Distillery Focus

On The Bonnie Banks O' Loch Lomond

Gavin takes a trip to discover this truly versatile distillery
By Gavin D. Smith
Never a contender for Scotland's prettiest distillery, Loch Lomond can however, reasonably claim to be the country's most versatile. It is capable of turning out no fewer than 11 different single malt permutations, along with a malted barley 'single grain' whisky, and 'standard' grain spirit distilled with wheat.

The distillery stands on an industrial estate in the West Dunbartonshire town of Alexandria, some two miles from the southern shores of Scotland's largest inland loch. It was established in 1965 by Duncan Thomas and US company Barton Brands, being converted from a former dye works. Two decades later, after a short spell of silence, it was acquired by Glen Catrine Bonded Warehouse, headed by Sandy Bulloch. Distilling recommenced in 1987, and six years later a grain distillery was added to the existing malt facility.

February 2014 saw a management buy-in, backed by private equity group Exponent and led by former Imperial Tobacco executive Colin Matthews, acquire the Glen Catrine business for a sum in excess of £210 million.

This sum bought them Loch Lomond Distillery, Glen Scotia Distillery in Campbeltown, and the Glen Catrine bottling and warehousing complex in Ayrshire. As well as the Loch Lomond and Glen Scotia single malt brands, the sale included the best-selling High Commissioner blended Scotch.

From the outset in the mid 1960s, Loch Lomond was intended as being self-sufficient in terms of providing malt whisky for blending, rather along the lines of Japanese distilling enterprises, hence the ability to produce so many differing styles. This was facilitated by the presence of pot sills with rectifying heads instead of traditional swan necks, which can be used to produce spirit with diverse characteristics by replicating varying lengths of still neck. The original pair of these stills was augmented by a second in 1990 and a third during 2015.

Two conventional pot stills were added to the mix in 1990, and as though that was not enough, a Coffey still produces a unique Scottish single grain whisky from 100 per cent malted barley!

According to distillery manager Derek Smith, "You get a lighter, cleaner spirit from the stills with rectifying heads compared to the traditional pot stills. We can control the level of reflux depending on which variety of spirit we're making."

"The same mash goes into the Coffey-type still as into the others, and it can produce around 3,500 litres per hour. We can make peated spirit in it too, when we want, and it is very energy efficient. You've got malt quality whisky at three years of age, so it's a very useful blending product." Since taking over in February 2014, the Loch Lomond Group has invested in the fabric of both Loch Lomond and Glen Scotia distilleries, including the creation of a smart sampling and tasting room at Loch Lomond, although there are no plans to open the doors to visitors. A new motto 'Never Followers' has been adopted for the use of marketing purposes.

Great attention has also been paid to the whiskies being offered to the consumer. Marketing manager Scott Dickson notes that, "We've created new single malt ranges, and everything has been repackaged and our malts are now offered non-chill filtered at 46% ABV.

"We have Loch Lomond Original (NAS), plus 12 and 18 year olds, along with single grain, while the second range is named Inchmurrin - after the largest of Loch Lomond's islands. This is called The Island Collection, and includes 12 and 18 years old expressions and an NAS Madeira Wood Finish. The Group's brands are now available in more than 80 markets."

Dickson points out that, "Loch Lomond single malt is a mix of whisky distilled in standard pot stills and whisky from stills with rectifying heads, with the addition of a small amount of peated spirit. Inchmurrin is unpeated and comes exclusively from the stills with rectifying heads. We cut very high, at 83 per cent, giving a lovely, clean and very fruity new-make spirt. As we make 11 different styles, we can offer all sorts of permutations to our bulk sales customers."

The distillery operates on a seven day week and is one of very few in Scotland to retain its own cooperage, established in 1995. Dickson says, "We bring casks in whole to repair and for de-char/re-char, and we employ six time-served coopers. Much greater attention has been paid to wood management in the last 12 years or so.

"We are filling most of our new-make into Bourbon barrels, with some Oloroso sherry, plus Pedro Ximinez and Madeira casks. Our Master Blender Michael Henry is being more innovative with wood and is looking at Armagnac, red wine and port casks."

There are no fewer than 28 warehouses at Loch Lomond, containing 300,000 casks, while many more are stored at the expansive Glen Catrine Bonded Warehouse site, where more than 65 million bottles of whisky and other spirits are produced each year.

It would be fair to say that whiskies from Loch Lomond Distillery have not always enjoyed a high reputation. Sampling the new core Loch Lomond and Inchmurrin ranges suggests, however, that a reappraisal is definitely due, and that the Lomond Group is doing an excellent job of rehabilitating its single malt offerings.

Getting Technical

Malt Distillation

Malt: Unpeated and peated. Concerto and other varieties. Peated to 25ppm, 2 weeks per year, peated to 50ppm, 3 weeks per year.
Mashing: Full lauter mash tun, 9.5 tonne mash, up to four mashes per day.
Fermentation: 21 stainless steel washbacks, washback charge - 10 x 22,000 litres, 11 x 44,000 litres. 90 hours + fermentations.
Distillation: 1 (traditional) wash still (22,000 litres capacity), 1 (traditional) spirit still (16,000 litres capacity), 3 wash stills (rectifying heads), 3 spirit stills (rectifying heads), 1 Coffey still - 3,500 litres per hour, 2 million lpa.
Distillery capacity: 5 million lpa.
Grain Distillation: 6 tonnes of wheat per hour, continuous mashing, 65 hours fermentations - 11 x 50,000 litre external fermenters. Two sets of stills.
Distillery capacity: 18-20 million lpa.

Sampling The Spirit

Loch Lomond 12 Years Old, 46% ABV

Nose: Ripe apricots, vanilla, a suggestion of peat smoke.
Palate: Rich and full; lots of early orchard fruits, notably pears, developing malt and mild peatiness.
Finish: Long, with spicy pears. Drying, with light tannins at close.

Inchmurrin 12 Years Old, 46% ABV

Nose: Warming ginger, hazelnuts, peaches in syrup.
Palate: Richly fruity, principally featuring apricots and peaches, plus more ginger and light oak.
Finish: Long, softly spiced, sweet.

Loch Lomond Single Grain, 46% ABV

Nose: Baked cereal, very delicatesoft fruits.
Palate: Quite full, very fruity - passion fruit and peaches. Vanilla and developing spices.
Finish: Medium in length, lingering.