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Interview with Michael Henry, Master Blender, Loch Lomond

We’re on record as being fans of what Loch Lomond under the watchful eye of Michael Henry is putting out nowadays. The distillery has a certain freedom and flexibility due to its range of stills and options on site. From the heavily peated delights of Inchmoan to the sweet joys of Inchmurrin, Loch Lomond is worth exploring.

Yeast is seen very much as an off the shelf commodity by many distilleries nowadays. How often have you been on a tour and heard someone ask about the yeast when the group reaches the fermentation area? Then, only to receive the reply that it’s mostly brewers yeast and distributed in large bags. That pretty much sums up the focus and discussion on yeast during a distillery tour. Try to ask a little more about why etc. and the topic is noted not to be worth pursuing. Yeast has been reduced to a mere component of the process. Not as important as the wood, or more recently depending on who you believe, the barley.

As the runt of the litter, yeast never has much of an opportunity. Yet for all the influence of wood and the diversity of grain, yeast is a heady world of propagation and possibilities. Such frontiers are largely untapped by Scottish distilleries, except the new wave of small handcrafted distilleries that understand the importance of flavour before the spirit even touches an inch of wood. North America already appreciates the importance of yeast, with, for instance, Four Roses using five proprietary yeast strains and making their codes available for us to appreciate as consumers. If you ever have the opportunity to hear Dr Don Livermore, Master Blender, Hiram Walker Distillery, talk about whisky, then grasp that chance. A recent online session I attended, highlighted the importance of yeast in his mind; the major flavour contributor, more so than wood and barley.

In Scotland, we’re slowly playing catching up as Nc’nean, for instance, has put aside some production time annually, to experiment with various types of yeast strain. Having tried their rum yeast maturing whisky recently, I can confirm that you can immediately notice the difference and they’re looking to experiment more.

Already, we’re starting to see whisky enthusiasts talk about fermentation times as some more corporate (for want of a better word, but you know who I mean) distilleries keep times down to maximise efficiency over flavour. Smaller and more flavour-focused distilleries will openly talk about fermentation times; which is great to see nowadays. But I expect this trend to grow when we realise that mere hours, days or even weeks just isn’t the be-all and end-all. The conversation will move onto yeast strains and their influence and possibly even temperatures. The most exciting thing I’ve heard about fermentation recently (don’t worry I’m not going to bore you), was around an old method of cold fermentation i.e introducing the yeast to the mash and letting it sit for a few days, only guided by natural forces. Apparently, it smelled awful for a few days and once this had blown over, the fruits came striding in, before the distillery began a more guided fermentation. I’m excited to see how this approach translates into the final whisky.

For full transparency¹, this bottle was a hugely generous gift from Roy aka Aqvavitae, who was quite taken by this release and purchased a few bottles. I recognise that feeling. It takes me back to the Kilkerran Work In Progress 7, where I was so taken by the potential of the Campbeltown distillery, I bought every bottle I could find to see me through till the bitter end. Even one my infamous recommendations, roped Mark into buying what was probably his first Kilkerran in 2015. Fast forward to 2021 and now everyone wants a slice of the distillery that mixes flavour with value to such aplomb.

I’m hoping we can bring a little more appreciation to the efforts of Loch Lomond and to start the ball rolling I reached out to Michael Henry, Loch Lomond’s Master Blender for more detail on their yeast endeavours…

Malt: You’ve been working with wine yeast since 2005. What prompted you to start exploring this ingredient, 15 years ago? Does Loch Lomond have a more open approach to experimentation, do you set aside production time annually?

Michael: At that time most of what we were distilling would be bottled as 3yo so we wanted to get as much flavour into the spirit as we could. We did some work on yeast strains using distilling yeasts matching their flavours to our still shapes, fermentation times and cut points. When we had these changes bedded in we started to look at wine yeast as a way of creating more flavour than standard distilling yeast strains.

We have an open approach to experimentation that goes back to Littlemill distillery. Littlemill was purchased by Duncan Thomas in the 1930’s and Thomas was more prepared to move to new distilling methods. I think Littlemill was the first distillery to move from floor maltings to Saladin Box maltings² under Thomas’ ownership and the other major change he implemented was the development of the straight neck pot stills (not to be confused with Lomond Stills) allowing double distilled and triple distilled styles of spirit to be produced from the same stills.

Littlemill’s approach to meeting demand for single malt in the blended Scotch boom in the 1950’s and 60’s was to produce different styles of spirit – the distillery produced Littlemill, Dumbuck and Dunglass to give more choice for blending and secondly was to build a sister distillery, Loch Lomond. When Littlemill built Loch Lomond Distillery in the 1960’s it was with the same philosophy of using distillation to create different flavour styles and this focus on distillation has led us to be more open to experimentation with distillation.

We have been producing batches of wine yeast fermentation spirit every year since 2005 with most of the spirit being used in our NAS single malt expressions. Since about 2007/2008 we increased the volume of wine yeast fermentation spirit we were producing so we now have continuous stocks from around 2010 onwards.

Malt: The industry is fond of saying the wood, barely etc. contribute x-amount of flavour to the whisky in your glass. How much of a flavour contributor can yeast be to a whisky in your opinion?

Michael: The most important impact on whisky flavour is how the distiller chooses to balance the different sources of flavour through the distillation and maturation processes. As distillers are in control of the process we can maximise or minimise influences from any stage as we shape the spirit. We can see this in the traditional approach of distillers keeping a very consistent distillation process and using maturation through different casks and different ages to create flavour differences and more recently with distillers such as Waterford focusing on barley as their main source of flavour.

Yeast can have as significant impact to whisky flavour as wood or barley. It does need to be thought out through the process so that each stage is aligned to supporting the yeast. We look at mashing to produce a clear wort to help the yeast, allow longer fermentation times and then adjust our distillation styles to capture the flavours the yeast is producing. By doing this we can bring out the most impact from the yeast and we see that this brings an intensity of fruit flavour to the spirit that is down to the yeast.

Malt: Can you explain to our readers, some of whom might not be aware of role of yeast, as a flavour contributor?

Michael: The main role of yeast in whisky is to turn sugar from the malted barley into alcohol which is then distilled into the new make spirit. Yeast is a micro-organism that uses the sugars from malted barley as its food source. As it feeds on the sugars it turns them into alcohol and produces a range of by-products one of which is carbon dioxide which causes the bubbling you see when you look into a washback during fermentation.

Importantly the other by-products of the yeast are compounds that we can taste. They are highly flavour active in that you only need a small amount to be present for us to be able to detect them by taste. They contribute to the fruity, estery, sweet and citrus like flavours we taste in our whiskies.

Malt: When we spoke initially, you commented on the fact that the industry has been focused on yields at the expensive of other aspects including yeast. We’re seeing some of the newer distilleries such as Dornoch, Inchdarnie, Nc’Nean and Raasay experimenting. Do you see more distilleries following suit and exploring this new frontier?

Michael: The role of wood and maturation is well established now in single malt and as knowledge levels have increased throughout the whisky community people are looking for new flavours to explore and challenge themselves. I think this drive for new flavours within Scotch and rise in popularity of spirits like bourbon where things like the mashbill impact the flavour are encouraging drinkers to look more at distillery character in Scotch single malts and the impact of different yeasts comes under this.

We are also seeing more acceptance of younger age statements which allows distilleries to bring out new expressions sooner. This will encourage distillers to explore new flavours in distillation as they can bring new products to market faster.

Malt: What was is about this particular 12 year old that said to you, it’s ready?

Michael: With this type of spirit we want that distillery character to be the main player in the overall flavour when you taste the whisky. The fruit character is very intense and almost effervescent with the citrus flavours the yeast produces. It gives a vibrancy to the character that suits drinking at a younger age without too much wood influence.

I had been following this batch of spirit for a few years prior and at 9-10 years old it was very spirit led so I was waiting for the wood to give a little sweetness. When I tasted it again earlier last year that balance was there and there was a real clarity to the flavour.

Malt: How often do you check maturing stock from these yeast experiments? Do you have to maintain a closer watch over such casks?

Michael: We track all our batches of wine yeast spirit on DRAMS, our stock control system, so we only use them for dedicated purposes rather than general stock. In this way we do keep closer control over how we use the wine yeast spirit. We nose the new make as it is distilled and then once or twice a year I would taste a range of the maturing stock.

We taste the new make initially and mark any batches that stand out at that stage. From then it would be about 5 years old when we start to use some in our Loch Lomond Original expression. We always have a couple of charges in each batch so I use the first charges at 5 year old and leave the later charges for ageing on. I would start tasting those batches at around 8 years old with a view to releasing into our single cask programme or earmarking for use in a potential release.

Malt: It is just wine yeast you’ve been working with or have you tried other varieties? Are these strains of yeast more expensive in comparison to the standardised offerings in use across the industry?

Michael: So far it has only been wine yeasts we have been working with. We trialled at least 6 or 7 different strains before settling on one strain that gave the best results on flavour and we now use on an annual basis where we can.

The wine yeast is itself more expensive to buy than standard distilling yeasts so there is an initial cost increase. They are more used to growing on grape sugars than the sugars found in malted barley so give a lower spirit yield when distilled that needs to be offset against the enhanced flavour impact.

Malt: Have you mixed the yeasts? I recall Kingsbarns using one variety for fermentation and another to produce esters. Kavalan also add a second yeast midway. So many possibilities that are untapped till now.

Michael: We do mix them with standard yeasts however this is to help with fermentation. We are planning to look at more yeast strains in the future however our thinking would be to keep them separate to give us a clear understanding of the flavours they are creating and greater control over how we use the spirit. Once we have a solid understanding of both how they ferment and how the flavours they produce over time develop through maturation we could then look at starting to either blend them as mature spirit or using combinations of yeasts for flavour at the fermentation stage.

Malt: Loch Lomond has a unique array of distillates, have you experimented with yeast across the portfolio, or kept it to the core Loch Lomond distillate?

Michael: We have used wine yeast across our three unpeated distillation styles:

• Swan neck still, standard spirit cut and collection strength (70% in receiver)
• Straight neck still, wide spirit cut/low collection strength (65% in receiver)
• Straight neck still, narrow spirit cut/high collection strength (85% in receiver)

We have found that how you distil affects the recovery of the flavours the yeast produces. The impact of the yeast varies according to distillation style with the swan neck still giving the least impact and the straight neck still/wide spirit cut giving the greatest impact.

Most Loch Lomond single malt expressions are combinations of spirit styles so we have the option of using some wine yeast spirit as a component of an expression like we do for Loch Lomond Original or bottlings it as an individual spirit style expression like the 2020 Open Special Edition 12 Year Old where you can taste the full impact of the wine yeast.

Malt: Has it been a system of trial and error? Have you had to adapt the normal fermentation processes to accommodate various strains? Any surprises?

Michael: In the early days it was trial and error with different strains and different adaptations to the process. It did take around 5 years to adjust the process we are now currently using.

Once we did get the process right to bring out the flavours from the yeast it was a surprise as to how well the wine yeast worked. The lift it gives in intensity of the fruit character is a very positive impact on the flavour of the spirit.

Malt: Glenmorangie was first out of the blocks with their Allta release, which probably wasn’t a surprise given Dr Lumsden’s PhD in Fermentation Science, but I felt it was too safe and only hinted at the possibilities; a start in some respects. This 12 year old is bursting with vibrancy on the nose and really underlines what can be done.

Michael: I think for Glenmorangie it was important to have a connection to the distillery and estate itself so that was a major consideration in their selection of the yeast strain they used.

Where you have the choice to select yeast strains based solely on the potential flavour they create that is when you can start to realise the potential of yeast for flavour within whisky.

Malt: On a totally separate note, I loved the Inchmoan 1992 release from a couple of years ago. Can we expect to see something similar, please, or what else do you have lined up for us in 2021?

Michael: Last year was a big year for us with new releases into the core range including Loch Lomond Peated Single Grain, Loch Lomond 14 Year Old Limousin Oak Finish, Loch Lomond 21 Year Old and Loch Lomond 30 Year Old. For me the most exciting was the peated single grain that is distilled from heavily peated malt (as was the 1992 Inchmoan), it is a great example of how distillation style impacts the spirit.

With the rebranding last year and new additions to the core range the new releases this year will mainly be our sports partnership releases.

This year we have just launched our Open Golf releases which include a Loch Lomond 20 Year Old English Oak Finish. Sourcing the English oak casks was challenging so it was good to see the casks deliver a distinct spice character in the final expression.

We are sponsoring the SPFL and as part of the partnership are releasing club bottlings with Motherwell and St Johnstone the first two clubs to work with us.

My thanks to Michael for taking the time out to answer my question in-depth. Hopefully, Scotland’s greatest underachieving football team (Raith Rovers), will win promotion and I’ll snap up any themed bottles!

This bottling was priced around £50 when it debuted in an edition of 3000 bottles. It has sold out from all the main sources – it might pay dividends to shop around, look at the back of shelves or maybe join a golf club?

Loch Lomond 12 Year Old The Open Special Edition – Jason’s review

Colour: faded apple.

On the nose: light and effervescent, strikingly mineral-ish and sparkling. White grapes, toffee and white chocolate. Ripe apples, a touch of the old-skool fruits going on, with almonds, melon, pears, peaches and limes. Adding water delivers lemon and grapefruit.

In the mouth: oh, that’s quite surprising. There are fruits but in reality, they are softer, more delicate. Plasterboard, vanilla caramel, light brown sugar, pineapple, crackers, white chocolate and a fun mouthfeel; green in places. A splash of water releases more of the fruits and oiliness.

Conclusions

Our senses guide and lead us. Actions always speak louder than words. Many can say the right things but are betrayed by their actions. In this whisky, we have something tangible that our senses can be stirred by; something that suggests its, well, different. Yeast is tomorrow’s barley and Monday’s wood. The great untapped ingredient that’s about to get a whole lot more interesting. Bring it on.

Score: 7/10

Loch Lomond 12 Year Old The Open Special Edition – Phil’s review

Colour: Dried hay.

On the nose: A soft, fruity and creamy nose. Light citrus notes of lemon and lime zest. Honeyed malt, green apples, apricots, milk chocolate and double cream. A grating of fresh nutmeg.

In the mouth: Icing sugar on arrival with cereal husk and honey before a mild pepper heat and cut grass. Lemon, pink grapefruit and green apple. Almost a dry white wine quality with peach overtones. Milk chocolate notes appear on the finish along with some fresh ginger but the green apples being the central theme.

Conclusions

Loch Lomond isn’t a distillery that I can claim to have spent much time with… it has been on my radar but with so much choice out there it keeps passing me by. Saying that after trying this dram maybe I should make the effort to dig a little deeper.

This is a simple, straightforward but ultimately well-executed whisky that would make a fine session dram with your mates. If orchard fruit and a creamy texture are your thing in a whisky you will be well served here.

Score: 6/10

Still room photographs kindly provided by Loch Lomond.

¹ This bottle will be shared and shared again.
² This machine was created to remove the labour intensive aspect of turning malting barley. It gained favour with some distilleries in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Glen Mhor and Glen Albyn being some of the first to use the device. Glen Mhor’s is believed to be an early type that used stirrers rather than the later corkscrew design.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Anders says:

    Love it. I’ve become a big fan of Loch Lomond over the last couple years. They’re affordable over here in the US, and after coming to them numerous times in the beginning with low, or no, expectations, I’ve always come away impressed. I am a huge fan of craft beer as well (I even work part time at one here in our state and also do a little home brewing), and so it is crazy to me that more distilleries don’t experiment with yeast. Whisky is basically just distilled beer, after all. There is so, so much variance in how yeast affects various beer styles, and beer has such a long, storied history that it seems daft to think distilleries neglect its value and impact on the character of the malt. But then that’s just it, I guess. Too many years of the same old, same old yield focus. Very exciting to see the new craft whisky movement starting to change the game a little (over here in the US as well). Skål!

  2. Avatar
    The Ian says:

    It’s interesting to note how fermentation times affect mashbills differently. For single malt distillations, that second fermentation– where the lacto can take over just enough to keep producing new, interesting compounds and flavors — seems to be key in creating a very complex spirit. However, if you try doing the same thing to, say, corn-based mashbills, the results tend to go awry (or so I’ve been informed.)
    Longer ferm times seem to increase flavor, but are more difficult to control from a quality standpoint, so it makes sense for larger producers to shorten those times (it also saves money, but of course that’s a motivating factor.)

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