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A Chat with Loch Lomond Master Blender Michael Henry

A few weeks ago, I expressed my adoration for Loch Lomond’s Inchmurrin 12 year old single malt and their Straight Neck Pot Still.

Yes, this brand and the other distillery’s product may not seem sexy at the moment due to the lack of centuries of history, as well as current trends. However, for me, if the Scotch community were to progress past the overly-discussed topic that is cask influence and into just-as-important topics such as the effects of yeast, length of fermentation and type of still, then the Loch Lomond Distillery would lead the way.

If you’re wondering why I think so, then read what’s below. It’s with great thanks for good fortune that I introduce you to the Whisky Master Blender of the Loch Lomond Group and Loch Lomond Distillery, Michael Henry. I’ve been a fan of his ever since I saw his chat titled “Loch Lomond: Flavour Through Distillation” with Billy Abbott in The Whisky Exchange’s Virtual Whisky Show in 2020. He was very kind to accommodate my questions, and to be so open about answering all of them.

Malt: Can you tell us about the history of the straight neck pot still? When was it invented? Since when has the Loch Lomond Distillery had this type of still?

Michael: The straight neck pot stills were designed by Duncan Thomas, owner of Littlemill distillery. In response to increasing demand for single malts for blending following the Second World War, Duncan Thomas designed the straight neck pot still and installed them at Littlemill with a view to continuing to produce Littlemill’s traditional Lowland character of spirit with a double distillation using a high degree of reflux in the still to obtain a new make strength of 85% similar to triple distillation.

The new design of still could be operated in a different way to produce a heavier type of spirit by turning off the still head cooling and using different cut points. By using different peat levels and different ways of running the still, Duncan Thomas was able to distill three styles of single malt from one distillery, increasing their use in blending.

The second response from Duncan Thomas to meet the increase in demand was to build a second distillery, as the Littlemill site was constrained on two sides and unsuitable for expansion. He built Loch Lomond distillery in 1965, starting production in 1966, to increase his distilling capacity, and he installed the same design of still as was at Littlemill.

When Loch Lomond was built in 1965 it had a single set of straight neck stills similar in design to those at Littlemill, but importantly he built the distillery with the same approach to flavour. So, by using different peat levels and different ways of running the stills, different flavours of new make could be produced. In that way the straight neck stills have always been part of Loch Lomond, central to the character of spirit produced at the distillery. The focus of the distillery has always been on creating flavour through distillation. Initially, this was to provide malts for blending, but now is to provide single malts to release under the distillery name.

Malt: I recall Bruichladdich calls their Lomond still Ugly Betty. Do the straight neck pot stills in the distillery have nicknames?

Michael: No.

Malt: Are there any other single malt distilleries in Scotland that use this? Why do you think it’s not a popular still design?

Michael: No other distilleries use this. It was designed for a specific purpose at Littlemill: to allow the distillery to retain its triple distilled, traditional Lowland character, but using a more flexible type of still design that could also produce a heavier style of spirit if required.

Malt: Does this mean that the straight neck stills currently produce more than one style of distillate?

Michael: Yes, we can run the straight neck stills in two different ways.
The first way is using a narrow spirit cut from 90% to 80% strength, giving a collection strength of 85% for the new make spirit with the still head cooling turned on. This gives a character of spirit similar to triple distilled, like the style Littlemill would have produced originally. We can then run this with unpeated malt or heavy peated malt.

The second way to run the still is to turn off the still head cooling and use a wide spirit cut from 90% to 55% strength, giving a collection strength of 65% for the new make spirit. We can then use different peat levels: unpeated, medium peated and heavy peated.

We usually run all three sets of straight neck stills on the same set up, so we run on the narrow spirit cut for two weeks then the wide spirit cut for one week. We run on unpeated malt for 9 months of the year.

We run on peated malt for 3 months of the year including both medium 25ppm phenol and heavy 50ppm. We are more flexible on the distillation set ups during this time.

Malt: Can you explain how the straight neck stills gets the crazy amount of fruit flavor? All I know is it has something to do with reflux.

Michael: Yes, it is based on increasing the amount of reflux. The plates in the neck of the spirit still slow the passage of vapour through the neck of the still, allowing for more vapour to condense. This increases the selectivity of the still allowing lighter, fruitier flavours through the still neck into the new make spirit, and retaining heavier flavours in the body of the still.

Malt: Do the straight neck stills and the traditional pot stills receive different types of washes?

Michael: Yes. The difference is in the type of yeast used. The straight neck pot stills receive wash fermented using a combination of Kerry M and MX yeast. The swan neck pot stills use Lallemande yeast. Both types of stills use a fermentation time of four days.

Malt: Are you open to saying why these specific yeasts were chosen? What do they offer?

Michael: The combination of Kerry M & MX is higher ester producing, so gives us more fruit character, something that the straight neck stills are more suited for. The Lallemande yeast gives a more floral/spicy character which is more in line with the target profile we want from the swan neck still.

Malt: In a previous interview with Billy Abbott, there was a mention of a wash fermented with some wine yeast, which is then distilled in the straight neck pot still. Have these single malts been bottled?

Michael: There has only been one release of 100% wine yeast fermentation spirit, and that was the Loch Lomond 2020 Open Special Edition 12 Year Old. There have been several single casks both by ourselves and through the SMWS.

Malt: Will there be more of these wine yeast fermented releases? I hope the answer is yes. Are there any other experiments using different kinds of yeast?

Michael: We have started to use some wine yeast in our core range expressions, mainly LL Original NAS and more recently LL 12 Year Old. We have just released a single cask in collaboration with Roy Duff from the Aqvavitae YouTube channel and Royal Mile Whiskies. It is a special spirit for us, so the main aim is to enhance our overall character so most of the spirit will be used in existing expressions.

We may do some small releases of wine yeast spirit if the opportunity is right for us. We have also started looking at ale yeast. We have carried out some trials using Belle Saison yeast with positive results and are planning on doing some more again this year.

Malt: Are there any single malts that go through the straight neck stills then to the traditional pot stills, or vice versa? If no, why not?

Michael: No. The wash stills have similar distillation profiles however it is the spirit stills that give a clear difference in the distillation profile i.e. the strength of the distillate coming off the still and the associated flavour profile of that distillate. As it is, the spirit stills that are most important in defining the character of the new make. There is no reason to combine the different shapes of pot stills.

Thanks for reading this. Hopefully, you learned something new from Michael. As an ode to the crazy amount of fruits that can be sensed in the Straight Neck Pot Still, I’m reviewing a 15 year old Inchmurrin bottled by SMWS called Crazy Fruits.

SMWS 112.61 Crazy Fruits – Review

15 year old Inchmurrin. Distilled January 27, 2005. First refill ex-bourbon hogshead. 54% ABV. $145on SMWSA.

Color: Clear wheat beer.

On the nose: The first thing I smell is a blueberry fiesta. It ranges from fresh blueberries to blueberry jam to blueberry syrup. Then aromas of baked bread, toffee and caramel come along to make me think of blueberry pocket pies. After that, other fruity aromas such as blackberries, apples, green apple skin, kiwi and strawberries come out. In between are subtle aromas of a pie’s bottom crust and mint.

In the mouth: Tastes like blueberry pocket pies from the get-go. There’s a tinge of green apple skin mixed with slightly more pronounced aromas of blueberry jam, blackberry jam, mint-flavored chocolate, raisins, kiwi, strawberries, toffee, muscovado sugar, coconut sugar, Korean barley tea and caramel. In between are random bursts of tart cherries.

Conclusions:

The abundance of blueberry flavors will make this seem a bit one dimensional, but there’s plenty of other fruits to go around to make this complex if you can spot them.

If you’ve noticed, there’s no mention of any type of heat or harshness despite the ABV. I think this is largely due to the four day fermentation, which is two days longer than most distilleries’. A lot of them use yeast strains that yield a higher ABV and convert sugar to alcohol faster. This type of efficiency is done at the cost of quality and flavor. Meanwhile, Loch Lomond uses yeast for flavor.

The lack of heat here plus all the pleasantly familiar flavors make this, like the Inchmurrin 12, a comfort dram.

Score: 8/10

Image of the Straight Neck Stills courtesy of Kingdom.golf.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Jigs says:

    “The plates in the neck of the spirit still slow the passage of vapour through the neck of the still, allowing for more vapour to condense.” I’m both surprised and not surprised that Loch Lomond’s the only distillery in Scotland that uses this technique for pot stills. Comparatively, it’s common in the rum industry, right?

    1. John says:

      Jigs, I’m only sure that Loch Lomond is the only distillery that uses straight neck pot stills. But I wouldn’t presume they’re the only ones who “slow the passage of vapour through the neck of the still, allowing for more vapour to condense”. We might just not get the same profile from other distilleries because the still designs are different.

      Also not sure about rum since reflux in them aren’t talking points.

      1. Jigs says:

        I see. I thought Michael was referring also to the use of plates in their pot stills as unique to Loch Lomond. Aside from in this piece of yours, I haven’t heard Scotch distilleries to use plates, specifically, but I have a faint memory of hearing or reading somewhere that some rum distilleries do. All these aside, the article was a good read!

        1. John says:

          Technically, all pot stills have one plate. It’s the swan neck. But plates are really referred to when column stills are talked about.

          Caribbean pot stills have two retorts. Retorts act as plates in a column since they increase they increase the abv as the spirit passes through.

  2. Graham says:

    Always great to learn more about Loch Lomond! I had a sample of the wine yeast single Cask for the Whisky Exchange and really enjoyed it. I tasted it blind and guessed a cognac cask finish. No doubt yeast has a lot to contribute to flavour.

    1. John says:

      Graham, we’re lucky that Michael Henry is quite accessible and open to answering questions. I’m also envious that you got to try that Whisky Exchange single cask! Hoping to find a bottle of that somewhere.

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