Ayrshire’s Award-Winning Farm-to-Cask Distillery
It’s a well-known fact that more and more farmers are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to secure a sustainable future through farming. As a result, they are looking to diversify, with many turning to glamping pods, alpaca rides, or wind turbines to subsidise their farming income.
Neil and Jen McGeoch, however, had other plans for their cattle farm in the South Ayrshire countryside.
“We had 140-150 beef cattle in the first year in 2006,” Neil recalls. “We got to about 2014… I thoroughly enjoyed it, it was very rewarding, but farming isn’t sustainable on its own. I was working away to support the farm and it just makes you ask, is it worth it? Something had to give.”
Together with his wife, Jen, Neil began looking into other ways to support his young family.
“We love being here. Farming is what I want to be doing, so how do I still scratch that itch and get the reward of working on the land, working with the weather, but at the same time have a thriving business?”
The answer began with Robert Burns who actually lived and worked on the farm from 1777 to 1784.
“We started to dwell on the uniqueness of Burns and his association with this farm… and our initial thoughts were all about Burns and whisky. It’s ridiculous how obvious it is!”
Excited by the prospect, research began on how to grow malting barley, and how to malt and distil that barley. Then, once the decision was made, they set about finding someone who could assist with building a distillery.
“Like with any journey, you get your lucky strikes,” says Neil. “You head off in determination but sometimes you get a puncture and sometimes you beat the satnav. On this journey, I was told about a chap called Malcolm Rennie. He came to join us in 2017… he was a wealth of knowledge having previously been involved in building two other distilleries.”
It was a huge risk, but having started the journey, they were determined to reach that final destination. Having Malcolm on board gave them the confidence to continue.
“We believed that we could build something,” Jen tells me, “and we believed we had the Burns USP at that point. But I think once the build was completed, and the spirit for the first release was patiently maturing away in the bond, it all fell into place. We thought, maybe this could be about the whisky rather than Burns.”
Neil adds: “Are you going to sell a product once a year on Burns night, or are you going to sell a product that has much more tenure than just that Burns association?”
Having already sold his cattle for sustainability reasons (on what Neil refers to as ‘a really, really sad day’) the answer was obvious.
That said, their Lochlea Single Malt First Release was launched on Burns Night 2022.
Prior to that, Malcolm Rennie had decided to move on, leaving Neil and Jen to navigate the next part of their journey alone.
“His forte is building distilleries and laying down quality spirit,” confirms Neil. “As a result, ours is all bespoke and customised to our environment and what we’re doing. At this point, we were just keeping our heads down and trying to make the best quality whisky that we could. Then we went out to recruit and identify someone to fill Malcolm’s role.”
This resulted in another fortuitous engagement, in the form of Master Blender, John Campbell. John had previously spent over 25 years as Distillery Manager at Laphroaig on Islay.
“He came to see us,” Jen recalls, “brought his family with him, stayed for lunch. It just clicked.”
With his years of experience, he is tasked with high quality spirit production, maturation and cask strategy. John was, Neil believes, a perfect fit for Lochlea.
“He’s a commercial operator, but the quality of liquid comes first. It’s all about quality liquid, casking, and ultimately creating the recipes for each of our releases.”
Lochlea Distillery initially entered the market with its First Release, a fruity, accessible spirit with an abundance of character and style. Then came ‘Our Barley’, Lochlea’s core single malt, a combination of first-fill Bourbon, Oloroso Sherry and STR (shaved, toasted and re-charred) casks. In addition, four seasonal releases are produced each year to represent the farming calendar: Sowing, Harvest, Fallow and Ploughing. Not only do these ‘seasonal expressions’ reflect what’s happening on the land, the taste of the whisky and the labelling are also representative of the different times of year.
“Sowing is green for spring and freshness,” says Jen. “Harvest… we have a lot of clay in the soil and red skies. Fallow has that autumnal feel with everything changing colour, and then Ploughing to reflect that cold, wintery time of year.”
It’s the first time we’ve talked about the actual ‘look’ of the product. Of course, whisky is all about the taste but the brand still needs to be strong. From that point of view, Lochlea has it just right. From the shape and texture of the bottles to the simple but attractive labels, this family-owned, independently-run distillery, has much to be proud about. In fact, it was crowned Single Estate of the Year in the 2023 Global Icons of Whisky competition. Not only that, in October this year it won the Going Global – International Trade Business of the Year award at the Ayrshire Chamber of Commerce Business Awards.
Such awards are testament to the hard work and dedication of Neil, Jen and their small team.
“We’ve been really lucky with our team,” says Jen. “We’ve got a great balance and mix of energetic, experienced and fun people who all bring something different to the team, along with the energy that John has brought to it… we’ve been very lucky.”
Lochlea has come a long way since Neil and Jen first discussed that Burns USP way back in 2014 and although that USP is now the fact that they grow their own barley and that everything is done on site, Rabbie is never far from their minds.
“We’re very proud of the farming side of what we do here,” Neil declares. “And I think we’ve now realised that Robert Burns is still very relevant to Lochlea. He ploughed the fields where we grow barley, he made his living off that land. I love that tenure… that he is on our journey. He was an exceptionally progressive guy and wildly ahead of his time in his thinking process. A lot of his poetry just makes you stop and think because it’s so incredible. Burns didn’t really care about anyone else, he just got on with it. We use that as our progressive beacon.”
I’m certainly aware of the Burns link as I stand and survey the 222 acres at Lochlea. I’m also aware that the warehouses that now store a mountain of barley and an impressive number of casks, used to home the family’s cattle.
“Not many distilleries have a shed full of barley,” Neil tells me as we stand in the doorway of the barley store. “We’re squirrels, that’s us squirrelling away barley to get us through next year. We do nearly everything on this site which makes us interesting. That single site operation is the most important part.”
What they don’t do on site, is sell their whisky. The distillery is not open to the public for tours, tastings or sales. Instead, they rely on retailers – in the UK and worldwide – including A D Rattray (Kirkoswald), The Jar (Troon), Robbie’s Drams (Ayr), Geraldo’s (Largs) and Sinforiani Bros (Kilmarnock) to translate the Lochlea story and sell their products.
“We’re hoping to collaborate with other local Ayrshire businesses as well,” Jen confirms. “We’re constantly looking for ways to work with other businesses because there’s a lot of people out there that have got a lot of good ideas and I think we can help each other.”
That forward-thinking has been evident from the very beginning. In fact, I’m told John Campbell has a plan for the next 30 years!
“We like to pretend we’re freestyle and fun,” jokes Neil, “but there’s a bit of structure to the whole thing. We’re exceeding on our plans at the moment. We’ve got to be continually progressive, we want to continually evolve. We’ve got a range of casks to give us lots of interesting liquid going forward.”
“And we have solar on the roof,” adds Jen. “We treat distilling liquid byproduct via ecological treatment ponds on the farm and the draff goes to a local farm as cattle feed. On the farm we plant cover crops through the fallow period, the straw from the barley is baled and sold to local farmers to bed cattle and is brought back as manure for the next year’s crop. We’re trying to be as sustainable as possible.”
They certainly appear to have successfully answered their own initial question on how to make farming sustainable. They’re now filling 32 casks per week and supplying over 150 retailers in the UK and 20 export markets worldwide.
Is it fair to say it was a good decision?
Jen is the first to answer: “It would be crazy to look back and think we had the opportunity to do this and it didn’t happen. That’s still quite an odd feeling.”
“It’s a really cool business,” Neil adds. “And we’ve gone from telling people we’re a single distiller in Ayrshire on a single site, to people asking when our next whisky is coming out.”
Something tells me the Lochlea journey is set to be a long and rewarding one.