Above: Bill Lumsden.

An Afternoon with a Whisky Legend:
Bill Lumsden & Glenmorangie.

Glenmorangie is one of the most famous names in Single Malt Scotch Whisky today and the man behind the brand is the ubiquitous Dr Bill Lumsden.

Since joining the company as distillery manager in 1995, Lumsden's job description (and time abroad) have expanded considerably after he took on the role as Head of Distilling and Whisky Creation in 1998, in addition to this, Lumsden travels the world as a Glenmorangie Ambassador. 
"It used to be that the ambassador would be a dedicated ambassador with no real ties to production, but as whisky drinkers and audiences become more sophisticated and knowledgeable, they want to speak to the people who actually make the whisky. So for most of the master distillers, a key part of their role now is to travel out into the market, to speak to the people and conduct whisky tastings," explains Lumsden.

Given our preoccupation with whisky at Nicks Wine Merchants, it's no surprise that when we were given the opportunity, we jumped at the chance to meet Lumsden. Our resident whisky enthusiast, Ryan Marshman, flew up to Sydney with a select group of press, retailers, bar managers and whisky lovers to talk all things Scotch and taste the latest Glenmorangie releases. (See below).

Lumsden's enthusiasm is infectious, but at the same time, he's a straight shooting fellow who's not afraid to speak his mind, even if it means not towing the corporate line. In fact, his ongoing presence at Glenmorangie (presently owned by Moet Hennessey) has surprised some in the industry who thought his independent temper might have sabotaged his position. When we met him, it was clear he was looking forward to returning to Scotland where Glenmorangie is presently increasing production from 4 million litres to 6 million litres through expansion of its existing facilities. Even when moving to or building new premises might make more economic sense, they consider the existing site as significant in maintaining the brand's integrity, not to mention preserving the aesthetics of Glenmorangie's still room, said to be one of the finest in Scotland. The existing 8 stills (4 wash, 4 spirit) will be expanded to 12 stills (6 wash, 6 spirit). When Lumsden returns in April, "firing up" the remodelled distillery will be one of his first jobs. "We'll know if the new stills are producing the same quality spirit within a week!" says Lumsden.

In between tasting a selection of whiskies, (including the newest additions to the Glenmorangie family - the extra-matured Lasanta, Quinta Ruban and Nectar D'Or - we didn't hesitate to fire several questions Lumsden's way, after all, it's not everyday one meets a distiller, let alone one of the masters of the craft from whisky's traditional heartland.

The tasting bench on the day.

We'd heard it said that oak barrels contributed up to 80% of flavour in whisky production. Just how essential was oak to his philosophy? This turned out to be one of Lumsden's key values - quite simply - oak was everything.  For some time now, Glenmorangie have been pioneering new research into the why and how of spirit maturation. Huge dollars are devoted to research and development to find the right wood source for casks. Other distilleries are now waking up to this and are becoming more conscientious about oak selection, but Lumsden is arguably at the forefront, and with the financial backing to get real results (barrels cost around 700 pounds each - around AU$1500 dollars.) Recently, he's been sourcing 90-150 year old oak from Ozark Mountains in Missouri, USA. These barrels have had a lengthened curing time from three months or kiln-style drying, to upto four full years' air seasoning. Toasting time has also changed from two minutes to thirty seconds to ensure that wood sugars in the new barrels are not burnt, imparting a bitter taste to the whisky. These barrels are first filled with new spirit and matured for three years at the Jack Daniel's Distillery, then emptied and shipped to Scotland whole to preserve their integrity, rather than being broken down which is the general practice. Currently under Lumsden's watchful eye, Bluegrass Cooperage, in Louisville, Kentucky are conducting experiments using infrared instead of traditional flame to toast barrels. It's said that the infrared burns at a lower temperature, and provides a more even toasting essential for the production of consistently high quality whisky.

Lumsden concedes that oak probably contributes around 60% to a whisky's flavour.  He makes an interesting distinction: First fill barrels tend to impart toffee, caramel and creme brulee characteristics, whereas second fill casks is where floral and citrus flavours emerge. He also insists that by the time the second fill is matured, the barrel is no longer suitable for Glenmoranige. By changing the ratio of first to second fill wood, a range of flavour profiles can be achieved. For example, Glenmorangie's Traditional 10 Year Old is a 50/50 blend of first and second fill casks. There are other variables: Low char new oak contributes 'sizzling' warmth & European oloroso sherry oak casks contribute buttery/vanilla notes.

 The distinctive 'swan neck' stills at Glenmorangie are some of the tallest in Scotland.

"There's about a four year turnaround from felling a tree to its being first filled" says Lumsden. The staves require around two to four years of open air seasoning. Kilns are never used as air seasoning tends to break down tannin more consistently and efficiently."Slow growth oak with 8-12 growth rings per inch is ideal. The grain is exceptionally tight, yet it's also more porous because of its peculiar molecular structure". This aids the infusion of oak derived flavours to the spirit. After the second fill, casks are sold to be used as planters, sometimes to be broken down and re coopered.

When he's not tracking through remote forests or touring the world's wine regions in search of the best wood, Lumsden prefers the barrels of Brown-Forman, the same used by Jack Daniels and Woodfords amongst other American whiskey producers. Bourbon Whisky is aged first in barrels prior to being shipped whole to Scotland. He finds their very light char desirable."However sometimes Brown Forman can't keep up with our demand in which case others are used, such as: Makers Mark, Wild Turkey and Jim Beam".

The other key ingredient in Scotch whisky production is of course barley, and we'd often discussed amongst ourselves, as is the case with wine from vintage to vintage, if the quality of barley differed significantly from year to year? Would this effect whisky flavour? Lumsden couldn't give a definite answer here, but considered it a very good question - in fact,  the subject was yet another avenue of research that he was pursuing.

Water is probably the second most contentious issue surrounding whisky production. Extensive research has been carried out into the impact on the water source on whisky flavour. At Glenmorangie, the waters used are sourced from Tarlowie Loch - they're 'hard' and have a very high mineral salt content and a very chalky mouthfeel. Water sources are jealously guarded in the industry - "Anyone who goes near Tarlowie Loch gets shot" says Lumsden jokingly, (but you can't help half believing him). Prior to the expansion of the distilling room, a study was conducted into the impact on the water levels of the Tarlowie Loch, Thankfully, the expanded production is sustainable.

Stills at Glenmorangie are some of the tallest in Scotland. The rationale is that only the finest, lightest spirits make it to the top - which prompted another question regarding the quality of base spirit: What are the sensory attributes one looks for in a colourless, freshly distilled spirit? Lumsden was concise, saying chiefly it's 'balance' and 'fruitiness'. Once he's got that, he's sure he can make a decent whisky. The style of the base spirit becomes less significant as barrel maturation progresses.

Amongst the unexpected flavours we'd come across tasting whisky - one which seems the most mysterious is the distinct 'salty tang' that's particularly evident in Campeltown whiskies like Springbank and Glen Scotia, and in the Highland Coastal, Clynelish. Where did this flavour emanate from? The common explanation has been that it's derived from the salty sea air around distilleries where maturation halls are close to the sea. It's well known that oak casks literally breath their environment, so a gaseous exchange and flavour uptake would seem logical. Lumsden remains unconvinced about this. Peat derived phenols probably have more to do with it, he believes. Recently, we had an opportunity to pose this same question to visiting independent bottler Alex Bruce, of Adelphi distillers."Clynelish replaced their traditional, cast iron spirit receiver with stainless steel some time ago, only to find that the saltiness  that's the trademark of the style had vanished. They quickly had a new cast iron version re built!" he says. The science remains uncertain on the point, but it's probably due to a combination of factors.

Maybe all the whisky was having an effect, but the audience seemed to be getting a bit restless. Too many questions! Fortunately, Lumsden is not only incredibly knowledgeable (he holds a PhD in biochemistry), he's also a consummate gentlemen. He's offered to respond with any further inquiries we might have via email. We'll keep you posted, or if you have any cryptic whisky questions, let us know. Until then, feel free to visit Nick's Wine Merchants store for a free tasting of the Glenmorangie range. Some tasting notes and lunch menu from the day follow...

The Whiskies...

Whiskies tasted included:     
Glenmorangie The Original 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (700ml)
Glenmorangie Extremely Rare 18 Year Old Single Malt (700ml)
Glenmorangie The Lasanta Single Malt Scotch Whisky (700ml)
Glenmorangie The Nectar D'or Single Malt Scotch Whisky (700ml)
Glenmorangie The Quinta Ruban Single Malt Scotch Whisky (700ml)

However, the two highlights of the day that had not been previously tasted were as follows:

Glenmorangie Astar Single Malt Scotch Whisky (700ml)
Tasting Notes: Straw colour with water like hue.  Superb nose of ripe pear, apple, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and toffee. The richly textured palate is dominated initially by intense ripe pear, which gives way to apple and cinnamon over vanilla. This whisky has very good grip and a creamy structure. Vanilla and toffee back palate, very long aftertaste reminiscent of apple crumble, subtle spearmint finale after 30 seconds. Excellent balance. A very flavoursome, appealing whisky that offers a level of intensity rarely seen at the price point.
Bottled at cask strength 57.1% a/v. Non chill-filtered.

Glenmorangie Signet Single Malt Scotch Whisky (700ml)
Tasting Notes: Deep orange brown colour with golden hue. Sweet and inviting nose of Mixed Peel, Chocolate, Coffee beans and Almond biscuit. The palate is thick, luscious and mouthfilling, almost creamy. Pronounced flavours of chocolate, coconut, orange, vanilla and hazelnut. The palate shows no sign of spirit heat, even without the addition of water. Outstanding balance. Exceptionally long, supple aftertaste of chocolate, vanilla, almond and hazelnut. Hints of orange emerge then fade. Drink with chocolate or dried fruit desserts, coffee or a cigar. A phenomenal, if unusual whisky.
Non chill filtered. 46% Alc./Vol.

The Food....served at Sofitel Wentworth, Sydney.

Tasmanian Salmon
Beetroot and salt cured, seeded mustard and dill dressing.
Served with Ardbeg Blasda Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Slow cooked free range young chicken, green pea puree, smoked bacon, preserved lemon.
Served with Glenmorangie Nectar D'or Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Cheese Platter to share,  in local and imported cheese with condiments.
Served with Ardbeg Uigeadail Single Malt Scotch Whisky            

The two Ardbegs worked particularly well with the selected dishes.
Domain Chandon Barrel Selection Chardonnay '06 & Domain Chandon Barrel Selection Shiraz '05 served throughout the meal.

               - March, 2009.