After a fantastic first day in Edinburgh, we picked up Joe at the airport and made our way up to the Loch Lomond Distillery in Alexandria in our quest to find the next Private Barrel Co release.
Let’s just say straight off the bat… The distillery in not very fetching, but boy oh boy, what they do there more than makes up for its appearance! More of a mega-factory, this behemoth has the capacity to produce around 23 million litres of spirit per annum! That is a LOT of whisky.
Loch Lomond is one of only four distilleries in Scotland that has its own on site cooperage. It was great to watch the five permanently employed coopers moving about their tasks briskly and with such a high level of efficiency.
I learnt that it’s not as easy as it looks, after being offered a chance to drive a hoop onto a barrel. Thankfully I came away with all fingers intact and no blackened nails!
I reckon we all have a little bit of a pyromaniac inside us. I know mine came out when we were watching the coopers char the barrels. As the flames danced in my eyes, I recalled one of the first things I learned as I began my whisky journey: why do they char the barrels? In short: the charred surface aids in the whisky penetrating into the barrel and at the same time helps in removing some of the sulphur compounds which you definitely don’t want in your whisky.
Moving on from the cooperage, it was time to tour the distillery itself. Who better to lead us on a tour of the distillery other than John Peterson – production director and master distiller at Loch Lomond. John joined Loch Lomond in 1990 and was tasked with expanding the malt distillery and building of a new grain distillery. He’s been there ever since, constantly refining and improving their processes. I swear he can navigate his way around the distillery blindfolded!
When the grain distillery opened in 1994, Loch Lomond could proudly claim that it was the only distillery in Scotland producing both Grain and Malt whisky on the same site. A few years back, that changed when pot stills where installed at the Girvan distillery to produce Ailsa Bay malt whisky. (In South Africa, the James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington produces both malt and grain whiskies on the same site, under the Three Ships and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky brands respectively.)
As you can see from these photos, there are a range of still types being used at Loch Lomond. The have a pair of classic pot stills, several “Lomond” stills (these have rectifying heads in them) and then there are three continuous stills as well.
One of the continuous stills is used for malted barley only, but due to SWA regulations, Loch Lomond can’t call the whisky produced from this still a single malt. In order to be classified as a single malt according to SWA regulations, it needs to be produced in a batch process (i.e. using pot stills). Loch Lomond aren’t members of the SWA and are never likely to join – are you surprised?
It shouldn’t be a surprise to know that with all these different stills, Loch Lomond produces a wide range of spirits, with different peating levels. Going from lightest to most heavily peated you have: Loch Lomond, Inchmurrin, Glen Douglas, Old Rhosdhu, Craiglodge, Inchmoan, Croftengea and Inchfad.
All the whisky produced flow throughs a spirit safe as it comes off a still, so naturally Loch Lomond have more than one as you can see in the photos below.
As we chased after John (boy he flies around the place!) through the distillery ducking under pipes, scaling ladders, up and down stairs it is clear as to why Loch Lomond isn’t open to the general public. There is currently no way to make for safe tours of the facility. But for a whisky geek like myself it was heaven!
Yes, those are three very happy South Africans surrounded by a lot of gleaming copper and piping. 🙂
A tour would not be complete without quickly popping into John’s laboratory where we got to sample their beautiful new make spirit. I’m not kidding when I say that their new make has to be the purest I’ve tasted to date. No funky grappa-like aromas, no off or sour notes on the palate. Just crisp, clean and tasty. To paraphrase John: “Get the spirit right before it goes into the cask. The cask’s job is to enhance what’s already there, not remove what you don’t want.”
The clean new make is largely in part to their long fermentation time. John followed up on research done in the 1980s and lets the fermentation run between 90-108 hours on average. A secondary fermentation process kicks in after the 55 hour mark, but involves bacteria. All very technical and he’s so soft spoken I missed out most of the finer details unfortunately. Some of their fermentations run as long as 14-16 DAYS! That’s bonkers! You can just imagine how the lids of those washbacks must be jumping and writhing around at that stage.
After lunch in the boardroom we were handed over to Michael Henry, the Loch Lomond Group master blender. Michael is responsible for everything that gets put in a bottle and we had a great tasting session with him, going through their existing ranges as well as cask samples at ages in between.
One small highlight was tasting a peated single grain they’re playing around with! If I could have bought back a couple cases of it I would have been a happy man! Lots of innovation going on there despite their size.
And their set up is so damn flexible, they can produce just about anything they can think of. Of course, this has a downside – you need to be careful that you don’t lose your brand’s identity for the sake of variety. So they have to walk a fine line, but they’re keen and hungry, so watch these boys… I left the distillery very impressed with their entire process from start to finish. These guys really know what they are doing and their whiskies are top notch.
As we made our way down to The George Hotel in Inverary, our lodgings for the night, we stopped off for some photos (and more video interviews for me) at the jetty at Loch Lomond that you see pictured on their website. The loch is the largest lake (by surface area) in the entire Great Britain. And yes, I definitely did hear “The Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond” echoing across the waters as I stood on the jetty, staring out across the loch, still unable to fully comprehend the fact that I was THERE. A special moment for me.
Such a picturesque little town, highlighted by an amazingly vivid sunset – some of the best natural lighting I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Our host, Scott, did point to the Inverary Jail when we arrived in town and said, “There you go Mark, that’s where you’re staying!” With a dram or two in hand, I might not have minded too much!
The hotel outdid itself with an excellent menu, tailor-made for our group, followed by more drams at the bar which had a very relaxed, homey feel to it. I got my first taste of the (then) newly released Sauternes Cask Matured Kilchoman. It went down a treat, as do all whiskies from Kilchoman! Hmm, I wonder if they would sell Checkers a barrel for a future Private Barrel Co release! That would be awesome.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m loving being in Scotland again!
Early rise tomorrow for the third leg of our trip, namely Campbeltown and the Glen Scotia distillery where we will be selecting a cask from the LLG stable for the next Private Barrel Co single cask whisky! Will it be a Glen Scotia single malt or a Loch Lomond one? Guess you’ll have to read on to find out. 🙂
(Full disclosure: As a prize winner, all expenses were covered by Checkers and the Loch Lomond Group but as always, full editorial control over the content of this story remains with me.
All photos, including the ones supplied from the Loch Lomond Group – LLG – were taken on the day of the trip. Nothing extra added. So yes, what you see captures exactly how awesome the visit to the distillery was!)