I recently purchased four bottles of whisky made at the Loch Lomond distillery. No one was more excited when they arrived than my children. This not because they are already drinking whisky but because Loch Lomond is the distillery whose name they know best. No, it’s not because it’s one that we’ve visited together in Scotland—I’ve still not been there. The reason is that they are big fans of Tintin comics and, as anyone who knows the series well knows, Loch Lomond is the favourite whisky of not only Captain Haddock but also Tintin’s dog Snowy. I’ve mentioned before the more-complicated-than-it-seems history of Loch Lomond and Tintin. Loch Lomond first appears in one of my favourite Tintin adventures, The Black Island, which was first serialized in 1937.
Or it appears to. When I first got into single malt whisky in a big way this seemed like a temporal anomaly to me. This because I’d learned the Loch Lomond distillery was not in fact established till the mid-60s. Looking into it on Tintin sites I discovered that in the original comics the whisky that was portrayed was in fact Johnnie Walker. When the book was being readied for translation into English in the early-mid 1960s a number of changes were made to modernize the references in the original text. A change that joined these was the replacement of the name Johnnie Walker with that of Loch Lomond. As the single volume English edition was published in 1966, right after the establishment of the distillery it seemed likely that there had been some kind of a tie-up. When I last mentioned this history in 2013 this is where I left it. It appears, however, though I have not been able to track down a definitive source for this, that the fictional re-naming was in fact a coincidence: that the Loch Lomond name that appeared in 1966 in the updated The Black Island is not in fact the actual distillery that was established a year or so prior.
But the intersections of real and fictional history don’t end there. When I was explaining this history to the boys a couple of days ago—as is normal to do with 10 and 12 yo children—one of them told me I was wrong. Why, I asked. Said the smart-ass: because the box your whisky came in says the distillery was established in 1814. I went to look and sure enough, the boxes of the official releases all indicate that the distillery has been producing whisky “Since 1814”. And this is also proclaimed on the bottle label of the new version of the Loch Lomond 12 (see the rather unambiguous claims made in the pictures to the side). So, what gives? Was I wrong to think that the distillery was only founded in the mid-1960s? Is it the case that it was in fact only restarted then? After all, a number of Scottish distilleries have gone through long periods of falling silent before being restarted—often by new owners (see, for example, the checkered history of Benromach).
My first port of call was the entry on the distillery at the archived Scotchwhisky,com (RIP). Their timeline and history for Loch Lomond begin in 1966 which is when it is described as being built. So I had not misremembered that. Next I went to the distillery’s own website. The “Our History” section there echoes this, noting that “[T]he current Loch Lomond Distillery was founded in 1965”. But this is preceded by this text:
The first site of the former Loch Lomond Distillery dates back to 1814, sited at the north end of Loch Lomond near Tarbet (known as Tarbat). Sadly in the old days relatively few paper records were kept and the closing date of this Distillery remains unclear.
The website is otherwise devoid of references to 1814 or implications of a clear line from the 1814 distillery to the one built in 1965. Indeed, it seems clear there is no such line. There was a distillery with the same name in the general vicinity—though nowhere close to the current site—that operated for a few years in the early 1800s. A new distillery with the same name was built from scratch in 1965 by people not descended from the original owners. None of this is objectionable—though it could certainly be made clearer that there is no line of descent between the first distillery named Loch Lomond and the one built in the mid-1960s. But when the labels on the boxes and bottles of the whisky now being produced at the new distillery make it out to seem that the distillery’s history is unbroken, going back to 1814, we unquestionably enter murkier waters. It is the boxes and labels, after all, that consumers look at, not websites.
Certainly history is at a premium in the whisky industry—even as age statements have become scarcer in the world of Scotch whisky, distilleries have held on to numbers that indicate having been founded long ago. No one who follows American whisky will be surprised to hear this or perhaps even find Loch Lomond’s fudging of the historical record very exceptional compared to the shenanigans that go on on so many labels that get approved in the US. And it may appear a victimless crime: is anyone really buying any whisky because of when the distillery was founded? But if that’s not part of the sell then why do it? Why say you’ve been producing whisky since 1814 when you’ve really only been doing it—off and on—since 1966? Not having paid attention to Loch Lomond packaging before this, I have no idea if this “Since 1814” nonsense has been on the boxes and labels for a long time or if it appeared after the change of ownership in the previous decade. But they should knock it off. Howsoever innocuous it may seem to some, it’s still dishonest. They make interesting whisky, they bottle it at a good strength, and sell it at a good price. That should be enough.
If for no other reason, do it for Captain Haddock: he was an honest man, even if he did drink too much.