Comment by Dave Broom on Column Stills being Traditional Equipment for Malt Whisky Production

This article was first published in July 2008 and is here with permission of the author.

Funny thing tradition. Seems to mean different things to different people. Finishing, for example, is ‘traditional’ despite being an innovation which started in the 1990s. Making malt whisky in a column still isn’t traditional despite having been a technique used since the 19th century. Let me explain.
Two weeks ago, Loch Lomond Distillers asked the SWA to consider creating a new category for malt whisky made in continuous stills. As it makes such a product this seems worthy of debate. The SWA rejects this, as the technique “does not …reflect traditional Scotch Whisky distillation and practice.”
This strikes me as strange. Historical records show that so-called ‘Silent Malt’ was widely made in the 19th century. Cameronbridge, Yoker and Glenmavis distilleries all produced such a spirit and there’s evidence that the practise was common elsewhere. In 1913, Nettleton refers to: “Patent-still all-malt whisky, as made at one or two distilleries, may claim the title ‘whisky’ with the qualifying description.”  Neither was the technique restricted to the 19th century. George Christie produced this type of whisky from a continuous still at his North of Scotland distillery until the 1960s and, obviously, Loch Lomond continues to do so. Both Irish Distillers and Nikka are currently making whiskies of this style.. outwith the Scotch Whisky Act of course, but evidence that this isn’t just a one-off. Coffey Malt may be unusual, but it has solid historical precedent. 
I wrote to the SWA for clarification and they, speedy and polite as ever, responded, highlighting a sub-clause in the new regulations which states that malt whisky can only be made in pot stills, a change from the current regs.
What then, I wonder idly, is the legal definition of a pot? Is a Lomond still, for example a pot? Is a pot still with a rectifying column attached a pot? “We’ve looked at them,” came the response, “and they’re considered to be pots. Loch Lomond is however producing from column stills and that’s outwith the new regulations.” They then added that though Loch Lomond will have to call its product grain whisky, it would be allowed to state on the label that it was made from 100% malted barley. Reasonable enough?

Well.. maybe we should read on:

“Patent stills have been used since the mid 19th century – what is not traditional is that Scotch Whisky produced from such a still should be described and/or sold to customers as Single Malt Scotch Whisky [which is] a recognised trade description with a particular reputation. Whether or not Mr Christie distilled a malt mash in a continuous still in 1960 and whether or not such a practice was known in the 19th century is neither here nor there.
“But for the new Regulations, the fact that some of the ‘Single Malt’ being distilled by Loch Lomond since 2005 is from a continuous still would never have become public – it certainly isn’t mentioned on their web-site. The new Regulations are needed to prevent precisely this sort of thing going on behind the scenes.
“The requirement to adhere to traditional practice arises out of EU Regulations, hence the use of the term. Just because something has happened a couple of times in the past does not make it a traditional means of producing Single Malt Scotch Whisky in 2008.”
Is this double-think? The EU requires you to adhere to traditional practise, but despite this having been a technique used continuously (pardon the pun) since the 19th century it isn’t traditional? This production technique didn’t happen ‘once or twice’, but was an accepted practise which, though not widely used, was and still is part and parcel of the making of Scotch Whisky.  In other words it is part of the tradition.
Given this, there is greater historical precedent in the distillation of 100% malted barley in a patent/column still than there is around finishing. I can find no reference in any historical documents about distillers using Sauternes casks (etc) in the production of their whiskies. I can however find plenty of evidence of them making ‘Coffey malt!’ If tradition is to be used a legal grounding for these regulations then it must be used in a consistent and equable fashion. That isn’t the case here. 

The SWA also argued that one reason for rejecting Loch Lomond’s submission was that “one of the aims is to produce a lighter spirit which matures more quickly.  You can imagine the implications for small traditional malt whisky distilleries if such a product was able to use the Single Malt description.”
Now, “quicker-maturing” whisky has been the holy grail of every distiller (or at least their accounts departments) for decades. If distillers find a way of creating a mature whisky at 3 years of age then what is to stop them? Or is this suggesting that single malt should have a different minimum age? Are the 3yo malts used in blends not mature?
It’s an open secret that experiments are ongoing to try and find ways of accelerating the interactive process. The fact that continuous stills might make a quicker maturing whisky can’t be an argument for not allowing the “Coffey Malt”.
It transpires however that the real reason for the rejection of the 6th definition might be down to finance. “Installing a continuous still in an existing Single Malt distillery is for all intents and purposes a shortcut to increase capacity without the expense of installing new pot stills. (We understand, for example, that the single continuous still used by Loch Lomond for distilling malt mash has an output equivalent to six pot stills.)” So, the reason this was rejected was because it saved money? The SWA logic was that if Coffey Malt could be defined as a single malt then all distillers would scrap their pots, install columns and make this lighter variation on the theme. Fact is, Loch Lomond didn’t want to call their malt single malt whisky, which would potentially cause confusion, but wanted a new designation for this specific method of production.

I felt obliged to ask whether the SWA’s remit now extended to controlling firms’ financial decisions? “The simple answer is no. We are not making any attempt to control financial decisions and, as you are aware, we cannot do so. There is nothing to stop the building of patent stills and distilling a malt mash in them. Our point is the resultant spirit cannot be described as Single Malt Scotch Whisky for reasons explained.” But that’s not what was said and the logic behind the other reasons [ie the lack of tradition etc] strike me as being fundamentally flawed.
This one will run.

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