By Tom Morton

Gone to pot

With Dave Broom taking a break for this issue, we asked the BBC's Tom Morton to step up to the plate. He brings us the tale Lomond, Lobotomies and Captain Haddock
Fans of the cartoon Belgian boy detective Tin Tin will of course know that his gargantuan sidekick, the piratical Captain Haddock, likes a dram. His whisky of choice is ‘Loch Lomond’, a name presumably chosen by artist and writer Herge because the name sums up Scotland. Bonnie banks, bonnie braes, snow-capped peaks, drunken jet ski hooligans, enormous piles of rubbish on the shoreline left by Glasgow Fair revellers – that kind of thing.

Loch Lomond, though, is a real distillery, a bluntly industrial complex at the foot of the loch, set amid the less-than-scenic clutter of Alexandria. It is currently hitting the headlines. Even the Sabbath solidity of The Observer reports, breathlessly, that “an environmentally friendly distillery...may be forced to cut jobs and abandon efforts to reduce energy use because of new rules defining how traditional malt whisky is made.” Wait a minute! This wouldn’t be to do with the Scotch Whisky Association’s new set of definitions, would it? We’ve been through the ‘pure malt’ and ‘vatted malt’ wars. The term ‘Blended malt’ has, albeit reluctantly, begun stumbling from the numbed lips of even the most dyed-in-the-butt industry traditionalists. But what’s upsetting the Loch Lomonders is in fact something much more central, the nature of whisky itself.

What is ‘Scotch malt whisky’? What is ‘single malt’? How is it – how must it – be made?

For the SWA, it’s straightforward. Leaving aside all the usual stuff about oak ageing, malt whisky must be made “by batch distillation in pot stills”. And this is where the Loch Lomond folk get upset. The Alexandria plant, uniquely has both a grain and malt distillery on the site, the continuous still being commissioned in 1994. It’s in the malt (or ‘malt’) distillery that things get interesting. There are two traditional swan-neck pot stills at Alexandria, but there are also four examples of a variation on the 55-year-old design called, funnily enough, the Lomond Still. Basically this is a pot still with a highly controllable rectifying system of plates (like a Coffey still) instead of a Lyne arm at its top. It’s environmental friendliness comes from its efficiency in handling heat. It’s controllability means that Loch Lomond can claim to produce ‘up to eight’ stylistically very different malt whiskies in a single location. In batches.

But its economic efficiency stems from two things, the alcoholic strength of ‘malt spirit’ it can produce (Inchmurrin, bottled for the SMWS in 2004, was coming off the still at 85.6 per cent, the strongest new make in Scotland) and the simple fact that Loch Lomond have at their fingertips the ability to produce a variety of blended whiskies without leaving the site. They’ve got the grain spirit, they can dial up malt styles from Islay to Orkney. To put the tin hat on it, the distillery straddles the Highland line. It’s an enigma wrapped up in...a lot of copper plating and some fiendishly complex piping. And they make money. High Commissioner, the company’s flagship blend, is the third best selling whisky in Scotland. They produce 20 million bottles of it a year. And that’s the real story. Blending. Loch Lomond need to call their ‘malt spirit’ ‘single malt Scotch whisky’ in order to use it in a blend labelled ‘Scotch Whisky’.

Now, Lomond stills have been around since they were invented by Hiram Walker’s Alistair Cunningham and Arthur Warren in 1955. Glenburgie, Miltonduff and Scapa all had them, using them in attempts of uneven success to vary the styles of whisky produced. As far as I know Scapa has a ‘lobotomised’ Lomond as its wash still, the rectifier internals having been removed so it operates, essentially, as a particularly ugly pot still. There are bottlings around of ‘Lomond-style’ whisky and bottlings still being produced of Scapa which contain ‘lobotomised’ Orcadian spirit. Scotch malt whisky it unarguably is.

Not every still can be as swoopingly gorgeous as Glenmorangie’s or dumpily attractive as Glenfiddich’s. The new Abhainn Dearg stills in Lewis look like a mad experiment with old central heating boilers, but they work and they are, indisputably, pots. The bottom line remains: is it justified for Loch Lomond’s ‘malt spirit’ to be called a single malt whisky, despite the whiff of chemical engineering in its production?

Captain Haddock and I have been conversing on the subject. We’ve muttered about the computerised monitoring and control systems used throughout the whisky industry in so-called traditional distilleries, the variations in still design and in particular heating systems, the removal of human nasal passages from the identification of the middle cut, and we’ve concluded that it would be wrong for Loch Lomond’s technical fiddling to deny it the nomenclature ‘Scotch malt whisky.’ Even though (deep breath) we disagree about how nice the actual cratur from Loch Lomond is, it is still Captain Haddock’s favourite whisky.