First Society bottling in 2004.
The Bonnie Banks and Braes are only a couple of miles further North but you would never know it. Little clusters of new housing only draw attention to the general bleakness of Alexandria's streets, the graffiti'd metal shutters of closed-down shops testifying to economic stagnation. The feel-good factor, it seems, has not reached Dunbartonshire
The first sight of the Loch Lomond distillery is similarly depressing. Waved through onto a rough track, the visitor passes along caverns of high, brick warehousing which seem almost fragile with age and grime. Ahead, a small hill of bricks suggests that one of them has just imploded of its own accord; but this turns out to have been the result of a recent fire in which 2000 barrels perished, so much whisky escaping into the adjoining River Leven that the firemen at one point found themselves spraying it back onto the fire. Clearly also this is a working distillery, having little truck with the concept of a visitor's centre. But appearances are deceptive.
Anybody who sees the area as being on an inevitable slide should be reminded that the word Dumbarton means a fort of the ancient Britons, that the volcanic rock which stands out into and dominates the Clyde symbolises the resilience of the people who cluster there. They are working hard now at regeneration. Walking into Alexandria's newest venture, a 'Retail Village', one of the first of its kind in Scotland, you discover that the stone frontage has been pre-served from the days when it was one of the first car-manufacturing plants in Britain, the Argyll Motor Company.
The photographic evidence of its triumphs (and of the huge workforce) are on the walls. And the distillery itself offers further evidence of resourcefulness in that it is a conversion from a callico-dyeing factory dating from the 18th Century. Indeed the present stills are situated in the old callico boiler-house where the overhead tracking for bringing in the coal can still be seen. You begin to sense that people here are no-nonsense survivors, confident in their own inventiveness and cunningly flexible in response to economic change. These qualities are distilled to a fine spirit in the Managing Director of the distillery, Mitchell Sorbie.
A little previous research had revealed that when the land was bought by Barton Distillery Company and Duncan G Thomas in 1963, he was appointed, at thirty-three, as the first site engineer and plant-manager. He built the malt distillery from scratch and there is nothing he doesn't know about it. Now here he is, thirty-four years later, still in command of a rapidly expanding operation. His reluctance to be interviewed was matched immediately by evident enthusiasm for relating the history of the distillery.
He had seen the task in 1963 as a stimulating challenge and related with pride the success of the first mash on 9th March 1966, the opening of the distillery on 2nd September and the fact that it was the first dry-grains plant in the UK. He gave special credit to the vision and unconventional approaches to distilling adopted by Duncan Thomas.
When Thomas died in the late sixties, Barton took full control, selling out to Argyll in 1982. But the 80's saw a rapid decline in the industry and the distillery was mothballed in 1985. Asked if this was for him a time of despair and despondency, Mitchell Sorbie points out that it was fallow time for everybody in the industry, a time to grin and bear it.
Recovery came in the late 80's when Sandy Bulloch bought the distillery. He and Mitchell Sorbie have known each other for over thirty years and Sorbie points out with pride that Loch Lomond is the only first-generation, family-owned distillery left in Scotland. He likes working for real people, he adds. The office buildings are a little distance from the distillery proper where the Production Director, John Peterson, reigns.
A brewing research chemist before coming into distilling through Long John, he arrived at Loch Lomond in 1990. In just a few years he has seen the capacity of the malt distillery doubled and spent ten and a half million of Sandy Bulloch's money in a uniquely designed grain still. In contrast to the noise of the cooperage where the American bourbon casks are knocked together to house the current annual production of one and a half million litres of malt whisky and ten million litres of grain whisky, the production control room hums softly, lit by its bank of computer screens on which the grain distillery operation is constantly monitored.
The malt distillery is still operated in the traditional way. With so much responsibility on his shoulders, John Peterson is unostentatious but decisive, cautious by nature but confident about the quality of his products.
The whisky pundits record only two whiskies being made at Loch Lomond: Inchmurrin and Old Rhosdhu. Inchmurrin, now being bottled for the Society, takes its name from the island in Loch Lomond. An extraordinary 85.6 abv as it comes off the still, the strongest in Scotland, it emerges a clean light malt, ideal for summer and casual drinking. Old Rhosdhu on the other hand is not so intensely distilled and retains some of its heavy oils to give depth in flavour.
The really intriguing feature of the distillery, however, is its capacity to produce two whiskies at the same time and for the rectifiers in the still heads to be modified to produce different whiskies at different times in the same still. Currently four other whiskies are being distilled over the year, the most appetising of which may be Croftengea which is not only using exclusively heavily peated malt but being distilled like Old Rhosdhu to retain the heavier oils. By varying the amounts of peated malts, Glen Douglas, Craiglodge and Inchmoan are said to be developing their own distinctive flavours though they are not yet being marketed.
Elizabeth Bell in the Summer 1997 edition of the Society Newsletter gives an excellent account of the "Lomond Still", drawing attention to the fact that although it was developed at Loch Lomond's sister distillery at Inverleven, the Loch Lomond Distillery took advantage of the technology without simply copying it. The perforated plates in the rectifiers in the Loch Lomond stills are of a different design and distillation can be more subtly varied in the reflux than was possible in the original "Lomond Still". This is what is making the development of these new whiskies such an exciting prospect.
Loch Lomond is currently the only distillery in Scotland with grain and malt being distilled on the same premises. With so much investment in plant and development, attention is increasingly turning to marketing. Gavin Durnin has recently been appointed to the post of Sales and Marketing Director and is conscious of the need to create a higher PR profile for the distillery. Although still learning on the job, he is already concerned about the fall-off in the consumption of whisky among the younger generation and calculating where the markets will be for the Distillery's whiskies in ten years time. But with all the available capital now going into replacement of the old warehouse buildings, it may be some time before he can take advantage, with a visitor's centre, of the thousands of 'tourists' thronging the nearby 'Retail Village'.
In the meantime he is patient and helpful to those who can help even a little in promoting the distillery. He wears the kilt and knows what 'Braveheart' boldness and astuteness are being demanded of his marketing strategy.
The visitor leaves with very different impressions from those carried into the distillery. The shoddy buildings seem of little significance set against the experience of having seen three men working together at the full stretch of their minds, imaginations and ambitions for the survival and success of a unique set of spirits.
The whiskies are presently regarded as 'Highland' malts even though the distillery is only yards over the Highland Line. Their view is that Inchmurrin is neither Highland nor Lowland but worthy of separate recognition. Members of the Society will now be able to judge for themselves the merit of that claim. If it contains the spirit of its makers, Inchmurrin will at the very least earn everybody's respect.