After a lovely evening in Wishaw, where we enjoyed a massive dinner at the Artisan whisky bar and restaurant with old and new whisky friends, we made ourselves ready to defy the Tuesday-morning traffic of Glasgow and find our way to Alexandria, where we had arranged an appointment to visit the Loch Lomond distillery. Glasgow rush hour turned out to be a breeze compared to what we are used to in the Netherlands, and in just over an hours drive on the M74, changing into the M8 in Glasgow, crossing the river Clyde into the Highlands region using the M898 over the Erskine bridge to Old Kilpatrick, we found ourselves on the A82 leading towards Alexandria.
We have been driving these same roads several times already on our way to Campbeltown and the Isle of Islay, but have always zoomed passed the Loch with its 38 islands. This area is the factual start of the Western Highlands, less crowded, more relaxed and picturesque, but somehow we are always fresh off the boat with only our next stop in mind, never giving the area the attention in really deserves. Zigzagging through the village of Alexandria, wondering if we were on the right track in the suburbs of the village, we encountered the rather large sign confirming our destination between the railroad tracks and the river Leven. A quilted grey blanket of buildings in need of a lot of TLC in all shapes and sizes, some belonging to the distillery, others reused for the buzzing local businesses.
Reassuring ourselves we have come to the right place, we knock on the door of the office buildings and are heartily received by the people of the Loch Lomond group awaiting our arrival. The company owns the Glen Scotia distillery in Campbeltown and holds the ownership of the brand and remaining stock of the closed Littlemill distillery. The area around the Loch has a rich history in whisky creation with as many as nine (legal) distilleries in its heydays. The in 1964 built Loch Lomond distillery is the only one still standing strong around the lake and specialises in creating almost every distillate know to (Scottish) man, including vast amounts of rum, gin, vodka and bulk grain whisky for the blending industry in their grain distillery up the hill. Next to that they produce Loch Lomond grain, single malt and blended whiskies, a growing range of Inchmurrin single malt from their Lomond stills and the Clansman and High Commissioner blends, as well as the Glengarry blend and single malt. Confused? So are we, and we are just getting started...
Walking through the maze of hallways, stairs, little offices and grated floors we tried to make sense of the layout of the distilleries and were glad we were not the only one losing track at some point. Starting in the malt distillery where they produce about four million litres per year, the puzzle gets bigger. The process of the old Porteus mill is pretty straight forward, where it mills about six tonnes of Scottish Concerto barley per hour, continuously feeding the 8,5 tonne full lauter mashtun together with water from the Auchentorlie burn. The wash is fermented in any of the stainless steel washbacks for at least 70 hours using dried distillers yeast, and over the weekend a little longer using a wine yeast. Nothing too complicated, until you walk into a Coffey still. A continuous still, normally used for grain distillates, but this is fed with the clear single malt wort, which is somewhat a-typical.
Though the maze of pipes and fermenters, we encounter two sets of
butt-ugly special stills; the Lomond stills. These are designed specifically for the distillery in 1964, and are a combination of the traditional pot still base, with a small column (with several plates) added on top. Straight up from this column, there is a lye arm of about the same height, ending in a shell and tube condenser. This contraption results in fruity spirits as high as 85% abv. To make things more confusing, the stills have a “low wine & spirit still” sign on them, and judging from their similar sizes, they could actually be used for both processes. Tucked away in the corner, there is one set of “normal” looking pot stills, producing a more industry standard spirit. In the next room, a new set of Lomond stills has been built, but from the looks of the much shorter lye arms, they are producing yet another spirit type, most of the four types being used for blending and bulk single malt whiskies.
Up the hill is the larger distillery of the two, where the circa 18 million litres of grain spirit per year is produced and processed into gin, vodka, rum or grain whisky. More huge fermenters outside and inside the buildings, letting the liquid yeast eat the sugars and poop alcohol to go through the immense labyrinth of pipes, levers and columns before being turned into pure-ish alcohol of around 94,3% abv. Nothing much to see or tell here, except that with all still types combined, they are now producing eleven types of spirit. Fun fact; they are one of the only distillery sites capable of creating a “single blend”, just to confuse the hell out of everyone who thinks they know they spirits.
Most of this spirit is tankered away to their own Glen Catrine Bonded Warehousing facilities in Ayrshire or is being sold to blenders, but still a large amount of the spirit is casked and matured in one of the 21 on-site warehouses. These warehouses are a combination of all types of dunnage, racked, stacked and palletized possibilities and most of the casks here are cleaned, repaired, de-charred and re-charred by their own coopers. Most of the 10.000 casks processed per year are ex-Bourbon barrels and hogsheads for initial maturation of both single malt and grain spirit, but occasionally there is a batch of ex-Sherry casks used for finishing the matured spirit that needs an extra punch. After being matured the spirits are either sold to blenders or it is transported to Ayrshire where the Loch Lomond group owns one of the largest independent bottling plants in Scotland, processing more than 65 million bottles annually.
Leaving us a bit puzzled and amazed about what we have seen today in this monster of a distillery we drove towards our next destination in our trip through the beautiful sceneries around the Loch, through the Trossachs, Stirling & Forth valley. Reminiscing about the vast amount of information and how to gather that in one comprehensible article, we quickly agreed that the distillery may be Frankensteined together over the years into what it has become today, the people creating the spirits all seemed to be in good spirit and walked around with a smile on their faces. Almost everyone we talked to started with telling us that “since the new ownership” everything seems to be (getting) in a better place at the distillery. These new owners have solid plans to revamp the many brands, which are already getting noticeable in the market. It may be a monster to look at but has the heart and the right people in the right place, showing a clear passion to create the (many) products and with the right chemistry and their heart beating as strong as it is now, we definitely will keep an eye out on the distillery’s further development and the plans of the Loch Lomond Group in general.
Many thanks to the Loch Lomond Group for showing us around the distillery which is normally not accessible for visitors. More photos can be found on our Facebook page.
Thomas & Ansgar