Tuesday 24 May 2016

Whisky and Nitpicking

At the last meeting of Glasgow's Whisky Club a small dispute arose over how many Scottish whisky distilleries have ever used Lomond stills. Drink having been taken (ahem) and a challenge thrown down, I faced the prospect of public humiliation if I couldn't prove that there had been more than five.

The five that we weren't arguing about are Loch Lomond, Glenburgie, Miltonduff, Scapa, and Inverleven. And the Wikipedia article which lists these five also seems to offer a convenient definition of a Lomond still, as being the invention of one person (Alistair Cunningham), for one company (Hiram Walker), at a well established date (1955).

I knew, however, that somewhere or other I had seen another name associated with Lomond stills, so I sat up very late reading a big pile of whisky books (not much change there then) and roaming the maltier corners of the internet.

Bingo! Littlemill, according to both Misako Udo(1) and Ingvar Ronde(2), had pot stills with rectifying columns from 1930 onwards. Great! I was mentally crafting my magnanimous victory speech when that date caught up with my brain. 1930. That's a full twenty-five years before Mr Cunningham invented the damn thing.

It gets worse. In re-reading The Scottish Whisky Distilleries I had come across a reference to Nevis distillery (not Ben Nevis, but another Fort William distillery of a similar name), to which Barnard(3) was said to have attributed a kind of Lomond still(4). That's sixty-nine years too early. What the heck?

And as I mulled that one over, it struck me that Alastair Cunningham, in 1955, probably didn't name his invention after a distillery which would not exist for another decade. Surely Lomond stills must have been named for the malt distillate of that name which came from inside the Dumbarton complex? Holy moly, Wikipedia is wrong! The world's turned upside down!

By now, if you are still reading, then you are either the person with whom I originally had the argument (Hi Greg!), or one of the Malt Maniacs. In which case I feel perfectly relaxed about introducing a table to summarise where we're at:

Dates of 'lomond' stills
Ownership at this date
Actual 'Lomond' stills
Nevis ~1886 Donald P MacDonald No
Littlemill 1930 Duncan G Thomas No
Lomond (Dumbarton) 1955 Hiram Walker Yes
Glenburgie 1958 Hiram Walker Yes
Miltonduff 1964 Hiram Walker Yes
Scapa 1959 Hiram Walker Yes
Loch Lomond 1965 Duncan G Thomas ???

Clear as a glass of Loch Dhu, yes?

So, here are my conclusions:

  • Six or more Scotch malt whisky distilleries have had pot stills with rectifying columns instead of plain swan necks
  • Five or more Scotch malt whisky distilleries have had pot stills with rectifying columns which are adjustable. The jury is out on Littlemill.
  • There were four Lomond stills, at Dumbarton(5), Glenburgie, Miltonduff, and Scapa
  • In a weird way Wikipedia is sort of right, since Loch Lomond does have lomond stills(6). Just not Lomond stills. If you see what I mean.
  • OTOH, Wikipedia is definitely wrong about Inverleven.
  • I don't think I've won my bet, but neither have I lost it.

Once you start digging into it, there are all kinds of tweaks to the basic pot still process which are used to cause rectification. Glen Grant's purifiers, the boil ball, Fettercairn's waterfall effect, those extra bits of piping you see running down from the lyne arm at Ardbeg or Talisker, et cetera, et cetera. It's enough to drive you to drink.

(1) Udo, Misako, The Scottish Whisky Distilleries, Black & White Publishing, 2006
(2) Ronde, Ingvar, The Malt Whisky Yearbook, Magdig Media, 2011
(3) Barnard, Alfred, The Whisky Distilleries, of the United Kingdom, 1887
(4) Although I can't find him using the word 'Lomond' in my copy of the book, just a picture of something which does look uncannily Lomond-like, on page 145, and at the top of this post.
(5) Dumbarton was a large distillery which mainly made grain whisky. It also produced two malts, Inverleven and Lomond. It seems that the two malts shared a wash still, and that while Inverleven had a normal spirit still, Lomond had a pot with a rectifying column on top. You can see some pictures of Dumbarton on the Canmore website, which is a great resource for anyone interested in Scottish industrial architecture, amongst other things.
(6) Although not according to the SWA, if Neil Wilson is to be believed.

Further Reading
E-pistle 2007/024 – Lomond Stills & The Oil Enigma
Whisky Science - Scottish Pot Still Variations

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