It’s not every day that one happens upon a man who is a true master in his field. Introducing Dr Bill Lumsden. Fondly referred to as the whisky doctor, Dr Bill is the custodian of Glenmorangie whisky and the pioneer in the art of wood maturation. He is also the first in the International Whisky Competition’s history to have been awarded the coveted title ‘Master Distiller of the Year’ THREE TIMES, first in 2015, then again in July 2018 and just recently again!
His impeccable track record of consistent distilling over decades begs the question of whether genius is a combination of raw talent and immense passion or relentless hard work and dedication. We settled for a wee dram with this whisky legend to better understand the mysterious makings of the man and his delicate spirit in each of its elements; Malt, Maturation and Magic….
Q: Dr Bill, you are the Director of Distilling, Whisky Creation and Whisky Stocks for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. Your single malts are internationally acclaimed for their smoothness, richness and complexity. How do the choice of malt, the terroir from Barley to bottle and the distillery itself influence the character of your whiskies?
A: This is a complex question that requires a detailed answer as there are so many stages in the production process, each of which can have an influence on the final flavour of the whisky. The most obvious difference for example between Glenmorangie and Ardbeg is quite terroir-based. On the island of Islay, traditionally all of the barley was dried over a peat fire whereas in Speyside in the Highlands that used to be the case years ago and has been phased out as we’re looking for a much more gentle form of whisky so we use less peat.
This whole idea of terroir is quite topical in the Scotch whisky industry now and it’s something which historically has been ignored. The popular view was that distillation and then many years ageing in barrel smoothed out any differences in the whisky. I’ve carried out many experiments with just that – and particularly with Glenmorangie – using different barley varieties, barley from different areas and different yeast strains. So I think that the simple answer to this question is that there is an infinitesimal range of ways in which you can impact the flavour and finish of your whisky.
And it’s primarily for this reason that I joined Glenmorangie because I wanted to experiment and explore these theories.
My philosophy has always been to create the whisky, to taste and not to work off a paper ‘recipe’, because at the end of the day it’s the final taste of the product that matters. I think that’s the only way you can stay true to the ethos of the brand – to stay on top of the quality.
Q: The Original, recently awarded Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, is your self-proclaimed first love and the one you refer to as the heart and soul of the Glenmorangie family of whiskies. What is the single most important quality that you attribute the consistent brilliance of the Original to and what sets it apart from other whiskies?
A: The way I approach the creation of The Original is twofold. Firstly, I’m very respectful of the heritage of the Glenmorangie Distillery, the Glenmorangie brand and the type of taste profile that the core whisky has always had. So I try and honour that and try not to change it too much.
The second way I approach it is this – my memory of that first taste of Glenmorangie is so vivid and it brought to mind a word which you don’t often hear associated with malt whisky and that word is delicious. And I always have that at the back of my mind – Glenmorangie whisky should always be delicious.
So I’m always looking for a smooth creamy texture which we achieve through the use of highest quality barrels in the industry. We’ve got a very delicate, clean and perfumed spirit and I like that to shine through into the final product. There’s always this very harmonious blend of flavours so I don’t want anyone thing to leap out or stand out. It’s what we call the blended complex. I imagine things very metaphorically in my mind – and for Glenmorangie Original I think of a beautifully woven piece of wool or tweed or something like that where all the different colours are blended together. If it all beautifully blends together, even if it’s something slightly unusual but it all blends – that’s the way I see the success of Glenmorangie Original.
Q: You’ve been hailed as a founding father of finishing, an expert in the art of wood maturation, always in search of innovative ways to add finesse to the Glenmorangie house character while imparting extra richness. What are some of the ways that wood maturation influences the nose, palate and mouth feel?
A: The first thing I would say is that it doesn’t matter how good your spirit is, how carefully you’ve distilled it and how small your cut points are – if you’ve then filled it into poor quality barrels you cannot make good quality whisky. Now it’s difficult to separate each stage of the production process but to my mind, the maturation and the quality of the wood is the most important stage. If you’re using a barrel which has been used many times before you simply wouldn’t get a smooth, creamy or a full-bodied whisky so the choice of barrel is critically important. And whether or not you peat the malted barley, this very choice gives you the greatest potential to vary the flavour of your whisky. Whether or not you use American oak ex-bourbon barrels or Spanish sherry casks or red wine barrels, you can really introduce a dramatically different range of flavours into your whisky. So maturation really is where it’s at. And you can taste right away whether the whisky you’re drinking has been well-matured.
In terms of being the ‘founding father’ – I always like to put the record straight here – when I joined the Glenmorangie company in 1994 I saw a little ad for Glenmorangie port wood finish. I was so intrigued that I rushed out and bought a bottle at some expense – I had always wanted to join the Glenmorangie family. I thought I’m going to take a chance and join this family where I believed there would be lots of room for experimentation.
This specific port wood finish whisky was dreamt up by the former Managing Director of the company, a gentleman called Neil McCarrol who I’m still in touch with to this day. And what I did was, I took this fledgeling idea of finishing and expanded it to create a whole portfolio of different flavours and from that, I then went into using different parts of oak from different parts of the world. So I maybe deserve the credit for putting that more on the map and expanding the range of flavours but I don’t want to claim the credit for inventing it.
Q: Ignoring the rule book, you started your quest for wood-based maturation in the late 1980s. Having scanned the globe on visits from the great oak producers of the U.S. to the grand chateaux’s of France in search of the finest barrels, can you tell us about some of your most daring experiments and the effects of unique wood finishing on the final product?
A: Some of my most daring experiments I simply can’t talk about at the moment. I’m doing them simply to see what flavours are possible to create and if I really like something then I have to try and find a way of recreating it within the regulations set out by governing bodies.
Of all the different oak species I’ve worked with so far, and I’m emphasising so far because I’ve got a lot more in the pipeline, in general terms American white oak – in my opinion – works much better with single malt Scotch spirit. So when you heat the inside of the barrel, it releases all these vanilla, almond and coconut flavours. You get more of these nice creamy, sweet flavours from American oak than from French oak and for that reason, I think it just works better.
Q: You joined The Glenmorangie Company in 1995 where the tallest stills in Scotland stand at a total height of about 8.84 meters, with necks at a staggering 5,14 meters tall. They’re said to deliver the purest spirit and the purest taste. Tell us a bit about the magic that happens in these stills?
A: The neck of the still is the most active part during the distillation process, it’s where all the reflux takes place and in fact where the alchemy and the magic takes place. This is where the copper is in contact with the vapours to remove sulphur – to catalyse the formation of different flavour complexes – and therefore this is the most important part of the still. So the fact that we’ve got these very tall stills basically means that we create a highly refined spirit and if you compare the distillate made at Glenmorangie with the distillate made elsewhere where the stills are short there really is a big difference. Lower stills make for a much lower level of reflux whereby the vapours are boiled off the body of the liquid. The vapours rise into the neck of the still where they come into contact with the slightly cooler outside of the copper and condense back into liquid, fall down and are redistilled. So this is known as reflux.
Some distilleries have what we call a worm tub and the pipe, instead of going into a condenser, goes into a vat of cold water and it coils round like a snake or a worm, that’s where the expression ‘worm tub’ comes from. The surface area of copper is much less – less than a fiftieth of a condenser column – so a lot of the sulphury compounds remain in the spirit and these whiskies tend to be very good for blending and make for the heart of a blend.
However at Glenmorangie, the style is to make a very clean, fresh and perfumed spirit, so indeed you’re right – the magic happens in the stills. Glenmorangie has the tallest stills in Scotland resulting in the finest whisky.
Q: You hold a PhD in Microbial Physiology and Fermentation Science from the University of Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh, refer to yourself as having a somewhat muddled creative mind … so it’s almost as though Glenmorangie created your position with your skill set in mind. This year the Glenmorangie Grand Vintage 1991, for example, was hailed ‘Whisky of the Year’ at the IWC! How have you managed to keep the Glenmorangie magic alive throughout your tenure?
A: I’m forever grateful for the fact that the company had sufficient vision to decide to put everything under me so my ruthless focus is on the quality of the whisky. So what I’ll do is I’ll dream, I’ll be creative and be passionate and create something.
In terms of keeping the Glenmorangie magic alive, I don’t try – it just happens naturally, because it’s not a job, it’s my life. My passion is Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. To me everything is about achieving the best quality we have. I am on the board of the company and the chief executives have always had faith in me to deliver the quality that is needed.
The way I approach my whiskies is – I am currently responsible for the quality of Glenmorangie and Ardbeg but I’m a whisky consumer so I am my target market which I keep in mind when I create the whisky and I don’t approach this from a marketing or operational perspective, I approach it from a place of passion, and for the love of whisky.
Q: Ultimately, the real magic of Glenmorangie happens in the glass. Let us in on the little secret of what is referred to as ‘releasing the serpent’ and what you feel is the best way to enjoy a glass of your beloved Glenmorangie?
A: Releasing the serpent refers to adding a little bit of water to your spirit and it does a number of things: first of all it tones down the alcohol so when you come to taste it you get less of the alcohol which means your palate is more open to exploring different flavours but there’s also a kind of physical disruption effect there. If you really explore all the notes a whisky has to offer, adding a bit of water really is the way to do it. So that’s what we mean when we say releasing the serpent.
Personally, I like to nose the whisky at full strength, I then add a splash of water and nose it again, then I taste it and then I’ll add a third splash of water and taste it again. So I take it right down to 30 or 35% but you just have to find a way to taste whisky in a way that works for you I think and I hope you’ll enjoy every sip of Glenmorangie and Ardbeg as much as I do!
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