Loch Lomond Distillery. Too clever for its own good?

March 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

I visited Loch Lomond Distillery on the 23rd February 2011 to write an article for Whisky Magazine. I had covered it in the magazine’s third issue back in 1999 and revisited it 10 years later in the company of fellow whisky writer Ian Buxton to check out a development that had been made in the stillhouse. That development had annoyed the Scotch Whisky Association who took the view that the whisky being made in one of the stills from 100% malted barley, was not Scotch whisky. This distillery produces not only malt whisky but also grain whisky, which are the two constituents in all blended Scotch whiskies. So what had they done to invoke the displeasure of the SWA? Quite simply, they had decided to produce malt whisky in a continuous still, a method first invented in 1826 by Robert Stein of Kilbagie Distillery, Clackmannanshire and which has evolved ever since.  Its successors are now used in spirit production across the world.

It isn't pretty but it's very, very clever.

To further put you in the picture this distillery is owned and operated by a private, family-owned company that is not a member of the SWA, and never has been. Loch Lomond’s market is in 3-year-old malts and grain whiskies that are used for their own supermarket blend High Commissioner and sold in bulk to overseas blenders. (Spirit must be matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years before it can legally be called Scotch whisky.) Over 99% of their output goes to these markets … what they do not do is age their whiskies and market them as boutique, expensive, single malts like many other distillers do. But those same distillers who promote this rarified aspect of their portfolios get most of their income from good, old-fashioned blended Scotch which makes up the largest share of Scotch whisky sales worldwide. Unlike Loch Lomond,  all of Scotland’s corporate distillers are members of the SWA so the casual observer might consider it something of a club. It isn’t of course, but the Loch Lomond conundrum makes it seem awfully like one.

This distillery, I suspect, is an object of envy for some Scotch distillers as it is almost completely self-sufficient; it can produce large quantities of both malt and grain whisky with virtually no need to buy in fillings from any other supplier. This means it can produce several styles of Scotch malt because it possesses three pairs of differing styles of stills, two traditional pot stills and four pot stills with rectifying heads … and then there’s that darn continuous still. So why are the SWA not allowing the malt spirit from the continuous still to be called Scotch whisky?

Apparently it’s all down to ‘traditional practices’ and the public’s perception of what they expect to get in a bottle when they buy single malt Scotch – a perception that one could argue was only created on the back of William Grant’s pioneering marketing efforts to sell Glenfiddich malt back in the 1960s and 70s. The Association does not regard this use of a continuous still as ‘traditional’. This is a moot point because Alfred Barnard, the first man to visit every whisky distillery in the UK and Ireland, stated when visiting Yoker Distillery in 1886 that he saw ‘one of Stein’s Patent Stills for the manufacture of malt whisky, the same as that described hereafter at Cameron Bridge Distillery.’ At Glenmavis he witnessed the patent still installed in 1855 producing 2,000 gallons of malt whisky every 24 hours. Nowadays Japanese whisky giant Nikka produce their much-lauded Coffey Malt at the Miyagikyo Distillery in this manner in patent stills manufactured in Glasgow!

Although this looks like a Lomond Still, the SWA maintain this is a pot still. Compare it to the one below.

It seems strange that the failed Lomond still concept (the last operational one of which is now producing Botanist gin at Bruichladdich Distillery), invented in the mid-1950s, was never challenged in this way, nor were the four Lomond-type stills in the Loch Lomond stillhouse, which the SWA deem to be ‘pot stills’, pure and simple. If the historical records are correct, all Loch Lomond has done is to re-instate a traditional practice that has lain fallow for a while.

The Lomond Still at Bruichladdich ... 'Ugly Betty'. The gin it makes is delicious, by the way. Courtesy of Armin Grewe, The Islay Blog

Or is something else going on here? Chances of the SWA agreeing to accept Loch Lomond malt spirit from their continuous still as Scotch whisky? Highly unlikely. Meanwhile, the affair drags on and is likely to end up in court.

One final aside. The Distillers Company Ltd (or the DCL as they were known, now subsumed into Diageo) withdrew Johnnie Walker Red Label from the UK market in 1978 in a fit of pique after losing a European Court ruling on what the DCL considered to be the illegal importation of stocks from Europe (known as ‘parallel imports’). Guess which company was doing the ‘illegal’ importation?

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