On Lomond Stills

One of my whisky reviews for this month's SMWS Outturn is for a whisky from a Lomond still.

I get excited about whiskies from Lomond stills. When they get it right, they tend to get it really right. They often have a wonderful velvety smooth mouthfeel, as well as lots of flavours.

Of course, not everything from a Lomond still works. But when it does... wow!

So what the heck is a Lomond still?

The Lomond still was invented in 1955 by Alistair Cunningham (a chemical engineer) and Arthur Warren (a draughtsman) whilst working for Hiram Walker (now Allied Distillers). The growing demand for blends meant that distilleries Hiram Walker had been purchasing malts from were no longer available. Although they owned six malt distilleries at the time, they feared they couldn't sustain production of their blends with so few distilleries. There were three possible answers — build more distilleries, buy more distilleries, or find a way to make multiple styles of spirit in one distillery.

We all know what would happen in 2018. Get the chequebook out and go shopping! But this was the 1950's, and capitalism was different then...

Installed in 1956 at the Dumbarton distillery complex, the Lomond stills were a traditional pot still at the bottom — but the neck was not the usual elegant tapering swan neck. Instead they had thick cylindrical “coffee can” necks, in which there were three plates. These plates were cooled by flooding them with distillate — this also cooled the spirit as it rose in the neck and increased reflux. The cooling of the plates was optional — which allowed easy control of reflux at three points in the neck. In fact, the plates rotated — so could even be moved to a vertical position so that you can avoid reflux at that stage completely. In layman's terms, you can use the plates to make the neck mimic a longer or shorter swan neck. When combined with using different levels of peating in the malt, it allows for almost any style of malt whisky to be produced.

So this is obviously an amazing breakthrough in whisky production. Any style of whisky from one set of stills? Surely all distilleries use these now, right?

Sadly, the rest of the industry didn't take to Lomond stills. But Hiram Walker did — they also were installed at Glenburgie (in 1958, where the distillate was called Glencraig), Miltonduff (in 1964, where the distillate was called Mosstowie) and one as a wash still at Scapa (installed in 1959). The plates of the Scapa wash still were removed in 1979, effectively “lobotomising” this still.

Hiram Walker didn't stop with merely installing Lomond stills — they also continued experimenting with them. In 1971 the original Lomond stills in the Dumbarton complex were retired, and replaced with a set that added a serpentine–like rectifier that it was hoped would remove the need for the plates. In Miltonduff and Glenburgie, they took advantage of the cylindrical nature of the neck to add or remove whole sections, further adjusting the reflux but in a more permanent way. This also allowed the lyne arm to be mounted on a swivel joint, so it could be angled up or down to make for lighter or heavier spirit.

Outside Hiram Walker the only other distillery to install a Lomond still was the small and independently owned Loch Lomond distillery — a name which unfortunately confuses many into believing that they invented this type of still! They installed theirs in 1965, and are the last remaining distillery to use a Lomond still. (Hiram Walker decommissioned the Glenburgie and Miltonduff stills in 1981, and Lomond itself in 1985.)

One of the main reasons for the limited uptake was that the reflux plates acted like shelves — over time, the solids in the distillate would accumulate into a caked layer that slowed the passage of the spirit. This made distillation less efficient unless it was cleaned regularly, which made them slightly less cost effective when compared to a normal pot still. It was unfortunate that this occurred at a time when the industry was moving to solid yeast from liquid yeast, which only increased the particulate in the distillate and exacerbated this problem — something the inventors probably didn't foresee.

A Lomond still may not be useful when you have a lot of distilleries, but if you've got fewer and you want a broader range of styles, it's pretty much perfect. We can see why the big players aren't using them, but why aren't the smaller new distilleries all using them?

Well, it's partly the running costs and partly the romance of the pot still. But there's also a good chance that it's the Scotch Whisky Association.

The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 were written by the Scotch Whisky Association, for the benefit of their members. Loch Lomond is not a member of the SWA, and this started a rather ridiculous dispute about whether or not a Lomond still can produce malt whisky. The thinking went like this: The regulations say malt whisky must be produced in a pot still. This still is called a Lomond still, not a pot still. Therefore this whisky cannot be malt whisky.

This is ridiculous. It's fairly obvious that malt whisky was made in Lomond stills for over 50 years before the 2009 act was written, and I'm unsure what a bit of paper does to change the “aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used in, and the method of, [whisky's] production” — which according to the regulations is the most important thing in whisky production. If we don't preserve that, we're just making vodka!

And Lomond stills have a pot at the bottom — who cares what the neck is like?

The dispute is said to be resolved now. Loch Lomond no longer have Lomond stills. They have “straight necked pot stills”, which just happen to be in exactly the same place and exactly the same size and shape as their old Lomond stills... The folk at Loch Lomond are pretty smart!

So, look out for the Lomond still whiskies. The old closed ones are going to be expensive. But Loch Lomond do three styles that satisfy both the palate and the wallet — Inchmurrin, Inchmoan and Croftengea. Each is peatier than the last, and all three are well worth seeking out!