The Willy Wonka of Whisky: An Interview with Dr. Bill Lumsden (Part 3)

The Willy Wonka of Whisky: An Interview with Dr. Bill Lumsden (Part 3)

As you can probably tell from this three-part series, we had a lot to discuss with Dr. Bill during our sit down over the summer, and he was incredibly generous with his time. Unlike American distilleries, Scotch whisky has fewer “master distiller” types like Dr. Bill, figures that are both the creative and technical experts but also the media face of their brands. It seems like a lot to ask of a person, which is probably why we’re seeing less and less of them these days. After our interview, Dr. Bill gave the keynote address at the Financial Times Weekend Festival in Washington, D.C. discussing the future of whisky, and from there he leapfrogged home for a media appearance in Dubai to promote a Signet-scented cologne (not kidding). It was not a schedule I’d envy. But for all his more pressing engagements, he took a significant amount of time to answer candidly all of our burning questions, and for that we are very grateful.

We’ve already explored his work with Glenmorangie in Part 1 and Ardbeg in Part 2, so what follows is everything left on the cutting room floor, from his newest creative endeavor, The Lighthouse, to a memorable run-in with the Scotch Whisky Association, his thoughts on other world whiskies, and a few other noteworthy odds and ends from our truly memorable conversation. Enjoy!

This interview has been lightly edited for readability.

Drinkhacker: Before we get to your new distillery, let’s talk a bit about the old. You were only distillery manager at Glenmorangie for four years before taking the helm as master distiller. Talk about your first encounters with the distillery’s famous “giraffe” stills and where the cask finishing program stood in those early days.

Dr. Bill: The stills were a size and shape that I hadn’t seen before, but of course being a whisky geek I knew all about it. It was very exciting. One of the first things I did was start playing around a little bit. I didn’t want to change things too much. But I wanted to see if the hype was true. And of course, it is. It gives the delicacy of the spirit.

As for the wood program, when I first started there was Port Wood Finish, Sherry Cask, and one or two other curios, but just one or two casks here and there, including a barrique from Chateau Mouton Rothschild, in fact. When I moved into the master distiller role, that was it, the gloves were off. I tried all sorts of different things including different wood types which actually is illegal in Scotch whisky. It must be oak.

Drinkhacker: You’ve had a few disagreements with the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) over the years for that kind of experimentation. Any particulars you’d like to share?

Dr. Bill: The first cask that got me in trouble was the Brazilian cherry cask. I don’t know how they found out, but I got a letter from the SWA Director of Legal Affairs that said essentially: “Dear Bill, as you can see we have spies everywhere. Would you like to come in and speak to us?” We probably could have won that case, but we realized that going into battle against your industry’s governing body was probably not a good idea. They rewrote the regulations after that to specify oak and only oak. So, if I’m remembered for nothing else, it should be that. The epitaph to that story is that the whisky was rubbish. It tasted like a combination of marzipan and furniture polish.

Drinkhacker: They can’t all be winners! How many experiments do you typically have in work at any given time?

Dr. Bill: At any one time, I will have between 30 and 40 different experiments going on. A lot of these are driven by maturation, of course. The biggest challenge in my job now is to keep up with the insatiable demand for innovation and new products. And because the regulations are so strict, it’s difficult to innovate. But we’ve done some pretty funky things.

Drinkhacker: You are held up in the industry as someone who has pioneered innovation in whisky while also maintaining the heritage of a legacy brand. How do you balance that? Is the industry innovating too much, in your opinion?

Dr. Bill: I had the real pleasure of meeting the former owner of the company, David Macdonald, whose family owned the brand for 100 years. He said to me: “Never forget Bill, I’m watching you, and I’m making sure you’re keeping the legacy going.” I told him I would never mess with the house character. I have tweaked it a little bit. I’d like to think I’ve made it a little better.

Innovation is fine, but at the end of the day does it actually taste good? That’s always been my mantra. I’ve tasted many things where that isn’t the case. It’s innovation for innovation’s sake. The main reason the former managing director of the company introduced the Port Wood Finish was to increase Glenmorangie’s visibility on the shelf. Nowadays, every brand has loads and loads of that. Consumers these days really love these things for a variety of reasons. They’re collectible, they’re likely to go up in value. I’m in favor of that, but the vast majority of my work on a daily basis is to ensure the ongoing quality and consistency of the core range.

Drinkhacker: Speaking of innovation, how do you feel about rapid maturation technologies?  

Dr. Bill: It would be difficult for us to use the technology in Scotland because of the regulations, but at the end of the day we wouldn’t want to do it, anyway. Rapid maturation will give you lots of wood extractives, but you will not get the more subtle nuances of oxidative aging. That’s what makes a whisky.

Drinkhacker: The merits of oxidative aging come up often when comparing single malt Scotch to single malts made in warmer climates like the United States and Asia. What’s your take on the state of these world whiskies?

Dr. Bill: In my humble opinion, a lot of the single malts in the United States have some way to go to match the quality in Scotland. It’s partly because they’re being sold at a young age, and they’re being aged in the same way as bourbon with virgin oak and heated warehouses. Westland is certainly one of the exceptions and they make some nice stuff. And there’s one or two others. Australia has quite a few single malts. Lark is my favorite. Kavalan is good but too over-oaked for my taste. Certainly, some of the Japanese whiskies are every bit as good as Scotch if I’m honest about it.

Drinkhacker: Let’s finally shift gears and talk a bit about your new experimental distillery, The Lighthouse. How did that come about?

Dr. Bill: I went to my former CEO about six years ago. He liked me, whereas previous CEOs didn’t especially care for me. They found me difficult. I told him I was bored and that I could do this with my eyes shut. I told him I needed another challenge. I didn’t really, but I was just saying that. And he said tell me more. I said if you give me 50 million pounds, I will build you the perfect malt whisky distillery. He said how about I give you five million pounds?

I went away and thought about it. I was struggling to do experimental trials at the [Glenmorangie] distillery because the production demand was so high. Plus, the equipment wasn’t really allowing me to experiment. Maturation is a different kettle of fish, but I was already very comfortable with everything I was doing there. It was the primary production side of things – the malting, the mashing, the fermentation, the distillation.

So, I came up with an idea for an experimental distillery, and my vision was to have it totally secret, and nobody apart from me and one operator would know about it. It was hijacked by Moët Hennessy, which I totally understand. They put up the money, after all. But they wanted to make it all shiny and beautiful. The original idea was a corrugated iron shed, my version of a Skunk Works. That pushed the budget up considerably. We overspent massively.

Drinkhacker: How is it different from your other distilleries?

Dr. Bill: In The Lighthouse, I’ve got bells and whistles, and I can really change how the stills operate. I’ve got a water-cooling jacket which will metaphorically double the height of the stills. I’ve got a purifier, like at Ardbeg, and a split condenser (one stainless steel and one copper condenser) which thus far hasn’t done what I wanted it to do to give me a very meaty, sulphury spirit. But I’m working on that.

It’s still going through the commissioning stage. I’ve been getting a feel for it and working in it a bit myself. It’s already producing some funky things. I’m adding two more fermenting vessels because it’s already too small in scale. Eventually, I want six fermenters to increase the number of experiments.

Drinkhacker: It sounds like there’s a lot more to come from The Lighthouse. In addition to investing in the future of your single malt whisky, Moët Hennessy has also been pursuing some cutting-edge sustainability initiatives. Can you tell us a little about some of those?

Dr. Bill: Every member of the Scotch whisky industry is deadly serious about sustainability. It’s probably our biggest focus these days. We fitted an anaerobic digestion plant [at Glenmorangie], which is a big ugly monster of a thing, but it processes our waste so that the only thing we’re putting back into the sea is water. That was our first step. We’re looking at ways of reducing the carbon footprint of the barley crop. We are working as an industry to reinstate moss lands and peat mosses. The amount of peat that the Scotch whisky industry takes is less than 1% of the total. Most of it goes to gardening and compost and things like that. Nevertheless, we know that’s important. The holy grail for the industry, and we’re certainly getting closer to it, is to burn all our byproducts to generate energy. I think in two- or three-year’s time we’ll be almost there with that.

Drinkhacker: It’s good to see the industry is planning more for the future. Speaking of future generations, your son, Daniel, is the distillery manager at Talisker and your daughter, Alexandra, is currently working as a blender at Ian Macleod Distillers. What’s it like having your children following in your footsteps?

Dr. Bill: It really makes me so proud. The fact that they are working in the same industry means that they do occasionally speak to me, unlike their Mom.

Drinkhacker: You’ve been quoted as saying that your best whisky is yet to come. You’ve given the world a lot of great whiskies. Still think that’s true?

Dr. Bill: I’m a difficult person. I’m never satisfied. I think it has helped me in my career because if you don’t have that thought process, you might not achieve what you could. So, I still think my finest moment is to come. I just hope I don’t get fired before it happens. And that’s a real distinct possibility.

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