It’s all about the barrels, says Glenmorangie Distillery’s Bill Lumsden
Few people understand whisky as well as Bill Lumsden does. The head of distilling and whisky creation at Glenmorangie Distillery Co. Ltd, the UK-based maker of single malt whiskies, where he has worked for 23 years. In that time, he has taken Glenmorangie, which used to be a back-of-the-bar whisky, and turned it into a staple in every connoisseur’s cabinet. Lumsden, who has a PhD in microbial physiology and fermentation science, is regarded as the mad scientist in the Scotch whisky industry. His two children are following suit; his son, 25, is a distillery manager with Diageo Plc and his daughter, 21, is studying brewing and distilling.
For someone in an industry where one has to sometimes wait for decades before he can taste the final product, Lumsden, 57, is extremely impatient. “It is one reason I can’t understand cricket at all,” says the Scotsman, who used to play squash in his younger days.
In 2011, he sent a small sample of unmatured whisky from the Ardbeg distillery (part of Glenmorangie Distillery), with shavings of oak barrels, to the International Space Station. A sample was kept in the distillery to enable a comparison. When the whisky came back from space four years later, it had developed some “unique flavours,” says Lumsden. He speaks slowly, deliberately, as if to emphasize every word he utters. “We haven’t yet been able to determine the chemical compounds but the next target is to send a full barrel into space although I will have to pay for it from my pocket,” he says, smiling.
Lumsden was in Delhi last month and spoke about the art of whisky making, new frontiers and myths around whisky, in an interview. Edited excerpts:
What is the single most important thing in the making of whisky?
In terms of the actual product, the barrel and maturation process are the most important in determining the character of the whisky. Unless you use good-quality barrels, you won’t make good whisky. I sit on the judging panel of several spirits competitions, including the International Wine and Spirit Competition, so I taste a lot of whiskies outside my portfolio, and I am often dismayed to find whiskies which have the potential but are not matured in good-quality barrels.
What makes Scotch different? Which other global whisky is the closest to Scotch?
I would answer the second question first. It is Japanese whisky. Japan has done a great job in emulating the style of whisky we produce in Scotland. My favourite Japanese whisky is the Yoichi single malt, which is distilled in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. It is damp and cold there just like it is in Scotland.
The Taiwanese whisky Kavalan is also very good but is very young and they can’t age it properly because of the warm climate there, their evaporative losses are gigantic.
There are several things that make Scotch unique but the most important thing is the climate in Scotland, which allows whisky to mature slowly. Slow maturation develops a lot of fragrance and complexity, which is the secret of Scotch whisky.
What are some of the cardinal rules of whisky drinking ?
We are experimenting a lot with whisky today. In fact, if you had done this in Scotland 20 years ago, they would have probably shot you.
If you’re drinking a very old whisky, aged 20 years and above, drink it neat. Don’t add water or ice because it will collapse the blended complex that holds together the flavours and accentuate the bitterness of the wood. I like Scotch on the rocks but it should be large ice cubes that melt very slowly. So, again, crushed ice is not a good idea for whisky. Apart from that, try anything.
Are there enough oak and sherry barrels in the world to meet the growing demand of the whisky industry?
In terms of sherry casks, it is a good question because a lot of companies in Scotland are facing problems in finding good-quality sherry casks, but I have had the same supplier for many, many years, so I don’t see a problem for us. But they are becoming expensive. In terms of the oak, of all the oak that is felled in the US, less than 10% goes into barrel-making. So in a nutshell, I don’t envisage a shortage of oak in my lifetime at least.
How do you introduce someone to the world of whisky?
Choose the right whisky to start, I’d say. Choose one that is more accessible with your taste. Try it neat, then try it on the rocks and then with some water and decide what works for you the best.
How do you drink your whisky?
There is no one answer to it. I drink it on the rocks, sometimes with soda, and this may horrify the puritans, but I often enjoy drinking Glenmorangie Original with two ice cubes, some ginger ale and a squeeze of lime. So it all depends on the place I am in and the company I have.
Have you ever tried Indian whiskies? What are your views?
I have been coming to India for once every two-three years now for over a decade and the first thing that surprised me was the amount of passion that Indians have for whisky. I came here expecting the first time that maybe people do not like whisky but people already loved whisky and understood whisky.
I have tasted both Amrut and Paul John blind in competition and I must say that Amrut has the potential. If I was the distiller, I would do things a little differently. I would change the wood policy; it could do with some better quality wood. I would use ex-Bourbon barrel.
But compared with whisky from, say, Australia which still is very young and will need some improvement, Indian whiskies like Amrut are better. But having said that, whiskies like Amrut can still improve a lot.
Great Britain, the US, Japan and now Australia. Which is the next stop for whisky?
I think it would be India. It is a country with a tradition of drinking whisky or whatever it is that they call whisky because technically if it is made from molasses, it is rum. But there are some very good whiskies in India. Take Amrut, Paul John or Rampur Indian Single Malt, for example. As a country that loves and understands whisky, I would expect more quality distillers to come up in India. Maybe when I retire, someone will take me up as a consultant to start a distillery here.