This week we have not one, but TWO exciting new arrivals to shout about because award-winning Ayrshire distillery, Lochlea, has launched its second cask strength whisky: Lochlea Cask Strength – Batch 2, just in time for Father’s Day. 

Even more exciting, we had a chance to taste the whisky with John Campbell, Lochlea production director/master blender, at Soho Whisky Club. He was kind enough to chat with us on the terrace there and share his wisdom gathered over nearly three decades. From working every role at Laphroaig Distillery as well as experiences at Ardmore, Tormore and Miltonduff distilleries, Campbell knows his way around Scotch. Since 2021, he’s overseen everything on-site at Lochlea, from distilling operations to cask management to ensure the consistent quality of Lochlea whisky. 

It was a surprise when the Islay native left Laphroaig, where he had become the longest-serving distillery manager in its history, but Campbell was tempted by a new challenge. “I knew all the answers at Laphroaig. I would have been really happy to stay but I like not knowing, I like the challenge. Lochlea was that, nobody knew it, it was distilling from its own barley. I’m also on the board and have been learning the business side of things,” he explains. “There was a lot of angles to keep me going, nothing against Laphroaig, I’ll always love it, it was just the challenge and not knowing the answer. 

John Campbell, Lochlea production director/master blender

Say hello to John Campbell!

The Lochlea way

The independent family-owned distillery is based on a farm in the heart of Ayrshire in Scotland, originally a 222-acre livestock farm before being purchased by Neil and Jen McGeoch in 2006. After a successful trial to grow its own barley in 2015, the couple transformed the land and existing farm buildings into a fully operational distillery in 2017 and started distilling the following year. Lochlea is one of the very few fully grain-to-cask distilleries in Scotland, as Campbell explains. “The farm manages the barley, grows, harvests, and malts it and then it’s given over to the distillery. We grow about 600 tonnes a year, which gives you 480 tonnes of malted barley which we send to Baird’s The Pencaitland Maltings Plant in South Edinburgh to malt and then it comes back to the distillery”. 

Right now, about 14% of the supply is floor-malted, but the plan is to have fully operational floor maltings by next year. A biomass plant and a bottling line will follow to make it a single-site operation. Campbell says the whisky produced by the floor maltings brings out more viscosity and oiliness in the spirit, adding “It’s not about trying to change the profile overnight”. He’s also honest about the challenges of growing all your own supply. “It’s always a worry that between April and September, your distillery’s supply is in the hands of the gods, particularly on the west coast of Scotland. It was so wet the first three months of the year that we didn’t get the barley in the ground until mid-April, then in June it turned cold for this time of year, and the barley is stressing a wee bit. Spinning a positive out of that, if there’s less Lochlea it will become like a wine vintage. One year it will happen, the weather won’t comply. Fingers crossed it’s not this year as you always want to build up supply”. 

It’s been a refreshing education for Campbell to dig so deep into the barley side of whisky production, but he’s a curious man by nature and says he wants to understand more in the future. “You get into how the trees shelter different parts of the field, how the barley is different in south-facing fields, the importance of the fluffiness of the clay-based soil – if it’s nice and fluffy and less compact you get higher yield. We’re trying to understand that impact and what it means for terroir. We might try some heritage barley varieties to see what difference it makes to flavour quality. Not yet, we want to build up stock, but in the future”. 

Lochlea Distillery

The beautiful Lochlea Distillery

Lochlea’s DNA

In order to preserve the flavour of the barley in the eventual whisky, Campbell settled on a semi-cloudy wort. “It’s a cloudy third water after a clear first and second, we want lovely fruit flavours to come through but also the maltiness”. He continues: “We’ll distil really slowly particularly in the wash distillation to keep those ester runs really long at the beginning and develop sulphites. We won’t get the benefit of those for 15 years or so but they’ll develop layers and layers. We’re taking a long-term view. It’s going to get fruitier and sweeter and develop more cask oils. We take really high cuts in the second distillation, so the spirit will go on roughly at 75% ABV, it’s a 25-minute foreshot run, and we do recycle a lot of esters at the beginning of this run. Taking a really high cut helps to keep it really fruity and preserve a little bit of maltiness and a small bit of grassiness. It’s almost Macallan-esque but we don’t have Macallan stills”. To date, 26 different cask types sit in the Lochlea warehouse among the 6,500 maturing vessels. Lochleal is filling 32 casks a week, and every whisky released is from casks genuinely hand-selected by Campbell.  

The distillery first launched whisky on Burns Night, 25 January 2018. Campbell has been with Lochlea for two and a half years and as the distillery grows older, he’s understanding the liquid better. “It’s developing a lot. The cask influence is getting better, we’re getting some oxidation, so at 3-6 years we’re seeing riper fruits, more vanilla, more weight and body and viscosity with cask oils. I would say between 4.5 to 5.5 years old there’s quite a bit of a leap. It’s changing a lot and becoming fuller and more robust, but the main flavours are still there: apple and pear, malty and cereal notes”.  Campbell also reveals that red wine casks match the spirit well. “We’ve done generic red wines and are now getting specific with chateaus, narrowing it down to certain types of grapes, the fruitier styles like Grenache or Syrah, and Tempranillo as well. We’ve got French, Italian, and Spanish red wines now”.

Campbell is developing a distillery DNA from the ground up, rather than curating one like he did at Laphroaig. “At Laphroaig, it was “don’t muck up”. All these predecessors have shaped it this way. At Lochlea it’s about trying to learn everything and build steady foundations that allow things to develop and flourish in the coming years. We’re happy with the spirit profile coming off the stills, we know exactly who we are, but more understanding of the possibilities with single cask and blending/marriage going forward”.

Lochlea Distillery warehouse full of casks

Lochlea Distillery’s warehouses were former cattle sheds

We dig a little deeper into yeast too. Currently, Lochlea is using a common strain to drive yield as they are small and they can’t afford to waste any barley. However, experimentation will follow as the brand grows. Campbell and the team are working with Heriot-Watt University on a potential ambient, wild, or natural fermentation (however you define it) using the yeast from the environment around the distillery. He can only tease certain details as it’s part of an ongoing, wider project, but it sounds like it would be more about capturing the yeast that occurs naturally and cultivating it, so not quite the same kind of natural fermentation you get in mezcal or Jamaican rum production, for example. Still, it’s incredibly exciting and interesting stuff. 

So was discussing what Campbell called “the stigma of the Lowlands” and how he wants Lochlea to pull away from that, essentially the idea that Scotch whisky made there should be light, sweet, and floral. He talks about the regions generally, saying “It was useful. It was basically one company that forced that on everyone and they are the biggest so they have a lot of power. It was interesting what they did at that time, but I think lines have been blurred so much in the last 20 years and for the general consumer, they won’t understand that. Some people still revert back to that and ask you what region you’re in. Even where I’m from on Islay, people put it as the peaty island even though there’s Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich. In Speyside, you get distilleries that make three different kinds of whisky, even peated,” he explains. “There are so many different layers of understanding thanks to folks like yourself educating people as well, even in things like Orkney peat to Islay to mainland Scotland peat and how there are so many different flavours”. 

He considers if we’re moving more towards understanding whisky through hyper regionality, more akin to the way we understand wine, particularly at distilleries that floor malt their own barley supply. “I think consumers like that idea. It’s about nostalgia, emotion, and people. A lot of the independent smaller distilleries are bringing back practices of the past, 100% floor maltings, operating on a single site. I think consumers like that. You’ll always have variation. At Laphroaig, you can’t have full floor maltings and all Islay barley and be sustainable. It won’t be the way it was made 100 years ago. The consumer will ultimately decide what this is as well and it depends on the quality of the liquid. Like Robert Burns, it’s a great back story, but it’s all about the liquid ultimately. It will resonate with people in lots of different ways, whether that’s environmental or the quality of the liquid”. 

The future of Lochlea

The wider strategy at Lochlea is evolving as the spirit gets old, with the Seasonal Releases ceasing after each batch’s Crop 3 edition is launched. Our Barley remains part of the core range, it will just continue to age up. Campbell teases what we can expect in the future. “You’ll probably see some red wine cask next year, maybe Banylus as well, as we think it’s working really well. There will probably a double-matured red wine next year. Instead of seasonals, maybe two whiskies we think are different and exciting. We could do for example a floor malted next year, we could do a Sauternes, they are coming along well”. 

Campbell also tells us age statements are coming. “It could be developing Sowing (bourbon cask) and Fallow (sherry cask) into an 8 Year Old and a 12 Year Old, something like that. We might end up with a marriage of both. We don’t know where the maturation peaks are right now. We’ve got stock laid down for that. We’ve got a 25-year-old done at vat strength 72% and refill casks so that you can still taste the Lochlea. We’ve got a rough idea, we just know the plan won’t be what we planned! It all depends on where the peaks are”. 

Uliatmely, he’s very optimistic about Lochlea. “We’re doing things our way and, generally, people are liking what we’re doing. Sales are growing. We’ve developed distribution, in 25 countries now. People are asking us for more liquid. We’ve made mistakes, that’s what you expect from a young business with a small team,” Campbell says. “But we’re moving at our place. “We could generate a lot of sales quicker by going down the supermarket route, but that’s not who we are. Building relationships with specialised whisky sites is more the route. We are who we are and everyone adds their part to it. We can’t close the gap some distilleries have gotten to in 200 years in five years, we understand it’s a long-term project and a long-term view is required for that”.

Lochlea Cask Strength Batch 2

Lochlea Cask Strength Batch 2 is here!

Lochlea Cask Strength Batch 2 is here!

Talk naturally turns to the new release, Lochlea Cask Strength Batch 2. Like every Lochlea whisky, it’s non-chill-filtered and natural colour. The cask strength is a whopping 60% ABV and this is one of the oldest Lochlea whiskies to be released, with the majority of the liquid being five years old alongside a small amount of four-year-old spirit. The whisky is a marriage of single malt aged in refill bourbon then in Pedro Ximénez (60%), oloroso (28%), and whisky double matured in American oak and European oak STR barriques (shave, toasted, and re-charred – though not heavily charred in this case so the Lochlea spirit can shine). 

Campbell brings out his notepad and shows us how he develops his recipes, tinkering constantly to try and achieve the right profile. “We were playing around with the STR because it can be too strong a flavour, especially in non-peated whisky. I was going up in 4%s at first, it was too subtle in recipe 3 at 8%, it was a bit spicy, and too rye-like in recipe 1, I put “awesome” in recipe 2, and we just lucked out that it was spot on 12%”. He goes on to say that each cask brings a different dimension to the final vatting: “The Oloroso brings a creamy, dry and fruity character, the STR casks offer a spice and depth and the PX gives an interesting and unique sweet mustiness to the spirit”.

Our new arrival will excite fans of Lochlea as Campbell says it’s at its best at cask strength. “For Batch 1, it was four-to-five-year-old whiskies, this is older, five-and-a-half so you’ll see that development. At cask strength, you have the apple and pear, the cereal note, and a lot of esters coming through. You get much more fruit coming through. This year’s is a mix of 2019 PXs from the beginning of the year, we’ve got some 2018 oloroso, and some 2020s STRs which give it these floral notes. As youthful as it is right now, we’re showing the different elements of Lochlea through the whisky. So you will get some nice syrupy raisins from the Pedro Ximénez, the dried fruit from oloroso sherry, and black pepper and floral notes from the STRs. The balance came through really awesome on this one”. 

We can attest to that. Our full tasting note is below. Lochlea Cask Strength Batch 2 can be purchased by clicking the link. Slàinte mhath!

Nose: Incredibly sticky and delicately floral with syrupy raisins, lavender, toffee apples, and lime marmalade, followed by hints of parma ham, black tea, red grapes, treacle, and wood spice. 

Palate: The palate has a viscous, oily texture with notes of blackcurrant cough drops, black pepper, chilli jam, spent matches, clove, and nutmeg. 

Finish: Spicy, long, and full of dark fruit.

Fun fact: The Lochlea logo looks like an ear of barley, but it’s also a subtle reference to Robert Burns’ quill. He lived on the farm at Lochlea from the ages of 18-25.