Royal Tour.
The distillery itself is built on a scale that is small enough to help understand the various processes involved, and offers a few quirks. The milling process and the importance of the quality of the grist is explained in an exhibition area which is home to a mill produced by R. Boby Ltd of Bury St Edmunds. The next stage takes place in the mash tun. Unusually this is open topped, allowing a very clear view of what is going on inside. Nearby is the worts cooler. There are just three washbacks at Royal Lochnagar, and they are packed together in the tightest tun room we've seen in any Scottish distillery. The room is so small that the carbon dioxide being produced by the brewing process is felt to be a hazard, so the room is viewed from behind windows in a neighbouring corridor.
The heart of any distillery is its still house, and having seen the tightness of the accommodation for the washbacks, it comes as a surprise to find two quite small but beautifully formed and polished stills rattling around within a much larger space than they physically need. The lyne arms from the stills project out through the still house wall where worm condensers turn the vapour into liquid. This is then piped back to the spirit safe which sits around a corner slightly removed from the stills themselves.
Royal Lochnagar continues to fill its own casks on the premises, and it is also home, very unusually, to a duty paid warehouse. This is here because the distillery is home to Diageo's Malt Advocate Academy. This runs Malt Advocate Courses for employees of Diageo from around the world, and for others in the industry, about the single malt scotch whiskies produced by the company's Scottish distilleries. The visitor tour ends in the tasting room where you can sample the product, which whisky buffs rate very highly and which tends to have overtones of spice and fruit. And if you encounter the friendly distillery cat, remember to say hello.
The origins of distilling on this site date back to the establishment of a distillery here on land leased from the Balmoral Estate in 1845 by John Begg. Some confusion has been caused by Victorian whisky author Alfred Barnard's comments that Begg took over an earlier distillery on the site built in 1825 by John Robertson. Sources differ considerably on the detail, but it seems probable that Robertson's "Lochnagar Distillery" was built in a different location, on the north bank of the River Dee. Robertson's distillery seems to have continued in business until 1860, and because of this Begg initially called his distillery the "New Lochnagar Distillery".
In September 1848 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert spent their first holiday at Balmoral Castle, which they had rented for the occasion (they purchased the castle four years later). John Begg was clearly an opportunist, because knowing Prince Albert's interest in all things mechanical, Begg sent a note to Balmoral inviting Albert to visit. The following day, 12 September 1848, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their three eldest children all arrived at the distillery. Queen Victoria is said to have enjoyed the whisky so much she used it to fortify her claret (which to modern eyes seems a sad waste of both good whisky and good wine). A Royal Warrant soon followed, and the distillery was granted the right to call itself Royal Lochnagar Distillery.
Royal Lochnagar Distillery continued to thrive through the remainder of the 1800s, and in 1906 the distillery was rebuilt and re-equipped. It was later acquired by John Dewar and Sons Ltd, which in 1925 became part of Distillers Company Limited (which itself later became part of Diageo). A major upgrade and update of the distillery followed in 1963, though it was not until 1969 that the coal fired stills were replaced by steam heated stills. As already noted, a visitor centre was opened in 1987, and this was expanded in 1998.