At a packed London venue in early November, Dr. Bill Lumsden, head of distilling and whisky creation for Scottish single malt distillery Glenmorangie, looked out at the crowded room full of revelers and soaked up the vibes. “We’re all about the ‘C’ word!” he shouted. Cue equal parts groans and laughter from the attendees. “No, not that one, I mean ‘consistency!’” More laughter and groaning, although exactly which other “C” word he was referring to cannot be confirmed.
This London event was a celebration of the new “It’s Kind of Delicious and Wonderful” ad campaign for the brand, a collaboration with photographer Miles Aldridge. But really it was a chance for this famously loquacious and often unfiltered whisky mad scientist to provide some of his trademark banter in front of a sympathetic and slightly tipsy audience. The fact of the matter is that Glenmorangie is consistently delicious and wonderful, and that is due in large part to Lumsden’s penchant for boundary pushing and experimentation.
Earlier that day, I had a chance to talk to him in a much quieter (and sober) hotel conference room, and as usual he was one of the most interesting figures in the scotch whisky industry. I’m not going to call him the Willy Wonka of whisky, because way too many writers have beat me to that analogy. So how about this instead—he’s a tousled Victor Frankenstein giving life to single malts that become more powerful than their creator… although this whisky isn’t assembled from body parts and doesn’t run amok and destroy villages. I guess that’s why the overused Wonka analogy just works better.
“My philosophy about whisky creation hasn’t changed from the day I joined the company,” said Lumsden. “What has changed is the acceptance of what I do… Part of the challenge I have is to try and work within the rules, but do something a little bit different. I never just do things for the sake of doing it. At the end of the day, can I produce a product that’s going to be good?” Then he dropped in another ambiguous letter word. “Will I be able to still add the D into it? That has to be the driver.” (The “D,” stands for “delicious,” by the way.)
To that end, the most recent experiment that Lumsden brought to life is called Tale of the Forest. Actually, he came up with this idea years ago because the whisky has been aging in barrels for at least a decade, but this single malt made from barley kilned with wild botanicals was released this fall. That concept might sound more like gin than whisky, but this is still single malt as defined by the Scotch Whisky Association’s rules and regulations—as Lumsden noted, ultimately he has to work within those guidelines. Some other examples of his unique take on the category include Allta, a 12-year-old whisky made with wild yeast instead of the standard strain widely used by the industry, the Palo Cortado single malt finished in this uncommon type of sherry cask, Spios which is aged in rye whiskey barrels instead of the usual bourbon, and Tusail which is made from a variety of floor malted barley that hasn’t been used much over the last 50 years.
Historically, the aspect of whisky making that Lumsden has had the most success in tinkering with is maturation and finishing—for example, using different species of oak as well as barrel types (the core lineup of barrel-finished single malts is evidence of this). But the area that is currently most exciting to him is what he calls primary production, which is the focus at the relatively new experimental distillery located next to the main distillery called the Lighthouse. “That can be anything from the barley to the water to the mashing, the fermentation, the distillation regime,” he said. “The Lighthouse will finally allow me to explore that a little bit more.” But he said that his personal whisky experimentation fetish is fermentation. “In our industry it’s been treated simply as a commodity—you add yeast in one end and you get alcohol out the other.” He wants to continue to explore the possibilities beyond that, so it sounds like there could be some more whiskies on the way along the lines of the previously mentioned Allta.
The Lighthouse is a tall, stark, modern box of a building filled with whisky secrets just waiting to be revealed. Ditto for the warehouse onsite, which surely has a barrel or two of something none of us have ever tried before. Lumsden said that the idea behind the Lighthouse was to allow him to try things that he couldn’t in the main distillery because of production schedule or equipment. “Some of the things that I make there, it’s highly likely that we wouldn’t be able to call them scotch whisky,” he said. “But the fact that it has been built on site at Glenmorangie also means that if we choose to do so [and it meets the SWA guidelines], we can label the products as Glenmorangie single malt scotch whisky.”
Despite all of this experimentation (or perhaps because of it), Glenmorangie has undergone a major rebranding that is meant to appeal to a broader audience. One look at the website’s flashy colors and design—not to mention the new bottle labels rolling out—will give you an idea of this thematic shift. To that end, Glenmorangie X was released last year, a non-age-statement single malt designed to be used in cocktails. Part of the reason for this new expression was the perception that it is “sacrilegious,” as global marketing & business development director Caspar Macrae put it, to use single malt whisky in a drink. “With X, we deliberately wanted to create a product which removes that slight fear or inhibition about using a single malt in cocktails,” he said. “Because Bill and I both love our whisky neat, but we adore a great cocktail as well.”
So yeah, there’s a whisky for everyone from Glenmorangie—the Original 10-year-old expression, it should be noted, is as good a single malt for seasoned pros or beginners as you will find anywhere. And for Lumsden, despite the meticulous science that defines his job, it kind of all comes down to the feels. “I think very metaphorically, and I view my whiskies in terms of particular flavors or colors or textures,” he said. “I have great joy when I drink whisky, and sometimes I’m in a sad moment as well. It’s very reflective, but I think it’s important to weave that into your product. It’s something personal and emotional.”
Here are five of the most interesting Glenmorangie whiskies that you can try for yourself now.
For this single malt, the barley was kilned, or dried out after malting, using woodland botanicals to infuse it with flavor (as opposed to a smoky scotch which uses peat). These include juniper berries, birch bark, heather flowers and, yes, a little bit of peat in the mix as well. The result is a bright and floral whisky that is truly unlike any that you’ve sipped before, and it works fantastically in cocktails as well.
This precursor to Tale of the Forest was this collaborative effort with famed pastry chef Dominique Ansel. The inspiration was a pineapple upside down cake that Lumsden’s daughter made for him, and he tried to capture those flavors by finishing the whisky in Tokaji wine casks. Ansel then came up with a few “caketails” that were meant to be paired with the whisky. Those sweets are long gone, but the whisky is still readily available.
This is a limited-edition whisky that is part of the Glenmorangie Private Edition series. Allta means “wild” in Gaelic, and that refers to the fact that wild yeast that was discovered on the barley growing near the distillery was used to ferment the mash, as opposed to the standard yeast that most distilleries use in Scotland. Yeast has a huge impact on a whisky’s flavor, and in this case the result is a biscuity, fruity, spicy palate that sips nicely at a higher 51.2 percent ABV.
This is a whisky from Glenmorangie that can be polarizing, because the flavor is just too unique to not have a strong feeling about. The inspiration behind Signet is coffee, and the palate really does bring that to mind. The whisky is made from chocolate malted barley, meaning it’s roasted to achieve a certain flavor profile that explodes with espresso, dark chocolate, toast and spicy notes. This bottle is sort of reminiscent of newer American single malts, although it’s still scotch whisky through and through.
The Grand Vintage series of whiskies from Glenmorangie are high-priced and unique single malts, and this latest expression has a character all its own. The 1998 vintage is the only one to be aged entirely in new charred oak barrels in the same way that bourbon is matured, as opposed to the ex-bourbon and other used barrels that are typically used to age scotch. At 23 years old, this whisky has aromas of apple and plum and notes of orange, chocolate and baking spice on the palate.