Who the blistering barnacles is Loch Lomond?

Loch Lomond whisky


We get acquainted with Loch Lomond whisky and find out what makes this unique, self-sufficient distillery tick. And no, it’s not Captain Haddock.

As whisky aficionados, we are also suckers romantics at heart; the idea of provenance, a good backstory, or the tease of aspiration, plays a significant part in our whisky experiences. So long as we don’t overdose on the Kool-Aid, there’s no harm in augmenting our enjoyment with some choice anecdotes and picturesque snapshots to set our hearts aflutter.

Perhaps this is why a distillery like Loch Lomond is relatively low-key given the heady heights of whisky’s popularity today. One look at its operations and you probably might understand; the distillery is closer in design to a workhorse distillery than it is to a craft outfit.

That said, not many Scottish distilleries can claim to be self-sufficient enough to produce a blended Scotch on their own and legally call it by their distillery name. But it is precisely thanks to the Loch Lomond’s array of stills that they have the flexibility to produce a mind-boggling array of malt spirit styles. That’s quite a lot to take in, but fortunately, we had Group Operations Director Bill White and Whisky Blender Ashley Smith to take us through the finer details of Loch Lomond distillery and its whiskies.

As a group, you’d probably find its sister brands more familiar: Glen Scotia is one of only three distilleries in Campbeltown, and the shuttered Littlemill, which they still own the name and the remaining stock of whisky.

Not only does Loch Lomond share names with Captain Archibald Haddock’s favourite tipple in the Tintin books (it was a complete coincidence), but more than that, Loch Lomond uses the same style of straight neck pot stills – pot still bodies with rectifying heads – that Littlemill had used since 1931. In fact, Loch Lomond actually uses three different types of stills, one being a set of traditional swan neck pot stills (25,000 litres capacity. For comparison, Glenfiddich is 12,500, Balvenie 14,000), three sets of continuous stills (one set for malt-based grain, two sets for wheat-based grain), and three sets of straight neck stills.

In addition, they have their own on-site cooperage, while the majority of their 420,000 casks are stored on-site. As such, they are able to exercise a great deal of control over their production processes from start to finish.

All in the Wash

It starts with four 6-hour mashes per day with 9.5 tonnes of grist, which produces 50,000 litres of wort per mash. This is enough to fill two of their 25,000-litre indoor fermenters or one 50,000-litre outdoor fermenter. On-site, there are 21 washbacks in total: ten indoor with 25,000 litres capacity and 11 outdoor with 50,000 litres capacity.

While not a legal requirement, Loch Lomond uses malted barley only from Scotland. Like everyone else, they acquire their maltings through maltsters. The distillery spends ten months in a year producing unpeated spirit and two months producing peated spirit. Loch Lomond typically makes three levels of peated spirit – light, medium, heavy – and their volumes vary depending on what they need.

Where Loch Lomond differs significantly from many of its Scottish brethren is in fermentation. Utilising stainless steel fermenters, the barley undergoes a very long fermentation of 92 hours, which is a major factor in developing the Loch Lomond style. Typically, alcohol extraction reaches its peak after 48-60 hours (approx. 9.5% ABV) and secondary lactic fermentation starts. It may or may not produce more alcohol but more importantly, it creates esters and fruit compounds that give Loch Lomond its distinct fruitiness.

Ashley explained that the distillery uses different yeasts for its two pot stills – a dried yeast for the traditional swan neck pot still that gives a floral character, and two trains of pressed years for the straight neck pot stills that give a fruity character. The distillery is also working with wine yeasts, and have trialled around eight different strains; three of which they have found to work well in their wash.

Stylistically Diverse

Earlier, we mentioned that Loch Lomond can create up to nine styles of malt spirit through its three types of stills. This is down to the types of still, different cut points, peated and unpeated malt, as the diagram above describes.

With its bespoke column still made of 100 per cent copper, Loch Lomond creates a single grain unlike any other; it uses only malted barley, but under Scotch whisky association rules, it can only be called a single grain. The majority of its grain is used internally for its in-house brands unless sold. No reciprocals are done with their grain whisky.

One major difference between the Loch Lomond style and regular grain distillation (for whisky) is that they take the spirit off the stills at 85% ABV rather than the usual 90%. According to Bill, this helps the spirit retain some familiar malted spirit characteristics such as the biscuity nose and fruit characteristics like apples and lemons.

Loch Lomond currently offers a bottling of its single grain whisky. Usually, that gets a rather negative reaction, and typically, people are told to avoid young grain whisky and never hesitate to try an old one. But we can assure you that Loch Lomond’s Single Grain offering is far more palatable than the status quo suggests. It bucks the trend with a very easy-drinking whisky without the typical off-notes associated with young grain whisky.

Loch Lomond Single Grain 46% ABV (Official notes)

Nose Fresh cut barley fields with a malty edge, biscuit with baked apples alongside gentle lemon peel.
Taste Crisp and delicate. Pineapple juice and a lemon zestiness with a lovely vanilla sweetness at the end.
Finish Gentle with soft fruits alongside a juice sweetness.
A Spirited Take Biscuity and fruity, drinking this will make you forget everything you have come to associate with grain whisky. This is a very light whisky that is rather sweet and fruity, with nary a tinge of harshness. A slight tinge of oak aside, this is a rather refined and easy drink. Lovely fruity nose.

 

Magic of the Stills

If anything, we soon came to the realisation that fruit is perhaps the defining characteristic of Loch Lomond’s offerings, especially when it comes to distillates that run from the straight neck stills. How they differ is that in place of a traditional swan neck, the straight neck still has a column of rectification plates — 17, in fact — and a cooling ring at the top of the still which acts as a condenser. When switched on, it increases the reflux and allows you to distil at a higher strength. The still is able to produce a spirit with lighter, fruitier characteristics, which also matures quicker. The majority of the fruity notes can be extracted by taking a very narrow cut of between 80-90% (collection strength approx. 85%). This style of spirit is what Loch Lomond markets as Inchmurrin.

The column has one more trick up its sleeve as well. By turning off the condenser, the stills produce another style of spirit. In this instance, they will take a long cut from the 60-90% range, which leaves the stills at approximately 65% ABV. It is still fruity, but there is more body to the spirit. Whereas the lighter spirit emphasises peaches and pears, the heavier spirit emphasises apples and lemons.

Inchmurrin 12YO 46% ABV (Official notes)

Nose Distinctively fruity with pear drops and toffee sweetness. Light notes of freshly cut hay in the summer sun.
Taste Seville orange citrus notes build in intensity before mellowing into softer fruits of peach and apricot. The fruit character gives way to creamy fudge and vanilla.
Finish Medium length with a peppery finish
A Spirited Take Fruity and grassy on the nose and then comes a fruity explosion on your tongue in a rush of esters. The fruit fades into a familiar vanilla sweetness.

 

Loch Lomond also uses a traditional swan neck pot still and it is used in a manner that is similar to most Scottish distilleries. It collects the spirit at about 70% ABV and because there are more impurities, it needs the help of casks to mature the spirit. It takes about five to six years to mature – slightly longer than the spirit from its straight-neck stilled cousin. The distillate from the swan neck still is characterised by a fuller body, as well as floral and spicy notes. Given that the distillery only has one set of traditional pot stills versus the three straight neck stills, it’s also a reflection somewhat of where the distillery character mostly comes from.

The Loch Lomond 12YO is a showcase of four styles that these two types of stills can produce: both high cut point and low cut point spirits from the straight neck still, pot still distillate, as well as medium peated spirit.

Loch Lomond 12YO 46% ABV (Official notes)

Nose Crisp green apple, ripe pear and refreshing citrus lemon with background notes of golden cereal.
Taste Orchard fruits and lemon meringue. The deep fruit character of pear lead into citrus lemon, vanilla meringue and light biscuit sweetness.
Finish Medium length with gentle wood smoke and a lingering peaty tang.
A Spirited Take Surprisingly fruity, and there were some moments, I thought I was drinking a concentrated IPA. Drinks somewhat like a fruity peated highlander.

 

For Peat’s Sake

Speaking of which, we haven’t discussed the peated output yet so here we go. Peated spirits are produced in both the straight neck and swan neck stills with both high and low collection points. From what we understand, the PPM levels of the output between stills aren’t very different; the difference is in the flavour.

Ashley explains that the traditional pot stills generally capture the medicinal, iodine and TCP notes. The tighter cuts from the straight neck pot still capture the spicy phenols, clove and aniseed while the wider spirit cut will bring out the smoky phenols. “What we’re trying to do here is to try to balance as best as we can the medicinal aspects of peat, the smoky aspects, and the spicy aspects of the peat, to give us as balanced a peat flavour as we can,” Bill added.

To showcase this side of their production techniques, Loch Lomond introduced Inchmoan. The Inchmoan 12 is a blend of the three styles of the heavily peated variety.

Inchmoan 12YO 46% ABV (Official notes)

Nose Dry, smouldering peat smoke with vanilla syrup and cracked black pepper.
Taste Sweet, medicinal peat and smoked bacon lead into roasted coffee bean with spice note3s of clove and star anise. Warming spiciness combines with green apple and pear as fruit character develops.
Finish Long, waxy peat with citrus hop note and gooseberry,
A Spirited Take Good balance of peat and fruit, like the spirit of an old-style highlander but with a modern twist.

 

Wood

Loch Lomond is one of four distilleries in Scotland with in-house cooperage, maintaining over 20,000 barrels per year. About 10,000 of these casks will need major repairs (replace staves, barrel ends) and are often re-charred to rejuvenate them. On average, casks are refilled thrice before they are re-charred.

And yet, if you take one look at their line up, it seems like Loch Lomond isn’t a staunch proponent of cask finishes. Then again, the question is, do they actually need to? “We are already able to differentiate into eight different styles of spirit through the distillation process and we’re able to go on and potentially differentiate ourselves even more with different styles of casks. For the main brands, we don’t want to have a lot of wood finishes,” Bill explained.

So punters will probably have to look to indie labels if they have more exotic cask preferences, but there is certainly is no lack of diversity with their current set of permutations.

Loch Lomond 18 YO 46% ABV (Official notes)

Nose Green apple and grapefruit aromas fuse before the sweet character of honeysuckle and mature oak comes through
Taste Full-bodied and rounded. Elegant wood notes of toasted oak and cigar box become green fruits with apple and gooseberry
Finish Long finish with dried tea and tobacco leaf in balance with soft medicinal peatiness and wood smoke.
A Spirited Take more smoky slightly less fruit (but still substantial). Interesting because of how the flavours are layered.

“Because we do so much at the very start of the whisky-making process, whether that’s through the selection of yeast, extra-long fermentation times, different cut points and our unique stills, there’s so much work going on at the start of the whisky-making process that we hope it really transfers into the dram itself,” Ashley added.

In that respect, I understand. When it comes to revealing distillery character, good ol’ ex-bourbon casks go a long way. It would certainly defeat the purpose of showcasing their strengths and might confuse customers if they were to offer too many options.

Single Cask Programme

Loch Lomond is also offering a personalised experience with the Single Cask Programme, available through selected distributors including The Whisky Store in Singapore. Distributors will be offered a range of casks that have been selected by the blender for their exceptional qualities. Sarah Thallon, the Sales Manager of The Whisky Store, explained that interested buyers can be involved in every step of the process. “We will be working with them to discover their preferred flavour profiles, sharing the cask samples that Ashley sends over, offering guidance on labelling, providing shipping and offering storage solutions in bonded and unbonded warehouses,” she added.

Inchmurrin 10YO 54.1% ABV Whisky Journey bottling
Refill American Oak Hogshead
Distilled Feb 2008
Bottled Jan 2019
Cask no 999
Outturn 273 bottles
Notes: Orchard fruits, peaches and pineapple juice, some runny honey and chewy toffee and ginger to finish

 

While these bottlings are not typically for sale, a cask of Inchmurrin from the Single Cask Programme will be bottled for the Whisky Journey, an upcoming whisky festival organised by The Whisky Store. The event is on track to be held at the end of the year and an announcement will be made on 18 September 2020. Do keep an eye out for the event and the bottling.