I find it fascinating how Lochlea Distillery managed to stay under the radar until midway through 2021. That’s when they announced their Lochlea First Release. They had been distilling since 2018 and yet weren’t on my radar at all. What I’ve learned about them since has made me very curious to review their inaugural Lochlea First release.
Lochlea Distillery is a working farm, which is what sets them apart from pretty much all other Scotch whisky distilleries. All of the required barley, including that for the new Lochlea First Release, is grown in the fields surrounding the distillery. The only other distillery that currently grows all their own barley is Daftmill. However, Lochlea Distillery produces 10 times more (capacity of 200,000 litres) and is also putting in a malting floor, which will make them truly a one-of-a-kind distillery in Scotland.
Owner Neil McGeogh has lived on the farm for years. It used to be a cattle farm, but at one point he decided to change to a grain farm. When you’re growing crops you can sell them to other people or as feed. Or you grow really high quality barley and sell it to brewers and distillers. The latter is what he originally planned on doing. When he realized how well that was going, McGeogh decided he got space and buildings he could repurpose. Back in 2014 he began planning the distillery. In 2016 the construction started and two years later it was done.
And then there’s the Robert Burns connection. Lochlea Distillery was the home and workplace of the famous Scottish poet from 1777 to 1784. Therefore they’ve become known to some as the “Robert Burns Distillery”, but that is not what Lochlea wants to be known for primarily. Indeed, it was part of the very first press release they ever send out, but wasn’t supposed to have become such a big part of their public image.
“When we sent out that press release we wanted people to know that our Lochlea First Release was coming this year, so that the public doesn’t think they have to wait another two or three years,” explains David Ferguson, Lochlea’s Commercial Manager. “Right at the bottom of that release, almost the last line, it said that Robert Burns had lived and worked on the farm. Every newspaper and outlet picked up on that last line. That was it.”
“In terms of our messaging that’s probably number four or five on our list. We’d rather be known for our whisky first. If people want to associate us with the Burns connection that’s great. But that’s not why we have a distillery here. It just so happens that we’re probably the only distillery in the world with a legitimate claim.”
For history buffs and fans of the Scottish poet it might be an important feature of Lochlea Distillery. But for whisky drinkers there are plenty of other (and maybe better) reasons to be interested in Lochlea.
“Our most important message is that we do everything on site,” says Ferguson. “We grow our own barley; we distill and bottle on site. And we’re in the process of putting in a malting floor. Once that is there, literally everything is done on site. I think it is only Springbank that does everything on site as well. I’m not comparing us to them, but we’ll have the same kind of ethos. It’s a big thing for us.
Then there’s the flavour profile, which isn’t a classic Lowlands profile according to Ferguson. If you read my notes for the Lochlea First Release below, you can see I would agree with that assessment. “It is very different to what people might expect,” Ferguson says. “Not that light, grassy Lowlander, but fresh and juicy. If you take a sample of our Oloroso casks, even after two years, it’s like strawberries and cream.”
Finally there’s the location. Lochlea is the only malt distillery in South Ayrshire. “We’re close by to a lot of people that love their whisky, but they don’t have a lot of other distilleries to go to. We’ve got people coming here for the scenery and golf. It’s a nice part of Scotland that doesn’t get the same sort of marketing push as up North. I live here and I’m quite happy that we’re trying to bring some attention to the area.”
The Lochlea First Release is bottled at a respectable 46 percent and matured in first-fill bourbon and Pedro Ximénez casks. As you would expect from such a traditional operation, the Lochlea First Release is bottled naturally with no added colouring, and is non-chill filtered.
Lochlea First Release (46%, OB, 2022)
Nose: A first impression that is highlighted by a pleasant maltiness, light floral touches and candy cane sweetness, as well as a sliver of vanilla custard, lemon zest and warm apple compote. Whiffs of chalk after a little while, with finally some sultanas and dried apricots. Taste: Soft spices, like a sprinkle of white pepper and some cloves. Immediately also some sweeter notes of caramel and cotton candy, followed by a tinge of aniseed and porridge, as well as walnut skins. Finish: Gentle spices and lingering orchard fruits. Think ripe apples and pear skin. The finish of the Lochlea First Release is medium in length.
Very promising, the Lochlea First Release displays depth and intrigue, while also remaining approachable. I can't help but be reminded of some of Waterford Distillery's releases, which is a huge compliment in my eyes.