#2.1 A very Scottish summer holiday

A trip to Orkney Speyside et al.
(day 1)

Our first day of our supposed-to-be in Orkney holiday, but actually we went to Speyside. First stop: Royal Lochnagar! 

(Forward to Day 10 / Days 7-8-9 / Days 5-6 / Day 4 / Day 3 / Day 2)

Here we are, almost ready to start our summer holidays, after months of hard work! We decided to avoid unnecessary risks and to stay in Scotland, so despite our stock of Parmigiano Reggiano is finished, we decided not to travel back to Italy to visit our families. Instead, a destination we craved for long: Orkney! But then…PING!

Unfortunately, Gianluigi had a contact with a person who tested positive for Covid (who at the time forgot to get his jab…please trust an epidemiologist: go get it now if you haven’t done so yet!) and at the time the rule was still self-isolation for 10 days no matter what. So, the holiday is “oot the windae” (including visits to Highland Park, Scapa, Wolfburn, and Pultney…). However, we rapidly bounced back: we used the days in self-isolation to regroup, cancel all the reservations and make a new plan. We took advantage of a voucher for a campervan which we were supposed to use for a holiday on Islay last year (first victim of the pandemic) and we rented the vehicle for 10 days. Since Highland Park was fully booked for the period, we changed our destination: Speyside + “let’s see what we can fit in”.

The wee campervan.

We were very excited because it’s our first trip with a campervan, which gave us a great freedom to travel around the country without being worried of not finding a room. We arrived at the rental place in Broxburn loaded like mules, and here we go!

After a quick stop in Perth for gas, a coffee and some groceries, we got to the Cairngorms, which is always a pleasure because of its spectacular landscape. We parked at the Balmoral Castle parking (where overnight stays are allowed and there is also a drinking water fountain), and we bet that by now you guessed which distillery we were heading to: Royal Lochnagar!

The Cairngorms in a typical Scottish summer day.

The distillery was built in 1845, after two previous establishments were burned to the ground, and it gained the Royal Warrant after a visit of Queen Victoria in 1848. Today it’s the smallest in the huge Diageo portfolio, with a capacity of just 500,000 mlpa and, unlike others we recently visited, it’s completely manual. We arrived there after a 20-minute walk, the distillery is made by a bunch of lovely stone buildings, almost hidden in a very picturesque landscape.

The tour started in the former mill room, since today they get the barley already milled. The guide Cara was knowledgeable and although sometimes we felt she was sticking to a script, she was able to sneak in some quite funny jokes. The tour moved swiftly to the next stages of production: mashing, fermentation (two wooden washbacks), and distillation: a magnificent couple of onion-shaped stills.

Teresa in awe in front of the Royal Lochnagar stills.

In the filling store we learn that the most used cask here is refill sherry butts, which (as you can guess) have been previously used by other Diageo’s distilleries. They have around a thousand casks storage capacity on site, the rest goes to the warehouse up in Moray, at Glenlossie.

After briefly visiting the courtyard (btw, nice view of the worm-tub condenser from there), we went to a warehouse space for a sensorial experience: Cara made us dip a few pieces of paper into cask-strength whisky drams, each characterised by different cask or flavour profile, one was a Lagavulin). Unfortunately we could only nose those drams…. But no big deal, as the tour ended with a tasting, which we could both enjoy since we had already parked (hurray!!!).

The old malting floor..and, behind it, the Queen’s estate.

The first dram was their main core range expression, the Royal Lochnagar 12 year old (bottled at 40%). Second, their Distillery Exclusive (batch 1), which includes maturation in first fill European oak and refill sherry and bourbon casks (NAS, bottled at 48%). The last two drams were quite spectacular: the Selected Reserve, despite its 43% abv (NAS but apparently around 20y) and the 175th Anniversary edition, a 17y cask strength (56.3%). Unfortunately, the last two bottles were well above our budget (between £170 and 250), as well as the “bottle your own” (a 14y, 54.9% for £150), so we decided to get the Distillery Exclusive (£90)…and as a travel dram (or “sacrificial whisky”, like two pals of our whisky group taught us) a bottle of the 12y: with the 10% discount it was quite convenient.

A great final tasting!

We slowly strolled back to the campervan, and we barely had time to cook some dinner before it started to rain cats and dogs. So, we took a dram of our other travel whisky, a young but quite tasty Miltonduff from the SMWS…as an anticipation of what was waiting for us in that incredible region that is “Speyside”.

Royal Lochnagar Expressions Tour

Price: £17.50 pp (July 2021)

Tasting: 4 drams (12y, Distillery Exclusive, Selected Reserve and 175th Anniversary)

Target: both whisky novices and more experienced ‘drammers’

Value for money: very good (also, it includes 10% discount on the Diageo range)

Highlights: the buildings and the sensorial experience

Things we did not like: nothing really

Link: https://www.malts.com/en-gb/distilleries/royal-lochnagar