In tribute to International Whisk(e)y Day on March 27, we spoke to Dr Bill Lumsden, director of distilling, whisky creation and whisky stocks at The Glenmorangie Company. He is a pioneer in maturation techniques, and today is as excited about single malt as he was when he took his first sip in 1984.
BY MALU LAMBERT PHOTOGRAPH SUPPLIED
“Single malt, in comparison to blended whisky, is more distinct and idiosyncratic,” says Dr Bill Lumsden, his Scottish vowels bending pleasantly over the word “idiosyncratic”. He may as well be describing himself – he’s famously leftfield in his approach to whisky making.
In fact, he’s fondly known as “The Whisky Doctor”, and when I tell him I have a bit of a cold, he suggests I treat it with whisky for “medicinal purposes”. I can tell already we’re going to be friends.
His prescription though is not the reason he’s known as “The Whisky Doctor”, rather it’s to do with his PhD in microbial physiology and fermentation science.
When I spoke to him last year, Dr Bill had just arrived home in Edinburgh after a whirlwind whisky tour to South Africa. He managed to find some time to enjoy the sights, including a safari in the bush. “I can’t quite believe it all happened,” he revealed with a sense of wonderment. “The trip more than exceeded all the expectations; what an incredible country.”
The tour came on the back of a prestigious award. He was named “Master Distiller of the Year” last year, the third time he has taken the honour in the International Whisky Competition. His vintage, limited-edition Glenmorangie Grand Vintage Malt 1991 was named “Whisky of the Year” at the competition too.
But where did this adventure of malt and magic begin? Let’s travel back a few decades to a tiny village in Scotland called Greenock, west of Glasgow. “It used to be a famous ship building and marine engineering town,” shares Bill. “That’s sadly all gone now, but my family are still there.
“Mum and dad were major whisky drinkers. Dad let me taste his from time-to-time. I was always intrigued by the different brands they liked. My mum’s go-to was the The Famous Grouse, and when my dad could afford it, Chivas Regal 12-year-old.
“Once I entered the industry, they started drinking single malt in support,” he laughs.
Though today he may have an award-strewn career spanning almost three decades, his inquisitive nature has never left him. “I like to think I have a youthful sense of wonderment about life.
“I’m very open minded. I will try everything at least once, and I’m not afraid of things not working. That’s how you learn.”
The best way to learn is in the doing, or in this case, the whisky drinking. A glass of Glenmorangie at a student party in 1984 shifted the course of his life. A smooth sip that signalled destiny.
“Someone thrust a single malt in my hands. It just happened to be Glenmorangie. It was just the perfect moment. Such a lovely, soft, creamy, smooth whisky. I thought this is it, this is my drink.
“The song Let’s Hear it for the Boy was playing in the background, and since then I’ve always had a great fondness for that track – it reminds me to keep that boy alive inside of me.”
He hasn’t looked back since.
Just like that original first sip, The Original is his self-proclaimed first love and the one he refers to as the heart and soul of the Glenmorangie family of whiskies. The Original is an award magnet and received a Gold Medal at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
“When I say ‘the heart and soul’, what I mean is that I think of it as the foundation, as the building block. All the whiskies start life off as being original, that’s how I develop the range, creating an original DNA for each whisky.
“I see my new products metaphorically, in a myriad of colours. For example, two years ago we released the Grand Vintage series. All of the whiskies in that recipe came from 1989.
“When I sat down and nosed the whisky, it was autumn in a glass – the leaves in Scotland turn gold, bronze and copper, while the hillside becomes clothed in purples with all the different heathers. I saw bountiful harvest baskets piled with apples and corn.
“While The Original is a whole other spectrum of colours, oranges and lemons and flashes of green, Signet is dark and creamy, coffee and chocolate.
“But to answer your question on what is my favourite,” he says, laughing, “Signet is more personal in that I created it from scratch, whereas with The Original, I refined it and made it a bit better, and yes, it’s still my favourite.”
Signet is the first in its category to use a high roast chocolate malt barley and was inspired by Bill’s love of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. It celebrated its 10th year in 2018. Glenmorangie closes down production of the rest of the range for a week to make it.
“We opened up the secret production process in 2018,” shares Bill. “For the first time we invited journalists to come and experience the making of it over a couple of days. We chose the month of September for this, for no other reason than Scotland is simply beautiful during this time during autumn with all the golden leaves and lilac hillsides.”
The American novelist Booth Tarkington once said, “Take your work seriously but never take yourself seriously and do not take what happens either to yourself or your work seriously.”
And for Bill, his work is “just about the only thing I take seriously. But I know what he means. It’s never the end of the world, not really. There’s always something you can do.
“Most importantly I look after my friends and family. Life is about enjoying every minute, that’s what you’re put on this earth to do, to try and bring a bit of joy to other people.”
What are some other quirks in this multi-faceted man? “I have a habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I’m always putting my foot in it. That, and I have an incredibly low boredom threshold, I’m very impatient. I also need things to be very ordered – like at home, most of the rooms have two sets of light switches, and I need them to be always aligned. My daughter deliberately goes around switching them the wrong way to annoy me,” he grins.
“This attention to detail definitely spills over into my work,” he admits. “I make very particular whiskies.”
THE GLENMORANGIE COMPANY, TAIN, SCOTLAND; GLENMORANGIE.COM
How to enjoy a tumbler of Glenmorangie by Dr Bill
The term “releasing the serpent” refers to adding a little bit of water to your neat 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.
International Whisk(e)y Day
On March 27, raise a glass to all whisk(e)y makers, past and present. Also, it’s a day to make a contribution to The Cure Parkinson’s Trust supported by the International Whisky Day site, or indeed any charity you like – make a donation or simply try to spread awareness of your cause on the day!
Take loads of pics of all the festivities – and a selfie with a glass of your favourite dram – and post to Twitter or Instagram using the hashtags #whiskyday and #WhiskyDaySelfie. For further information go to internationalwhiskyday.org/
DONATE TO CHARITY
We would love for you to donate what you can to Cure Parkinson’s or any other charity you’d like. If you can’t, then simply spreading the word and raising awareness is great too!