The man who challenges the SWA – dinner with Dr Bill Lumsden

[A guest post from Moscow-based whisky fan Anton Karpov, a regular visitor to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s London rooms]

It is not always easy to have an interesting interview with a whisky brand ambassador. Quite often (but far from always) these guys are not much more than trained marketeers, equipped with a broad range of fact sheets and prepared tales, but with no deep insight into whisky industry. A master distiller, on the other hand, is a whole different story. And if you take a master distiller who puts real science behind whisky making, you’ll get a lot of fun for whisky enthusiasts.

So here we are today with Dr. Bill Lumsden, the man behind creations from Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. We relaxed in the cozy atmosphere of the Whisky Rooms private club in the heart of Moscow city. The chef did a good turn trying to match a three-course meal with a line-up of Glenmorangie Original, Glenmorangie Milsean and Glenmorangie Signet. Being whisky enthusiasts of Moscow, we enjoyed the rare chance to speak with Dr. Lumsden about all things whisky.

You are well known for putting real science behind whisky making. Which for us means you are experimenting a lot. If there was no SWA (The Scotch Whisky Association – the organisation which defines and controls standards for making scotch whisky) rules and boundaries, how far would you go?

There are a few things I would strongly consider. One of them is kilning a barley with alternative heat sources, such as adding herbs and botanicals – I believe this could give a lot of interesting results. The other thing is type of casks being used. At Glenmorangie we use a lot of different casks: port, Madeira, Sauternes, Burgundy, from all over. Because of this, SWA regulations were tightened up in terms of what we could and could not do with finishing. So we have to work with them. I am currently gathering evidence to help justify the Glenmorangie products which I may or may not release over the next 10 years or so. For example, the SWA now strictly requires that casks have to be made of oak and nothing else. I’m proud to say this was done partially because of me. Somehow they found out about my non-oak experiments and invited me to their office to discuss them. I experiment with barley as well. Glenmorangie Signet, for example, uses some heavily roasted chocolate malt. Before I released it, the SWA asked to me to show my exact recipe to justify Signet as the scotch whisky. Yet still I do not think I could be considered a violator of SWA rules, because my Glenmorangie is aged in Scotland in oak casks for at least 10 years, fully compliant with the SWA, and only after that I do my experiments with whisky.

Another interesting experiment I had was with the first release of Ardbeg Corryvreckan. The barrels I used were experimental: they were treated with infrared radiation to help the wood to open faster. These days it might be a challenge for the SWA to accept such a method. Yet, a three-year-old whisky still tasted like a 10 year old!

There is a chance that the SWA rules might be changed in the future, but we have to be careful not to loosen them too much. There are some whisky companies in Scotland which would likely do strange and gimmicky things just to make another sale. So even if the law is quite tight, it is good because it protects the integrity of the name of Scotch Whisky.

Bill Lumsden

Recently you got a sample of Ardbeg new make spirit back from space. Was the project mostly driven by marketing or is there a real science behind that experiment?

It is fairly clear that it was a very big marketing spin, but marketing did not drive the project at all. The reason it happened is a company in Houston called NanoRacks. They were very interested to see how fruit and vegetables develop in space. For example, they germinated roses in space and they did not smell the same.  And they are great fans of Ardbeg whisky. So they called up Glenmorangie and got through to me. Being a scientist, I found their proposal very interesting, and of course when our marketing guys got onto it they became very keen. But as a scientist, I had only one day to plan the experiment – I did very best I could. Still, when my CEO approached me to ensure that we ‘would definitely have some groundbreaking results’, I said, ‘if it will be, then yes, but if it won’t, then no’. I would not do anything to compromise my scientific credibility. As it turned out, there was a result, there was a difference. So everyone was happy. But I would love to design a proper experiment, such as sending a full barrel up into space, and having another barrel on Earth and controlling the temperature, so everything would be the same except for the gravity. Hopefully the door is a slightly opened now for me, but of course it hugely depends on NASA – it is not easy to send a cask of spirit into orbit! But the experiment we’ve done so far was as honest and as realistic as I could possibly make it. By the way, astronauts did not try the spirit, as alcohol is strictly forbidden in space. They probably did not know about existence of my samples at all, as it was kept secret.

We are tasting a new creation of yours, Glenmorangie Milsean. It is great whisky, but unfortunately it is produced in limited volume. We know that allocation for Russia is only 570 bottles…

Yes, and there were only a few thousand nine-liter cases produced in total. As it is a Private Edition, I always want it to be at least 46% ABV and non-chill filtered because this is something which we really try to make for whisky connoisseurs. But I can tell you a little secret, for most of my projects I always have two or three barrels kept just to see what will happen, so there is a bit more left there. The main markets for the Private Edition releases are our strategic regions, such as the US, UK, Nordics, Germany, France, Japan, Taiwan and Russia – this is third ‘happening’ here in Russia: previously you had Companta and Tusail, and now you have Milsean. Our biggest market is the USA – they are very greedy and usually ask us if they can have 100% of the Private Edition allocation…

Bill Lumsden

Glenmorangie is always ahead of many others in terms of trend setting. You revived Ardbeg in 1997 to give a new shine to heavily peated whiskies, and nowadays even Macallan has a peated edition (Macallan Rare Cask Black for travel retail). You were one of the first companies to introduce modern NAS bottlings (with Uigeadail) as well. It is clear that you are the trend setter in many ways. What do you think the next trends will be?

Well, first of all, the honest NAS reason is very clear and simple: there is not enough cask stock to satisfy demands. And we were among the first to face that problem. When we re-launched the Ardbeg distillery, we had some stock from the 60s and some stock from the 70s – in 1981 the distillery was suspended and during the 1989 they produced only a very tiny amount of whisky. So when I started to make new whisky, I wanted to give myself flexibility in terms of what casks I could use. I also wanted to create a new flavour for Ardbeg, so the first batch of Uigeadail had stock from the 70s as well as stock from the 90s.  And I was very pleased to see that almost nobody ever asks me about the age of Uigeadail, as they appreciate the taste. I think this is what set the trend.

Answering your question, there are a huge variety of areas I focus on: barley, malting, mashing, fermentation and particularly distillation. I know that other companies are working on the same things as well, but you need to do something radically different – I hope to see something happening within the next few years. But what worries me is that there are some companies in the industry who bottle something just… to bottle it. I am naming no names here [note: Dr. Lumsden definitely did not mention one or two distilleries here…], but some of the bottlings we’ve seen in recent years have been very silly. I was out in San Francisco four years ago – I was doing some huge event there. Someone approached to me and gave me some whisky to try. I do not remember which distillery it was [note: Dr. Lumsden didn’t mention a name here either], but the taste was horrid. And I was told there were 27 customers who returned their purchased bottles of this stuff, so they gave it to me to try to find out what was wrong. And I realised it was all due to butyric acid, caused by the bacteria which grows in the mash tank if you do not clean it. So it was all about hygiene in the distillery! I was devastated when I called the distillery and I was told it was ‘part of the character of the whisky’. It was probably commercially driven.

There was a tight relationship between the Glenmorangie and SMWS (The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, an independent bottler previously owned by Glenmorangie and sold in 2015) for the last 11 years. Could you please tell us more about it in terms of cask management?

The SMWS was acquired by Glenmorangie in 2004. I admit that this step was probably not welcomed by a lot of SMWS members who did not want the Society to be part of a big corporation. But it gave the Society access to the huge stocks of whisky which I use for blending: Mortlach, Benrinnes, Clynelish, some fabulous Macallan in bourbon barrels, Highland Park and Laphroaig. I personally cherry picked a lot of casks to give to the Society, as I wanted to give them as broad range of different styles as possible. Now we’ve sold the SMWS, but the good news is that there is still part of our contract with them to supply them with six barrels of Glenmorangie and six barrels of Ardbeg each year. We’ll probably do four of those as new spirit and two already matured, although we have not decided yet. So the SMWS are still the only people who get Glenmorangie and Ardbeg these days.

You mentioned your experiments with early Ardbeg Corryvreckan where you tried to speed up the wood development. Is there a way to do an artificial maturation of Scotch whisky to achieve the same results but within smaller time frame?

My honest scientific answer is no. There will always be a difference because of oxidation. It is especially important for Scotch whisky, which is matured in Scotland in cold damp climate. Without it you would not get the gentle floral and herbal notes which give Glenmorangie its classic character. Only long slow maturation in a cold damp warehouse could do that. This is a notable difference between Scotch whisky and bourbon for example. I love bourbon – there are some great bourbons – but they are all about driving flavour out of the wood, and you can feel the difference.

Bill Lumsden

Last year Ardbeg celebrated its 200th anniversary, and we all saw the picture of you with Prince Charles visiting Ardbeg. Did you convince the Duke of Rothesay to change his favourite distillery?

The story behind it, was that in order to celebrate such great a great moment as our 200th anniversary – which accidentally we have the same year as Laphroaig – myself, our marketing director and former CEO sat down one day to discuss what we would do. And we thought it would be a great fun to have Prince Charles visit Ardbeg, because he is well known as a Laphroaig fan. Actually, it was not done only for fun, we took it seriously and gave Prince Charles a bottle of Ardbeg Kildalton, which we launched to support The Kildalton Project – all the money from selling those bottles goes to one of Prince Charles’ charities and because of this, Prince Charles also visited the Glenmorangie distillery two years ago. Still, I need to admit that our friends at Laphroaig were probably very angry at us, because the Prince came to Ardbeg first. He continued his Islay visit with Laphroaig, but we were the first and we got all attention of the press.  

Let us know you a bit more from your personal side. What are your hobbies and passions besides whisky?

I have many hobbies and interests. First of all, I am a petrol head. I love cars. I like driving on and off road. The director of the only Lamborghini dealer in Scotland is a good friend of mine, so I have a chance to do track days with them from time to time, even though I do not own a Lamborghini. I try to keep myself in shape as well, so I am a keen walker. I also love music: my favourites are jazz, bossa nova and latin-american. I like to cook: I recently bought a new cooker for my home and I was so passionate about it, that I ended up spending £30,000 to redesign my whole kitchen. And probably my most passionate hobby is wine: I am a wine collector. I also must admit that I am complete shopaholic: I’ve got way more clothes than my wife has, I love fashion. You see, there are a lot of things in my life besides whisky.

Dr. Bill Lumsden spent few great days in Moscow. We thank him for having time for us in his tight schedule to sit down and do an interview.