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It is a confident man who uses his own name to market a product. “Take a peg of John Begg” went the slogan, referencing the man who created Royal Lochnagar Single Malt Scotch Whisky. An even smarter marketing move was to invite the new neighbours round for a dram – particularly shrewd as he had built his distillery next to Balmoral Castle in Deeside, and his neighbours were Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. They repaid his hospitality with a Royal Warrant.
‘Lochnagar’ is not a loch but a mountain. At just 1,155 metres (3,789 feet) high it’s not much of a mountain, as mountains go, but it provides a stunning backdrop to Deeside, the home of Royal Lochnagar Single Malt Whisky in Scotland’s Highland whisky region.
Deeside lies on the south side of the River Dee, which you cross from the A93, which runs from Aberdeen to Braemar Road, en route to the distillery. Just the other side of the bridge lies the entrance to Balmoral, with the local post office next door – handily situated should the queen need to pick up a dozen of one of her own stamps. The road continues through a golf course and meanders its way up a wooded hill. It’s here that this tiny distillery, Diageo’s smallest, was built by John Begg and completed in 1845.
The area’s history in licensed distilling had actually begun 20 years earlier, on the north side of the river, after James Robertson, a former illicit distiller became legitimate following the enactment of the 1823 Excise Act. His former colleagues were not, however, quite as pleased about this development as His Majesty’s excise men were, and soon after the distillery was completed they burned it down.
Undeterred, in 1826 Robertson built a second distillery, this time called Lochnagar, but this again was destroyed by arsonists. His third survived, but was never that successful and eventually closed in 1860, but it meant that when Begg built his distillery on the opposite side of the river, he initially named it New Lochnagar. Its location less than a mile from Balmoral Castle meant it had a different fate, however.
Balmoral has been a royal residence since 1848, when it was leased to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The royal couple loved the estate and four years later paid just over £30,000 to acquire full ownership. Prince Albert immediately instigated the building of a new, bigger castle alongside the existing 15th century castle, completed in 1856.
The distillery’s regal prefix replaced ‘New’ Lochnagar in 1848 when, knowing of Prince Albert’s keen interest in all aspects of engineering, Begg invited him to the distillery. The Prince accepted, arriving the very next day accompanied by Queen and their three eldest children. Within days, they had issued a Royal Warrant and Begg could legitimately call his whisky by the name we know it today.
Incidentally, the ‘Royal’ was dropped for a short period and such ‘abdicated’ bottles are now highly collectable. The distillery has since played host to many a head of state taking time out while staying with the neighbours.
Begg died in 1880 at the age of 76 after bequeathing the distillery to his only son, Henry Farquharson Begg. Sadly, Henry lacked his father’s distilling passion and spent little time at the distillery, leaving the running of it to a manager. Prior to his death in 1896, Henry transferred ownership of the business to a trust in which each of his children equally benefited. This arrangement lasted until 1902 when the distillery was converted into a private limited company, then was later acquired by John Dewar and Sons in 1916. In 1925 the company joined the Distillers Company (D.C.L.), one of the ancestors of Diageo, which now owns the distillery.
Begg built his distillery on land leased from the Abergeldie Estate and they declined to sell the land, seeing its value increase as the distillery flourished. This remains the case to this day and Diageo leases the distillery rather than owning it outright. Over the years the distillery has been rebuilt three times but it still retains a quaint, traditional appearance with two pagodas and a scattering of small converted farm buildings.
Part of The Classic Malts Selection marketed by Diageo, Royal Lochnagar may be a small distillery but it has a special place in Diageo’s portfolio and houses a learning centre set in a series of homely rooms. This is where Diageo employees and fortunate others come for the revered Malt Whisky Advocate training course. Perhaps as a consequence of this, the distillery shop boasts one of the best selections of Diageo’s malts available.