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Lomond (Inverleven) - The Lomond Still

First Society bottling in 1992 - Multiple Malts from an Experimental Still

In a climate of companies eyeing the bottom line and expecting production results to be near perfect, it is difficult to imagine a time in the whisky industry when experimentation and exploration were encouraged in the hope of solving some production problems. Following the Second World War, it was particularly difficult for distillery production to meet the growing demand for whisky after its scarcity during the war years. It was a time that tested the ingenuity of distillers. And it was this environment that fostered the development of the Lomond still at Hiram Walker (now Allied Distillers) and its continued use into the early 1980's.

In the 1950's an increased demand for Hiram Walker's blends, particularly in the American market, required more single malts than they had available. At the time Hiram Walker owned six malt distilleries, and short of buying additional distilleries, they were hard pressed to find the 42 single malts required for the Ballantine Blends. Blenders asked if it were possible to vary the existing whiskies in order to increase the number of malts available for blending. People explored the ideas of changing the stills and experimenting with the cuts of each distillery run.

Finally, in 1955, Alistair Cunningham, then a chemical engineer with Hiram Walker, worked with Arthur Warren, the company's draftsman, to design the Lomond still. It had the recognisable bulb shaped bottom of the standard copper pot stills, but rather than a lovely tapering neck, the Lomond still had a thick, wide neck resembling a coffee can, with a head that was either flat or dome-shaped. It was a dumpy step-sister to the shapely siblings that sat next to it in the still house. It did, however, have the advantage of being easily and quickly assembled and had a variety of ways in which it could be used. The thick columnar neck housed three rectifying plates that were an important part of the design peculiar to the Lomond still. These rectifying plates could be flooded with distillate which helped to purify the spirit by increasing the reflux action. This eliminated some of the heavier elements, reducing the fusel oils. The plates could also be left dry, which lessened the filtering effect, or they could be swivelled to a vertical position within the neck thereby negating the filtering effect entirely. Tom Scott, the Managing Director of Hiram Walker, installed the first Lomond still at Inverleven Distillery in Dumbarton because it was close to the company's laboratories, Additionally, the stills at Inverleven were fired with steam, making it easier to control the temperature and minimise the variation of the character. Because of space limitations, however, just a spirit still was installed. Only one wash was prepared, and processed through the standard wash stills. But part of the low wines that came off the wash stills was diverted into the new Lomond spirit still.

The objective was to produce a second different single malt for blending that still maintained the family profile of the Inverleven single malt. The resulting whisky was christened with the new name, Lomond, to distinguish it from the Inverleven that was distilled in the traditional swan-neck stills at Dumbarton. However, the new Lomond single malt was just a bit too different from the lowland character of the Inverleven whisky, so eventually the rectifying plates were removed to bring the Lomond malt closer to the family character of its sister at Inverleven. Because of its success, the research continued at other distilleries.

Eventually the Lomond stills would be placed at four different distilleries which produced four different whiskies but only one of them, the Lomond whisky distilled at Inverleven, was bestowed with the name of the still. Within a year Lomond wash and spirit stills were installed in Glenburgie to continue the experimentation. The new single malt, called Glencraig, was named after Willie Craig, the Production Manager in Northern Scotland.

The whisky proved to be fragrant and sweet, with a traditional pear-drop flavour. Installation of new Lomond wash and spirit stills quickly followed at Miltonduff to distil the new whisky named Mosstowie. This malt had a fresh herbal nose with sweet sherry flavours counterbalanced with a spicy tang. While Hiram Walker wanted to maintain a family character common to both whiskies at each distillery site, they also wanted to produce a more pronounced variation in the flavour. The objective in the Speyside distilleries was to create two new malts by using the Lomond design in both the wash and spirit stills.

Interestingly, the final Lomond still was later positioned at Scapa distillery on the island of Orkney for a completely different reason. Here, it was used only as a wash still to vary the character of the already existing Scapa rather than to produce a new single malt. The newly acquired distillery produced a whisky that was inappropriate for the Ballantine blends. Using the Lomond wash still created a sweeter,  cleaner, and better rounded whisky that was more acceptable. The new Scapa seemed to echo Orkney; it had a caramel sweetness, a taste of heather, and the dry iodine tang of the sea.

When the original Lomond still was replaced in 1971, a rather serpentine-like purifier was added, eventually replacing the need for the rectirying plates. After the Lomond stills were installed, experimentation continued, particularly at Miltonduff and Glenburgie. In addition to the three variations made possible by manipulating the rectifying plates, the columnar design of the neck allowed sections to be added or removed to lengthen or shorten the height of the neck. This telescoping feature provided an opportunity to experiment with the positioning of the lyne arm which connected the head of the still to the condenser. Depending on the space available, the lyne arm, which was attached to a swivel, could be angled upward to create a slightly lighter whisky or downward to create a slightly heavier one.

At Miltonduff, the experimentation was carried even further when cold water sprayed on the outside of the still increased the reflux action so that the heavier elements were reconstituted. Although the design of the Lomond still increased its flexibility, one of its most important features, the rectirying plates, also created one of its biggest problems. The plates acted like big shelves, and the solids in the distillate caked on these plates, creating heat transfer problems and slowing distillation times. This also occurred at a time when the industry was moving from using liquid yeast to using solid yeast which only compounded the problem. The plates had to be cleaned constantly. Despite these problems, the flexibility of the Lomond still provided Hiram Walker with the ability to produce two single malts on one distillery site until the early 1980's.

Ironically, similar economic demands to those that brought about the birth of the Lomond still at Dumbarton also brought about its demise. Demands for stocks of Miltonduff and Glenburgie and little space to expand the distillery meant that the Lomond stills had to be dismantled. Furthermore, by the 1980's, a recession and rising production costs brought an additional pressure to meet the increased demand for Miltonduff and Glenburgie without increasing the costs to distil them.

These demands prompted the decision to transform the Lomond stills into additional standard stills. The pot and shoulders of the old Lomond stills remained, but the thick "coffee-can" neck was removed, along with the rectirying plates to be replaced by the traditional swan-neck seen in all whisky distilleries. The old Lomond still had proved to be flexible right to the end. The spirit still at Inverleven and the wash still at Scapa were not removed. Although both of these distilleries were later mothballed, the Lomond stills remain in place and can be seen there today. Mosstowie, Glencraig and Lomond were originally distilled in order to provide additional single malts for the blending of the Ballantine Blends.

In the broad view of creating a blend that includes 42 malts as well as grain whisky, their effect was minimal and their loss was not terribly significant to Hiram Walker. But no-one could predict the growing popularity of single malts, and the importance to the connoisseurs that these whiskies would later have as single malts. Sadly, these malts are bottled only by independent bottlers (including The Society); and as the Mosstowie and Glencraig stills have been dismantled, these stocks will be depleted one day.

The single malt, Lomond, which was produced at Inverleven, is virtually never sold as a single. One of its very few bottlings was offered by the SMWS when they had two casks on the Christmas List in 1992. Scapa is the only one of the four whiskies, distilled III the original Lomond stills, that can be found with some regularity on the shelves of shops with larger inventories of single malt scotches. A 12 Year Old Scapa was launched in America this April as part of Allied's "Defenders of the Malt" campaign, and hopefully it will become more available in the UK in the future. While Hiram Walker initially intended these whiskies to be part of a blend, they have taken on another importance that was never foreseen. Because of the increasing popularity of single malts, they have been plucked from the chorus line and placed under the spotlight. And it is now their role as a single malt that is noteworthy to the appreciator of malt whisky, rather than its place in the blend.

NB The Lomond single malt distilled at Inverleven in Dumbarton should not be confused with the Loch Lomond Distillery in Alexandria which produces Inchmurrin and Old Rhosdhu single malts. Interestingly, the Loch Lomond Distillery installed a "Lomond-type" still so that both whiskies could be made in the same still. Similarly, the Loch Lomond Distillery (as Hiram Walker did) uses the stills to vary the whisky enough so that they can increase the number of malts available for blending.