The Willy Wonka of Whisky: An Interview with Dr. Bill Lumsden (Part 1)

The Willy Wonka of Whisky: An Interview with Dr. Bill Lumsden (Part 1)

Dr. Bill Lumsden, Director of Whisky Creation at Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, is one of the most recognized names in the wide world of single malt Scotch — and for very good reason. In a career spanning nearly 40 years in the industry, he is known as the Willy Wonka of whisky for his seemingly inexhaustible ability to create new and interesting flavors using ever more inventive and exploratory cask finishes. He’s so frequently associated with cask finishing that many believe he invented the technique. “I didn’t,” he emphasized during our recent sit down, “but I do like to think that I took it to the next level.”

The next level and then some. He helms not one, but two, powerhouse scotch brands: the Highland darling Glenmorangie and the smoky Islay charmer Ardbeg. As you might imagine, that’s a lot of whisky to cover in one interview, never mind the many interesting nuggets from his career, scuffles with the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), and grand plans to take his whisky creating to new heights at his experimental distillery, The Lighthouse. To ensure you get as much Dr. Bill as we can possibly offer, we’re dividing our interview into three parts, starting first with a focus on the brand that was Dr. Bill’s first whisky love and arguably his greatest achievement, Glenmorangie.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.

Drinkhacker: Before we dig into some of the newer expressions, let’s talk about The Original. You’ve said that was your first taste of single malt and the whisky that convinced you to join the industry. Have you changed that whisky much during your time at Glenmorangie?

Dr. Bill: I know for a fact a lot of older whisky went in to the original 10-year-old. I don’t have the luxury of doing that now. When we relaunched the brand in 2007, that was the first opportunity for me to use my famous designer casks: the slow growth, air seasoned, heavily toasted, lightly charred, Missouri oak barrels. They give a more creamy and unctuous quality to the whisky. They are now the heart of the recipe, and that’s the biggest change I’ve made.

Drinkhacker: What about the 18-year-old? That’s a fan favorite at Drinkhacker HQ.

Dr. Bill: That one I have messed around with a bit. I felt it was too heavily sherried when I came on board, so I dramatically reduced the sherry influence. It is now all matured in American oak ex-bourbon barrels, and then after 15 years, I take 30% and re-rack it into oloroso sherry and then I blend the two elements back together. I refer to our 18-year-old as the Chanel No. 5 of malt whisky. I’ve worked very hard to keep it feeling youthful so there’s a vibrancy on the palate. I’m a teensy bit biased, but I think the 18-year-old is possibly the most beautiful whisky made in Scotland, and it’s absolutely the bargain of the century. They charge far too little for it.

Drinkhacker: We tend to agree, but we’re happy to know that you don’t control pricing! Let’s shift gears to some of the changes we’ve seen inside the core range over the years. What happened to the Madeira Finish?

Dr. Bill: I had to discontinue the Madeira wood finish, as much as I loved it, because to get consistent quality wood from the tiny island of Madeira was almost impossible. I wanted a particular style which was the medium sweet, but only 10% of the wine made on the island goes into the casks I wanted.

Drinkhacker: When the Madeira was discontinued, we also saw some age statement changes inside the core lineup. We’re hearing rumors that more changes are planned. What can you share?

Dr. Bill: The Port Cask Finish recently saw the age statement changed from 12 to 14 years. The Nectar D’Or, which people have trouble pronouncing, that one is non-age stated, but it’s actually going to get an age statement soon. It was always a 12-year-old, even when they dropped the age statement, but now it’s going to become a bit more senior.

Drinkhacker: The more limited Private Edition releases appear to be a thing of the past. Tell us about the new ‘Tale of’ offerings?

Dr. Bill: The ‘Tale of’ releases, there’ve been three so far, are the modern-day successor to my Private Edition Series which showcases experimentation. The reason the Private Editions transitioned to ‘Tale of’ was because I was working on a new whisky finished in Royal Hungarian Tokaji barrels, and in describing it to our Global Head of the Glenmorangie brand I kept talking about pineapple upside down cake and Victoria sponge cake, all these cakes. And then she took my description and turned it into A Tale of Cake. I was so excited about the whisky, I even let them splat a cake in my face.

I am making the ‘Tale of’ releases in a slightly different way than the Private Editions in that I’m doing bigger volumes and using my blending skills to bring together a number of different cask types. The next two in the ‘Tale of’ series are well in the pipeline.

Drinkhacker: Oh, really? What tales can you tell us about the next ‘Tale of’?

Dr. Bill: I’m a big hill walker. I love being out in the countryside and out in the forest. And as someone with a highly trained sense of smell and taste, one of the things I love about forests is all the different aromas. So that has inspired the next release, A Tale of the Forest. The way I got there was rather than just drying the barley over a fire, I used a range of aromatic botanicals which I know for a fact historically has been used in the industry. That’s how I finally got away with it. The SWA just didn’t want us to use the word botanical on the label. You get these aromatic flavors which are really unusual for whisky.

Drinkhacker: Sounds quite unique. We look forward to tasting it! Sort of a reflection of terroir in your whisky without focusing purely on the grains. What is your take on that trend, by the way?

Dr. Bill: I’m not skeptical about terroir, but it absolutely does not impact in whisky in the same way as it does in grapes because you’re going through so many of the processes including double distillation and years worth of maturation. I am a believer, but it’s not nearly as big a differentiator as deciding between bourbon and sherry casks or peat and no peat.

Drinkhacker: Glenmorangie has already gone down that road with your single estate release, the Cadboll Estate. Tell us about how that idea developed and how you think it differs from other single malts in your portfolio.

Dr. Bill: When I joined the distillery, they had already had one harvest of what they called the Cadboll barley. This was barley grown on our own land. The board at the time weren’t interested in anything that cost more money, but I liked the idea and the farmer who grew it, so I resurrected it and I’ve been distilling it every year since 1996.

It tasted very much like classic Glenmorangie, but I felt it was the best quality barley we processed all year. It made a very creamy whisky. When Moet Hennessy USA asked us for something different a few years back, we bottled it as The Cadboll Estate. It’s the idea of pure terroir. And annual yields are only enough for one to two weeks of production.

If people are looking for mind bending innovation, that’s not what this whisky is all about. Cadboll is a bigger, fruitier whisky. Meursault, which is one of my favorite white wines, was kind of my metaphorical inspiration for the taste profile I was looking for. The latest release was all from one single year vintage, but the third release due out soon, there’s a little bit of Amontillado sherry cask character in there.

Drinkhacker: Signet, the crown jewel in the core portfolio, you’ve said was inspired by your love of Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee. How did you use that inspiration to create this whisky?

Dr. Bill: It was a real labor of love. What I love about Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee is that it has an intensity but a subtlety at the same time, and the flavor intrigues me. I used to treat myself to the coffee when I was a student. The roasting of the beans and my fledgling love of whisky came together. I thought it would be fun if the barley grains were roasted in a coffee roaster.

I held that idea all through my early years in the industry, and when I joined Glenmorangie, I wanted to put it into practice. The mash tun at Glenmorangie is 10 tons, so a small coffee roaster was not going to work. So, I just used my knowledge of craft beer and bought some batches of high roast chocolate malt, which was the most like my concept of coffee. I made batches of that chocolate malt whisky each year, and when the first batch reached 12 years old in 2007, I started tasting it seriously. I didn’t really like it at first because it was too strong, but I kept playing around with it. We finally launched Signet in 2008. It’s an assemblage of Glenmorangie aged in bourbon, sherry, virgin oak, a top dressing of our oldest stock, and I occasionally throw in one or two outliers.

Drinkhacker: After nearly three decades, you’ve certainly put your mark on the brand. Before your career began, even before your first taste of single malt, how do you remember perceiving Glenmorangie then?

Dr. Bill: I knew the brand well when I was younger because my best friend at school, his late father used to drink malt whisky on their porch. He only drank Highland Park or Glenmorangie. He was a genteel man who liked the finer things. I hadn’t tasted it at that point, but if it was good enough for my pal’s dad, then I thought it was pretty cool.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our interview with Dr. Bill where we focus on the smokier half of his whisky passion, Ardbeg.

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