On one of my trips north to Speyside some years ago I recall an American visitor asking the be-kilted Australian tour guide at Glenfiddich what a 'double malt' was. Her confusion had been prompted by the fact that so many distillers referred to 'single malts'. I sympathised with her entirely.
All of this came back to me when I was talking to Gavin Durnin, sales and marketing director of the Loch Lomond Distillery Company. 'We're making a single blend here, you know,' he said. 'What?' I said. 'A single blend: that means our own malts married to our own grain whisky.' Now, the problem is this: I knew that Loch Lomond possessed four curious pot stills, which allowed it to create differing styles of malts, and I knew it had a state-of-the-art grain distillery. It produces, in fact, all the grain whisky (around 10 million litres of grain alcohol a year) it needs, and it has some over to sell as well; it also has its own cooperage.
But a viable blend needs more than just four malts and a grain. Many blends use far more: perhaps 20 or 30 malts, which might include some Speyside, some Islay, some Highland - you get the picture. Loch Lomond's four pot stills would, on the face of it, seem inadequate to the task. The pot stills themselves are odd by any standards. Don't look for graceful swan necks and sweeping lyne arms here; these stills are real rarities in today's distilling world. The system employed is a throwback to the one which was first used in Dumbarton by Hiram Walker in 1959 in its vast grain-distilling complex. It developed a type of still (curiously named 'Lomond') which was a pot still with a short cylindrical neck inside which there were three rectifying plates which gave a very low degree of reflux and therefore a heavier, oilier whisky. The same sort of stills were later employed at Glenburgie, Miltonduff and Scapa distilleries; the distillers were able to create Glencraig and Mosstowie malts at the former two, while at Scapa only a Lomond wash still was installed.
However, the stills at Loch Lomond Distillery are not really Lomond stills at all and are far more complex. Production director John Peterson explains the process: boiled down (as it were) the point is that there are two wash stills and two spirit stills, and by changing the phenolic specification of the barley, and by mixing the spirit of a wash still with that of a spirit still, these four stills can produce seven different single malts. (All the malts are named after local place names around or islands in Loch Lomond.)
Two of them are bottled as Inchmurrin 10-year old and Old Rhosdhu 5-year-old. Inchmurrin is distilled normally by allowing the wash still to charge the spirit still in full, whereas Old Rhosdhu is a mix of one wash still run to one spirit still run where the spirit run is drawn from both stills. The result is a denser, more flavourful dram. Then there are are the Glen Douglas and Loch Lomond malts, which, says Peterson, 'we rarely bottle at present'. Both have spirit still start strengths of 85%, but Glen Douglas finishes at 55% whereas Loch Lomond remains at 85%. Glen Douglas is a standard, well-rounded malt while Loch Lomond is a very light and fruity whisky.
'After that,' says Peterson, 'there's Inchmoan, Croftengea and Craiglodge. Inchmoan is basically Inchmurrin produced with 40 parts per million phenols in the barley - very peaty - while Croftengea is the Old Rhosdhu technique again except we use two wash still runs mixed with one spirit still run and the barley again has 40ppm phenols. Now that stuff is really pungent and peaty due to the fact that peat components are steam, rather than alcohol volatile, so more is recovered from the wash distillation than the spirit distillation.' And finally there's Craiglodge which is Croftengea made from a mash made half-and-half with 40ppm phenol malt and our normal malt.'
At this point I felt the need for a stiff whisky coming on. Where, oh where had all the gorgeous simplicity of the traditional pot still process gone? But before we repaired to the lab above the stillhouse to sample the Loch Lomond Single Blend, Peterson took me next door to see his 'toy'. This is the third-floor control room of the grain distillery, where two shift technicians control the entire process day and night. It was chairman Sandy Bulloch's idea, apparently. 'The crunch came in the early nineties when he was negotiating his annual grain spirit requirement from one of the big producers,' Durnin remarked. 'The price was unacceptable, so Sandy asked John if he could design a grain distillery. John made some sketches on a sheet of A4 and this is the result. It was completed in 1993.'
A bank of computers showed each and every stage of the process, any one of which can be altered simply with the click of a mouse. It was definitely time for that dram.In the lab Durnin finally poured me a sample of that elusive Loch Lomond Single Blend. Given that it does not possess the number of component whiskies which most blends do, I was curious as to its complexity and finish. The predominant flavour notes were those of a light, clean, mellow, grain whisky which combined well with the light estery fruitiness of the Loch Lomond malt components on the nose. The finish was medium in length with a buttery, toffee note and an accompanying hint of peat on the roof of my mouth. It would be interesting to see how it would contrast in a blind tasting up against some of the brands and my suspicion is that it wouldn't do too badly at all.