The Willy Wonka of Whisky: An Interview With Dr. Bill Lumsden (Part 2)

The Willy Wonka of Whisky: An Interview With Dr. Bill Lumsden (Part 2)

Today, Ardbeg is an iconic Scotch whisky brand with numerous awards, international name recognition, and the love of peatheads the world over. There’s even a fan club, the Ardbeg Committee, whose limited editions are some of the more coveted annual releases from Islay. But before Glenmorangie and Dr. Bill Lumsden came to its rescue in 1997, the centuries old distillery was a shadow of its former self on the verge of shuttering.

When we sat down with Dr. Bill over the summer to discuss his long and storied career at Glenmorangie, it was clear that Ardbeg held an equally meaningful place in his whisky-loving heart. Seeing that, we decided to pull out those extra-special, smoky bits for their own interview below. Enjoy!

Please also see part one.

This interview has been lightly edited for readability.

Drinkhacker: If Glenmorangie 10 Years Old was the single malt that hooked you, what did you think about Islay single malt when you first began exploring whisky?

Dr. Bill: The third whisky I ever tried was Lagavulin 12 Years Old, and I can safely say that if that had been the first whisky I’d tried, I would not be here today. I would have become a research scientist or something. I do love my Islay malts now, but that first taste was truly shocking. It wasn’t bad, just shocking. I’d never had something so filthy tasting.

Drinkhacker: What is it like managing such divergent brands and whisky profiles. You’ve said you take “one head off and put on another,” but how does that work in practice?

Dr. Bill: I’m somebody who gets bored easily. I mix and match things. I’m a true creative in that I’m not very organized. In terms of tasting, I do typically try to separate days for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. If you’re tasting Ardbeg, then that’s what you taste for the rest of the day basically.

Drinkhacker: That peat really does stick with you! How is wood management different with Ardbeg?

Dr. Bill: Ardbeg is much less influenced by the wood. Obviously, you need the wood to mellow it out, but guess what? Even after 10, 15, 20 years the key flavor component is the peat. So, I don’t use as many first-fill barrels. I use a higher level of refill. It’s only in the last five to ten years that I’ve actually started finishing Ardbeg. It doesn’t work so well. My core Ardbeg expressions, the mighty Uigeadail and Corryvreckan, those whiskies are wholly matured in sherry or virgin French oak and then blended together with classic ex-bourbon-aged Ardbeg.

Drinkhacker: We’ve heard that you call Ardbeg “badger juice.” What’s the story there?

Dr. Bill: I only use bourbon barrels twice for Glenmorangie so there’s still a very good life in them. Once it’s been used twice, they go to the “land of the badger juice” as we call it. Ardbeg is an anagram for the word badger, so we call Ardbeg “badger juice” in our company. Before I die, retire, or get fired I’m determined to have an expression called “Badger Juice.” I had one a few years ago, but the CEO at that time wouldn’t let me use it.

Drinkhacker: The marketing folks would have probably had a hard time with that one. What is your favorite expression in the “badger juice” line up?

Dr. Bill: Uigeadail is very personal to me because it was my first creation for the Ardbeg brand when I became the master distiller. My all-time favorite Ardbeg expression is the 1990 Airigh Nam Beist, which the brand team keep asking me to recreate. If they want me to do it exactly as it was, that won’t be easy. I don’t exactly have more single malt distilled in the 1990s just laying around.

Drinkhacker: Glenmorangie X is a new single malt you designed with cocktailing in mind. Do you make any cocktails with Ardbeg?

Dr. Bill: Oh yes. Ardbeg 10 makes a great whisky sour. My boss and I always judge the quality of a bar by the quality of the Ardbeg whisky sour they make. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The other one I quite like is a Bloody Mary made with Ardbeg. I was with the Moet Hennessy team at Keen’s Chophouse in Manhattan, and we all ordered it. Everyone else at the restaurant thought we were crazy, but they ended up drinking them, too.

Drinkhacker: With releases like Fermutation and Ardcore, Ardbeg limited editions have become quite innovative, especially for Islay whiskies. From a marketing standpoint, however, it will be hard to top Galileo, even if the whisky itself wasn’t particularly novel. Mind giving us the backstory on Ardbeg’s “space whisky” and where it stands today?

Dr. Bill: The space experiment was completely serendipitous. The guys at NanoRacks, a company that carries out space-based research on the International Space Station, are apparently huge Ardbeg fans. They thought it would be fun to do something with their favorite brand. So, they phoned the company out of the blue one day. They said: “Dr. Bill, how would you like to send something up to the International Space Station?” And I said: “Have you got room for my boss?”

They gave me an idea of the scale of things, and then I had 24 hours to design an experiment. So, I got some Ardbeg new make spirit, I got in my car, and I drove to a cooperage that supplies barrels for us. I got them to scrape shavings from the inside of a barrel. It was just a tiny scale experiment to see how the new make interacted with the wood. So, we packaged that up and sent it to Houston who then sent it to Kazakhstan to go on the rocket.

I didn’t have proper controls for the experiment, but it was a bit of fun. My then boss asked me to write a scientific paper on it that was as much fun as anything else. The way we would have done it properly would have been to actually send a full barrel up into space. It’s not impossible that we could do that. I’ve been in long term discussions with NanoRacks. The challenge is that the first time around they charged us nothing, but if we do it again, we have to pay for it. As you can imagine, the cost of sending something up to the ISS is a bit more expensive than a first-class ticket from New York to Tokyo. The idea isn’t dead and buried. We still might do something.

Drinkhacker: Well, Drinkhacker looks forward to tasting Galileo Version 2.0, should it ever see the light of day.

Dr. Bill: Me too!

Stay tuned for the third and final installment in our interview series with Dr. Bill where we discuss, among other topics, his run-ins with the Scotch Whisky Association, his thoughts on American single malt, and his new, state-of-the-art distillery, The Lighthouse. 

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