Playing a multitude of tunes
As master blender at Loch Lomond distillery, Michael Henry has oversight of an incredibly complex and varied production set-up, which allows endless ways to create new and different flavours in the spirit. SMWS spirits educator Dr Andy Forrester delves into a distillery with the ability to sing from many song sheets simultaneously
PHOTOS: MIKE WILKINSON
Loch Lomond distillery master blender Michael Henry
Loch Lomond’s exterior hides the complexity of what lies within
Since joining Loch Lomond in 2007, Michael Henry’s main motivation has been a pursuit of flavour diversity through the different styles of spirit he can create at what may be Scotland’s most varied distillery.
In its complexity he sees the opportunity to play different tunes with the stills and ways to create different flavours in the spirit, whether that’s by running the stills differently or using novel yeasts in the fermentation to create unusual fruit flavours.
“We currently make eight different styles of malt spirit, and use these as building blocks to combine together to give the Loch Lomond signature character of fruit, sweetness and soft peat in each of our core range expressions,” says Michael. “We’re able to do that by having these different types of stills, numerous configurations and using distillation regimes.
“The malt spirit that finds its way into casks may have been distilled in traditional copper pots stills [as in SMWS distillery code 135] or straight neck pot stills with or without a cooling ring to vary the amount of reflux [SMWS distillery codes 112 and 122].
“It may only be the early part of the spirit run when it is rich in fruity-floral flavours, or it may have been cut much later when the heavier compounds are starting to distil off and give more cereal/meaty aromas. Even at the fruity end of the scale there is room for manoeuvre.”
Samples of new-make spirit ready for analysis
Loch Lomond has its own cooperage on site
DISTILLERY CODES EXPLAINED
The best way for Michael to explain the difference in the Society’s bottlings from Loch Lomond is through the use of diagrams:
SMWS 122 spirit: A straight neck still and low collection strength
The straight neck of the still has rectifying plates which increase reflux, but it doesn’t use a cooling ring. This, along with a lower collection strength of between 60-90% abv, creates a fruitier and more citrusy spirit than would otherwise be created in a traditional pot still.
SMWS 112 spirit: A straight neck still and high collection strength
This is the same still as used for #122, but here a cooling ring surrounds the top of the still with cold water, increasing reflux even further. This, combined with a very high and narrow cut point – with a strength of between 80-90% abv – makes for an even fruiter spirit, which Michael describes as having peach and pear-like character.
Loch Lomond also produces peated or unpeated variations of each spirit, which they collect at three different strengths to vary the phenolic profile. At higher cuts points (#112) the spicy aroma compounds from peat dominate. At lower strengths (#135 and #122) more of the medicinal/smoky flavours are captured.
Michael also trialled eight different strains of wine yeast before settling on one strain that gave the best flavours during fermentation. He then exploits the various distillation configurations to ensure he captures and concentrates the fruity compounds produced by these yeasts.
And did I mention they also have two different grain stills? One is made from copper for distilling barley malt-based single grain spirit, and a more traditional stainless-steel column for distilling from wheat. That makes Loch Lomond unique in Scotland in being able to produce both malt and grain whisky on one site.
Michael shows SMWS spirits manager Euan Campbell and spirits director Kai Ivalo around the distillery’s cooperage
INTO THE WOOD
Michael then comes onto maturation. He explains that for him, despite the focus on distillation, what happens in the cask is of equal importance to what happens in the distillery.
“The cask and the spirit need to work together,” he says. “There’s no point in making all these wonderful flavours if they are then lost during maturation or masked by the flavours imparted by the cask.”
To ensure the wood is right for their spirit, Loch Lomond has its own cooperage at the distillery. “That way we can take control of the heat treatment of the casks, which is really important in generating the flavour that comes from the wood,” says Michael. “Or we can create the char layer that will help remove the heavier flavour compounds, which would otherwise mask the fruity flavours we have created and concentrated in the distillery.”
Casks being charred at Loch Lomond distillery
AN ONGOING EDUCATION
As always when I speak to Michael, I’ve learned loads and had my endless stream of questions answered clearly and in great detail – he’s an amazing educator.
Despite this I still go away with the thought (paraphrasing Richard Feynman when talking of quantum mechanics):
“If you think you understand Loch Lomond Distillery, then you’ve not understood it yet!”