Michael Henry is a man with many hats. He might be a whisky blender by title, but he works across all aspects of spirit production at the Loch Lomond Scotch whisky distillery. We get our geek on and chat all things yeast, on-site cask rejuvenation, and that genuinely intriguing still set-up…
Loch Lomond prides itself on its flexibility – and it is indeed a chameleon in spirit form. Set up in 1966 to be as self-sufficient as they come, the distillery is perhaps the only one in Scotland able to simultaneously produce its own single malt and single grain. It’s a fascinating one, indeed.
To get under the skin of the distillery, find out how and why it makes the spirit it does, we caught up with master blender, Michael Henry. His background in beer and seeming obsession with yeast has set him in good stead to handle the ambidextrous producer and its multifaceted ways.
Fancy reading along with a dram? Why not pour yourself a Loch Lomond 12 Year Old. Pick up a bottle (we’ve got £10 off until 28 June!) and you could even be in with the chance of winning a pair of tickets to The Open Championship…
MoM: Let’s start by talking about you. How did you become a master blender and what was your journey into your current role?
Michael Henry: Well, I’d been working in beer for ten years and then I moved into whisky, or moved back to whisky! And then I worked up to master blender. I was with the old Bass company which is now InBev; they had the brewery in Belfast and I worked there. And then I worked at a brewery in Glasgow which really gave me a full grounding across the mashing, fermentation, the whole parts of brewing, which kind of overlaps with whisky before you get to the stills. And then I moved to Loch Lomond in 2007 where I started as the warehouse manager. And that was really looking after things from cask-filling to new make spirit, to maturation and then blending, to dispatch to bottling hall. The stock controller who had hired me, he used to look after the blending for the bulk blends and High Commissioner. So when he retired I took on the blending in addition to the warehouse management. But at that time it was really for the blends like High Commissioner. When the new owners took over the distillery in 2014 [Loch Lomond was acquired by private equity group Exponent along with its management team] there was a real change in the focus from standard blends to single malts. So understanding the process and working with the different liquids we produce here, I kind of was in the best place and was kind of promoted to the master blender role.
Did you know while you were brewing that whisky was ultimately for you?
I actually started in whisky. I’m from the north coast of Ireland; seven miles from the Bushmills Distillery. I was at school doing my A-levels, studying biology and chemistry and when it came to university I was looking through the different courses available – I found the brewing and distillery degree at Heriot-Watt University. I did some research and found that a lot of people were sponsored to do it. So I approached Bushmills Distillery and they offered me a sponsorship to study at Heriot-Watt. As part of that I worked for them all my holidays through the three years while I was studying.
Talk us through a typical day for you as a master blender. I imagine it’s pretty busy!
Aye! The first half of the day is about stock planning. I look at the short term; we’re supplying all our different malts to the bottling hall, for actual bottling runs. So it’s making sure that we have the liquid available to be called by the bottling hall. That’s really just seeing how current vattings are going and planning out the next series of vattings, looking at what stock’s available and then assigning stock to individual products. And then longer term, reviewing the stock profile against what our sales figures are like. So from a stock point of view we work probably 20-30 years back and ten years ahead! If you make one small change this year you’re going to have to consider 30 years’ worth of stock.
That’s quite the pressure. How do you manage that day-to-day?
It’s really about developing a lot of Excel spreadsheets and sitting in front of a computer and just comparing numbers. So it’s definitely not the glamorous side of the blending! But it underpins the actual nosing and tasting side of it. So the mornings would be the stock management side and then the afternoons are when I do most of my nosing, cask selection. If we’re doing a malt vatting I’d maybe get 150-200 casks sampled and then I’d nose them over the course of one or two afternoons. With the golf, the Open sponsorship coming up, there’s been a lot of development work to come up with the new releases. So my afternoons are spent in the sample room nosing.
Yeah that must be quite exciting; it’s a big partnership with the Open…
Yes, it’s a five-year partnership, starting with Carnoustie this year. So it came about relatively quickly for us. It’s been a lot of work to get the first releases ready in time. But it will be a big step up in profile for us, going from 2014 when we didn’t really have a public profile to sponsoring the biggest golf competition in the world. It’s a very rapid climb.
Loch Lomond is so interesting because of the different stills you have and the flavour difference they can give you for the range. Can you talk us through the still set up and what you’re currently doing with all those various types of liquid?
We have two shapes of stills: a set of traditional swan neck stills like you’d see in other distilleries, and then we have three sets of straight neck pot stills that are unique to us. The straight neck pot stills, we can run those in two ways. The first is we can take a very tight cut on the spirit run and collect the new make spirit at 85% strength. And the second is to take a wider cut on the spirit run and collect about 65% strength. So with those two still types and running the second type of still two different ways, that gives us three unpeated spirit styles. And we use, in addition to the flavour difference, different yeast on each type of still. So we use a more floral yeast for the swan neck stills and a kind of yeast that gives more fruit character for the straight neck pot stills. And those are three main unpeated spirit styles for single malt. And we then do different peat levels of each of those. So we do a medium peat version of two of them and then the medium peat’s 25 PPM (parts per million). And then we do a heavily peated version of each style, so that’s another three heavy peated styles. So that gives us three unpeated, two medium peated and three heavy peated styles. So eight in total.
Because they’re all from one distillery we can choose to bottle them individually as a single malt or we can bottle any combination of those eight styles as a single malt. And that’s what we do with our Loch Lomond range. With the Loch Lomond range carrying the distillery name, we wanted to make it as representative of the distillery as we can. So we used up to four different spirit styles, say for Loch Lomond 12 Year Old. So we get a really balanced flavour profile; we get the fruit coming out from the straight neck pot stills, we get some sweetness from our use of American oak, we get a light touch of peat from the peated spirit styles we use. When I’m blending for that we’re trying to give people a taste of the distillery itself, so we try and encompass as much of the distillery character as we can in that single malt.
And you make single grain as well at the distillery, right?
Yep. So we have two different styles of corn still for single grain. So we have the larger conventional wheat-based grain stills and they produce normal grain for blending. And then we have our malt-based continuous stills; they are unique to us in Scotch whisky. And we use 100% malted barley wash to feed the continuous malt still. And what we produce from that we bottle as our single grain. And character-wise it’s probably like a lighter style single malt rather than single grain, because the malt gives you so much more character.
Would you say it’s challenging to work with so many different spirit types, or is it more fun?
I’d say it’s both. It gives you some more challenges, and that means more complexity. So planning for everything rather than planning for one malt product at different ages. You have the Loch Lomond range, the Inchmurrin range and the Inchmoan range. We have three different product ranges for our single malts coming from eight different styles rather than one style of liquid. So there’s a lot. And when you factor in different wood type there’s a lot more complexity with it. But in that you also get more opportunity to showcase different flavours and that’s what we’ve done with the Highland Collection. Because with our still set up, Loch Lomond is really focused on the distillery character rather than age statements and wood types. So we have our [three ranges] and Loch Lomond, which is a balanced flavour profile. Then we move into the Highland Collection where we showcase our more specialist distillation. For the Inchmurrin range it’s 100% from one spirit style from our straight neck pot stills collected at high strength, and that really shows both how our selection of yeast and our longer fermentation times combine with that shape of still and the way we run it to really give the fruitiest flavour that we can get in a single malt. And then the Inchmoan is our peated range and that’s where we look at using our different styles of distillation to give different phenol recoveries. So although we use 50 PPM phenol malt, the way we distill gives us a different flavour than the normal distilleries. How you distill affects what phenols you pass through the still into the new make spirit. So by distilling it differently you get different phenols in the new make, and that gives you a different flavour character. Our traditional swan neck stills give you a similar peat character to what you would see at some Islay distilleries. But with our straight neck pot stills, and the two ways we distill with that still, it gives very different phenol recovery and therefore a very different character on the spirit.
How would you describe that character; how is it different?
For the swan neck stills, that really gives you the big phenolic medicinal character that people would associate mostly with peat. The straight neck still, collected at low strength, gives you a smoky character because you’re kind of cutting out the traditional phenols and bringing through more of them that contribute to smoky character. And then the straight neck pot stills collected at high strength give you a spicy character. So it’s a really sweet, kind of clove spice that you don’t get to taste unless you distill it this way, because the big phenols kind of mask that flavour.
And to round off, I feel like we’ve talked about it a lot, but can you describe what innovation in whisky looks like to you?
It is really about trying different ways of creating flavour. Over the past 10-15 years at Loch Lomond we’ve probably focused more, for our single malts, on yeast. Although we have the two main types of yeast that we use for the straight neck pot stills and the swan neck pot stills, we’ve done a lot of work on wine yeast. And then we’ve also introduced the malt based single grain. So we’ve looked at yeasts for our pot stills, and we’ve looked at the raw material itself for single grain. And we actually produce three styles of malt-based single grain: the unpeated, medium peated and heavily peated. But the still itself, we can change the strength that we take spirit off. So we normally run it at 85% strength. We have taken it as low as 75%, which then gives you a different flavour profile. And in the second column of the still, we have eight plates at the top of the column where we can take spirit from and we can use any combination of those eight plates. So that again gives us a huge range of potential flavour combinations. I think where Nikka is made in Japan [Miyagiko] is the only one that I’m aware of that uses malted barley in a continuous still. But I don’t know if it’s as flexible as our still or if it would give you the degree of control that we have. And on the wood side, we were one of the first cooperages to put in a cask rejuvenation plant. We have our own recharring plant, so we can give any degree of charring that we want to our casks. We’ve used that to give a background sweetness to all our malts. Most will be from refill American oak, but there will be some first-fill recharred American oak casks in there. That just gives some background sweetness that really supports the fruit character from the way we’ve distilled. And we’ve used different char levels on some of the newer products we have out, like the Glen Scotia Victoriana. Although it’s Glen Scotia, our other distillery, the Loch Lomond cooperage supplies the casks for it. Part of the finishing of Victoriana is using a heavy charred American Oak where we use a four or five minute char time.
That seems like a lot!
It’s really, and you’ve heard people talking about the alligator-skin char? So you’re really almost breaking up the surface of the wood. But you get a really dry Demerara sugar sweetness, kind of really roasted sugars. It works well. And then we combine it with a PX [Pedro Ximénez] sherry finish. You get a very sweet finish, and then you get a dry sugar finish from the heavy charred oak. It works well in balance with the PX. So although we use medium-charred American oak for all our single malts, and all the Loch Lomond single malts will contain some first fill rechar American oak, we haven’t really played around too much with different char levels for it. But that’s something we’re maybe considering for the future. And then we have a single cask programme where we’ve used new French oak from three different forests in France to see how the different regions of the one country can affect flavour. And we’ve also done a sauterne finish, and a Madeira finish which we’ve brought on to a permanent product in our Inchmurrin range. So we’re really looking at all aspects of the distillation process for innovation, right from materials, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation.
There’s everything going on which is really exciting.
I think the last 50 years have given us a very different still set up, and it’s the way we operate that. We’ve come out of 50 years of innovation and experience; it’s given us a huge knowledge base of flavour creation within the distillery itself. Now probably our biggest challenge is how we relate that to people drinking our whisky; how we transfer that from the individual casks sitting in our warehouse to somebody’s glass sitting drinking with their friends.