We chat to Michael Henry, Master Blender at Loch Lomond about what makes his whiskies so special.
Loch Lomond cleaned up big at this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Their 12 year old Single Malt Scotch Whisky was awarded a Platinum medal in recognition of three consecutive years of Double Gold, and their 18 year old Single Malt was also awarded Double Gold. On the back of their success, we spoke to Master Blender Michael Henry to learn more about what makes Loch Lomond whisky so special.
First Choice Liquor Market: Thanks for speaking to us, Michael. Tell us, what does a Master Blender do?
Michael Henry: As Master Blender I am responsible for creating both the ongoing expressions for Loch Lomond and Glen Scotia. This involves using our existing range of spirit styles and types of cask in different combinations, and working closely with our Distillery Manager to trial new types of yeasts and ways of running our stills to enhance the flavours we create in our distillery.
I also plan the supply of our different whiskies and manage the inventory of maturing stocks over the longer term to maintain a consistent flavour profile over the years ahead. I am constantly reviewing our stocks going back 50 years, and planned production levels to deliver our forecast sales volumes while keeping the signature character of each expression unchanged.
FCLM: What is a typical day for a blender at Loch Lomond?
MH: I start each day looking at operations in the distillery, spirit supply area and cooperage. My afternoons are dedicated to nosing work on cask selection on upcoming vattings of our single malts, and liquid development for new expressions.
FCLM: What started your passion with whisky?
MH: I first became interested in the drinks industry while studying for my A-Levels, when I started brewing my own beer at home. With my interest in brewing combined with a science background I went to university to study Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University.
I started working in whisky at Bushmills Distillery while studying as it’s near to my home in Northern Ireland, before moving into brewing for ten years with the Bass Brewery in Belfast and then Tennent’s brewery in Glasgow which brought me to Scotland.
I joined Loch Lomond in 2007 as Warehouse Manager covering all cask filling, blending and cooperage operations as I felt it would offer me greater influence over the blending process being at an independent distiller. Shortly after joining I took on responsibility for the company’s range of blended Scotch whiskies which allowed me to develop a deep understanding of how our spirits behaved at all ages and the different flavours interact with each other.
FCLM: What makes Loch Lomond whiskies so special?
MH: Most distillers talk about casks and how their whisky is matured, and differentiate their products with age statements. At Loch Lomond we instead focus on the start of the whisky-making process and the flavours we can create in the distillery itself. We change the level of peat in our malted barley to create eight distinct flavour styles of new make spirit, which is the colourless liquid taken after distillation. These range from light and fruity to full bodied and peaty. We enhance the fruit character of our spirit using different yeasts, and have a longer fermentation time with a minimum of 4 days.
We also use different shapes of pot stills and run our stills in different ways. Our straight neck pot stills make it harder for the heavier, aggressive medicinal peat characters to come through and give a smokier, spicier range of peat flavours.
We fill each spirit style into American oak casks and mature individually, only combining the different spirit styles once they are mature. Casks are important to us and we aim for a softer wood influence using a combination of some first-fill bourbon casks and recharred American oak from our own cooperage. We balance this with more refill American oak to give a background wood character, keeping the distillery character to the fore.
This comes together to reflect as much of the distillery in the whisky itself. Using a combination of spirit styles from the different stills and different peat levels we bring together extremes of flavour to give a perfect balance that shines in our single malts.
Loch Lomond’s straight neck pot stills, which are responsible for a smokier and spicier range of peat flavours.
FCLM: Loch Lomond were recently recognised at the San Francisco Spirits competition, can you tell us about that?
MH: The Platinum Medal for Loch Lomond 12 Year Old Single Malt was particularly special for us as it is awarded for having won 3 Double Gold Medals in each of the last three years. This is important as it recognises the consistently high quality we are achieving with this expression. To date, only 17 Platinum medals have been awarded across all spirit categories, so this was a significant achievement.
FCLM: What is your favourite Loch Lomond whisky?
MH: My favourite of our expressions is the Loch Lomond 12 Year Old Single Malt. It is a combination of four of our spirit styles distilled using both our straight neck pot stills and swan neck pot stills. The way in which the individual spirit styles are brought together gives a perfectly balanced character where I can taste the real signature flavours of our distillery.
With each sip of Loch Lomond 12 Year Old I can I can taste the flavours we create in each part of the distillation process. The long fermentations captured by our straight neck pot stills give a fruit character, while the softer sweet and vanilla wood influence of American oak is present. There’s also a light touch of smoke from the unique way that our straight neck pot stills select the smokier, spicier peat flavours.
Michael’s personal favourite is the Loch Lomond 12 Year Old Whisky, which brings to life the signature flavours of the distillery.
FCLM: Thanks for your time Michael, happy blending!