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SB meets… John Campbell, Lochlea

Production director John Campbell reflects on five years of Lochlea and explains how the brand convinced him to make the leap from Laphroaig.

John Campbell Lochlea
Campbell joined Lochlea after 25 years at Laphroaig

Lochlea is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year and has released its first age statement whisky. Can you tell me about the journey to his point? Have there been any challenges along the way?

Well, getting going – that was a big hurdle for Lochlea. We didn’t really say anything until there was whisky available to sell. Most people were surprised to hear about our first release. It was a very small unit, at that point – there were three in the production team, and then David [Ferguson, commercial director] was brought in for the commercial side of things, and they had to get packaging organised, get distribution sorted, etc. The team then started expanding the brand’s presence. Now we just need more and more people to help us as things are gaining momentum.

As for challenges, it’s mainly been about building up perception and building a brand. Managing perceptions is always something you really have to focus on. There haven’t been many challenges on the production side – it’s getting attention and brand-building that I would say has probably been the toughest, and the thing that we all probably fret about the most. Sitting around the table as a board, we’re all asking: “What do we do? Do we do travel retail? Have we got the capability or the resources within the team, the expertise?” With all of these things, it’s at a very embryonic stage.

You joined Lochlea in November 2021, just before the brand’s first release. What was it like joining such a new brand after working for Laphroaig?

I had some questions for the owners [Neil and Jen McGeoch], before I could accept the role and hand in my notice at Laphroaig. I went down to Lochlea and had a look, and I was basically told: “This is what we think, but we need your help. What do you think? What are you thinking about this?”

Sarah, [Campbell’s wife], and I went down to visit for a tour. We were supposed to be there for an hour and we ended up staying for eight hours. We just hit it off. That relationship was important, as well as trust. I give people my trust, and I got that back – even on that first day.

I had a few opinions from my first visit as well, about what we could do better. I knew I could use my experience to support things that were already happening. I’ve not just been left to get on with it, but there’s a lot of support for what I’m doing. Neil knows what he wants in a whisky, but he doesn’t know the technical way to get what he wants.

I didn’t look at other brands. Joining Lochlea, there were a lot of people surprised. They thought I would never leave Laphroaig. And I didn’t know I was going to either. It was a big change, and I just love Laphroaig so much that I couldn’t have gone to another big brand. I’m still loyal to Laphroaig – I always will be.

The experience working here is the polar opposite. I went from this amazing, iconic brand, to something that nobody even knew about. People were asking: “Where even is it? They haven’t even released a whisky yet? What are you going there for?”

But once I explained it, people who know me were like: “You’re going to be fine.”

There’s never one reason why you do something either. There’s got to be multiple facets – we had a flat in Glasgow, and Sarah had just moved back into the flat. So I was in Islay and she was in Glasgow. And she’s awesome, so I was basically in Glasgow every weekend and then Islay during the week. So I wanted to get more anchored down. There were multiple reasons, and it resonated against different aspects of my life. It was a big decision, and I spent a lot of time making it.

What do you think is in the near future for Lochlea?

We’re working on finding a way to become a wholly single site, which would mean we need floor maltings, a bottling site and a bioplant. That’s the goal and everyone in the team is asking how we get there, what we need to do, how quickly we can do it and how much money we will need.

That is important but, equally, we can’t take an eye off what we’re doing because the brand needs to be nourished all the time. We want the single site, but we still need to be making our targets for the year.

Lochlea 5 Years Old is your first age statement whisky – do you think there will be more in the future? Will they take priority over your seasonal releases?

The seasonal releases have become part of our brand, so we wouldn’t throw that away after spending so much time nourishing it. It’s a good question as to how they evolve.

Age statements will come. They just will. But will we be defined by them? No. We’ll do them if we think it’s interesting. We might even use it strategically, for example, age statements in markets that are trained to see age as the answer.

How do we evolve the seasonal releases? I’m making this up right now, but perhaps Fallow could become a 12-year-old – we’d then have to ask how that would work and what would be the steps to get there. These are the great discussions that we’re having. We don’t know the answers yet, but there’s definitely something there.

What has been your favourite moment in the time you’ve been with Lochlea?

I keep saying to the team: these are the days of your lives. And it’s that feeling. Because if Lochlea gets bigger and bigger, there will be more people and the culture will change slightly. It won’t change completely, but it will change a little. So we really have to enjoy the moment that we’re in and have fun with it. I think everyone does. So there’s no specific moment, it’s just a feeling.

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