Lockdown had a different effect on all of us. For John Campbell, it gave him a chance to reflect in a way he wasn’t expecting and the results were also unexpected. For him but also the wider whisky industry.
Having worked at Laphroaig for over 20 years, Campbell decided to leave his role as distillery manager at the global Islay brand and take up a role as production director and master blender at the fledgling Lochlea distillery.
When we spoke at the time of this announcement in 2021, Campbell said: “I’d been separated from my sons throughout lockdown and as Scotland started to open up it really made me consider what the future would hold for my family, especially with my youngest son starting school next summer.
"It was a tough decision to not only leave my home on Islay but also to leave the company that nurtured my career for 27 years. For me, it was time to move closer to my sons who live on the mainland and also time to take on a fresh challenge.”
The distillery is now becoming a recognisable name in the industry (and is now part of the Scotch Whisky Experience), and has just released its five year old whisky - the first age statement from the brand. It’s an evolution of their seasonal releases, which tie into seasons on the farm (which has links to Robert Burns, hence the release of the five year old on 25 January) - and include Sowing season, Fallow and Harvest.
Lochlea’s DNA comes from its Ayrshire location, as it’s one of the few in Scotland using its own grown barley, and has big plans to be a single site distillery with a malting floor, bottling line and bio plant needed for this.
The small team are enthusiastic and work by the ethos of complete honesty. They were all approached by John when he started to develop the Lochlea whisky. “I asked everyone ‘if Lochlea were a person, what would they be like’ and everyone had a different opinion," he explained.
"But their honesty is definitely our character. That’s on the top of the bottle and label ‘dare to be honest’. They also wanted the whisky to be available to everyone, which was probably the most insightful line for me when I started helping to create the whisky.”
Despite coming from such a well known brand, Lochlea’s small size has put Campbell under a big amount of pressure.
But he found this test refreshing, saying: “there’s higher stakes despite this being a smaller distillery, I feel that anyway, but from my point of view the whisky is getting better and better and will continue to get better and better.
"Laphroaig has 200 years of history, Lochlea has five and we’ve only been selling whisky for two of those. Laphroaig is like your grandpa, it knows who it is and it’s confident in its shoes and it’s had all this. But we are still pushing to get attention ultimately, and will keep pushing to build strong foundations. Sometimes it’s good not having all the answers.”
When asked if this job is freer than his previous role, he said: “No, although there’s no expectations and I can get more involved in the small bits. The pressure at Laphroaig was the weight of the 10 year old, and not messing it up. Here I don’t have that but it’s different. The focus is releasing potential.”
That potential can be seen in all releases so far but none so much as the 5 year old, which is a marriage of five casks, two (ex Bourbon) of which were filled in the first week of production.
The others are one first fill Oloroso sherry cask, one double matured Oloroso Sherry cask and a double matured Pedro Ximenez Sherry cask The team decided on these together and the excitement is palpable. It’s also a wonderfully complex, sweet yet spicy dram that belies its young age.
What started as a beef farm in 2006 with owners Neil and Jen McGeoch is now shaping up to be one of Scotland’s most interesting young distilleries, and they’re only just getting started.