Look, I get it. I do. Really. We, the whisky wonk squad, are the nub of a nub of a nub. We few, we at-turns-happy-and-grumpy-and-belligerent-and-wrathful-and-ridiculous-and-passionate-and-miserable-and-pedantic few, we band of siblings, do not, in the main, really matter.
Whilst we sit here discussing barley strains – I mean barley strains, for God’s sake – and brewers vs distiller’s yeast, and mash bills and still shapes and the Lord alone knows what else, nine out of ten bottles – no – ninety-nine out of a hundred bottles are being bought by Mr and Mrs Bloggs, who really only care whether something is “smoky” or “smooth”.
So with my logical, business-minded hat on (the dullest of all hats) I completely understand why Loch Lomond have decided to dispense with the Inchmoan this and Inchfad that and Croftengea the other, and to focus on talking about flavours instead. This is all that the Bloggs’s care about. They don’t have any use for individual spirit styles and they wouldn’t know what a straight-necked pot still was if they were boiled in one. “Smoky” or “fruity” or “richly honeyed” or “as vanilla as an Instagram influencer’s opinion” are far more helpful to the Bloggs’s and will, I dare say, help Loch Lomond to reach a far wider audience.
Goodness knows they deserve it. In an era when so many long-standing single malts seem to be dumbing down, shaving off corners, losing their edge, Loch Lomond have enjoyed a few years of simply getting better and better. Gone are the days of half-heartedly drab-shaded tins on the outside, whole-heartedly anodyne scotch on the inside; these days Loch Lomond is a distillery looked on with fresh and real respect by folk who ought to know. I’m not the only one to have sung the praises of one of their whiskies on these pages; our in-house dour Scot has even lavished them with a rare-as-hens-teeth nine out of ten previously, and my understanding is that he’s recently been enamoured of something they put out that was matured in a Port cask of all things. A bigger audience for Loch Lomond is absolutely fine by me.
And yet I can’t but feel a few pangs of regret for the reduction in nuance represented by this streamlining. The wonderful thing about Loch Lomond’s still setup is that “peaty” doesn’t tell the whole story. Is it straight necked plus peat? Swan necked plus peat? A mix of the two? Has it been in a more straightforward column? I will no longer know before I’ve opened the bottle. And by then, if I don’t like the answer, it will be too late.
This attempt at simplification echoes, to a certain extent, the movement of the wine industry across the last fifty years. In the late 1960s, all you’d get on a bottle were names; names which no doubt seemed arcane and exclusivist to the uninitiated. Médoc, Mosel, Gevrey-Chambertin, Côte Rôtie. If you can’t decipher those – and there was far less information available in those days – how on earth can you make an informed decision on what to buy? The gradual democratisation of wine is, in large part, thanks to the gradual introduction of grape varieties on the front of labels and tasting notes on the back. Simpler, more user-friendly, more inclusive.
But, to those of us who do want to drink a little more of the Kool Aid, precision is of absolutely vital importance. Sticking with the wine analogy, if someone offered me “a Cabernet-Merlot blend with black fruits and oak”, they could be offering me a ten pound bottle of something from anywhere or they could be offering me Haut Brion 2009. Returning to whisky, “unpeated with orchard fruits” could be the Millstone 20 year Old American Oak, or it could be something hideous from dirty dirty Dufftown. Clarity is all.
Loch Lomond’s unique proposition has always been the breadth of its personalities; its intrigue derived as much from delving into the niggling differences between each spirit style as from celebrating the individual quality of each one. It was a point of difference that set it apart from every other distillery. These days, when everyone and their mums are releasing an “unpeated” and “peated” expression, it felt like something important and qualified and distinct. I might have liked some of the spirit styles more than others, but at least I knew roughly what I was getting into. Now, I guess, I won’t. Or, at least, not as much. A sensible commercial decision it may well be. But to a nerd and a fan, it feels like a short and sad goodnight.
Still, if these are the last gasps of that unique breadth of individuality, I can at least do my bit to make them die hard. In which spirit I have three independently bottled Loch Lomonds, each of a different spirit style. There’s a 20 year old Inchmurrin from That Boutiquey Whisky Company, bottled at 51% and costing £67.95 for 500ml. Then The Whisky Exchange’s Inchmoan 2007 at 54.9% and about £75. And finally a single cask 12-year-old Croftengea from the aptly named The Single Cask. It spent its latter two years in an ex-wine barrique, was bottled at 55.7% and will set you back 85 of your most English pounds.
That Boutique-y Whisky Company Inchmurrin 20 years old – review
On the nose: Very malty. Branflakes and wholemeal bread. Wholemeal dough actually; there’s a raw or at least slightly under-cooked grainy character here. Subtle spicing in the background; white pepper, clove and star anise. Mainly about that maltiness though.
In the mouth: Sweeter and a little richer here. That malty-doughy character is still apparent, but it’s slathered in golden syrup and honey. Spices have intensified, slashing through the medium body. White chocolate and dried lemons. There’s an element of peardrop too though. It’s all rather high-toned and occasionally grassy-reedy. Get the sense that cask was perhaps better than distillate. It’s alright. But no more than that. On balance …
The Whisky Exchange Inchmoan 2007 – review
On the nose: Bracing coastal smoke and orchard fruit straight from the off. A wholly different ball game to the Inchmurrin, as you’d obviously expect. Red apples, pears and petrichor. Heather honey. Very distillate-driven, with a stony, seashell austerity. High-toned, but mature enough to have shrugged off its youthful acetone.
In the mouth: Lovely texture. Rounded and plump enough to let the light honeys and orchard fruits show off a little, whilst scored through by that coastal driftwood-bonfire peat which adds bracing grip. This is a proper hike-and-a-hipflask whisky, this. Pears and apples move into fleshier, peachier tones. A little root ginger and a crack of black pepper across an impressively lengthy finish. I like.
The Single Cask Croftengea aged for 12 years – review
On the nose: Bit of a Lucifer’s barbecue, this one. Smoky char, roasted fat, spice rub, barbecue sauce … and a good whack of sulphurous struck match, which seems to sit on the black fruits a little. A shame, because there’s some juicy, jammy stuff underneath it. Ripe raspberries and plum compote. But they’re really straining to make themselves heard under that sulphur.
In the mouth: Another lovely, oily texture, and for a couple of beats there are some rich, dark and wonderful fruits. Strawberry jam, blackcurrants, gamey jus. But then in comes the sulphur again, and this time it’s sitting on the meaty, charcoal peat. Very hard to score – there are things in here I really love and things I really don’t. I guess that makes it a
A game of two halves, this, with a third half thrown in just for fun. Inchmurrin, generally speaking, is my least favourite Loch Lomond distillate. In the Boutique-y I just found it bizarrely undercooked, given its two decades in cask. All the weirder given the notes that seemed to be oak-led were clean, clear and generally my favourite things about the drink. Perhaps I am simply never to be an Inchmurrinista.
The Inchmoan was my favourite by some distance. Shows that a great distillate really is the most important asset a whisky can have. The acceptable face of refill casks really – sympathetic and schmoozing to an interesting, characterful spirit. Somehow haughtier and firmer and less fulsomely fruity than their Croftengea pick of a couple of years back; it’s a more po-faced, buttoned-up sort of creature, but it’s lovely nonetheless, and warmly recommended.
As for The Single Cask’s Croftengea, I suppose it depends on your take on sulphur. The geophysicist, who I suspect is in that happy band who are nasally immune to it, absolutely loved this whisky. In fact she preferred it to the Kilkerran ex-Oloroso eight year old, which really ought to disqualify her from drinking tasty things ever again, and she is shocked that I haven’t scored it an eight. But I’m afraid sulphur is a note I profoundly dislike, on which basis a five is absolutely as high as I could go (and only because everything else about it was wonderful).
So a mixed bag, all in all, but isn’t that the whole joy and point of Loch Lomond? No distillery in Scotland has the capacity to mix a bag quite like it. And I do hope that its wonderful, fascinating diversity isn’t lost in the rush for commercial simplicity.
Photographs provided by their respective bottlers. Plus there are commission links above – we like to highlight this and not skip over the details.