Dr Bill Lumsden 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. Take a look at this exclusive Q&A where the whisky doctor speaks about the malt, maturation and magical processes of making Glenmorangie.
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 does the choice of malt, the terroir from Barley to bottle and the distillery itself influence the character of your whiskies?
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.
You’ve been hailed as the 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?
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 fledgling 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.
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?
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!