Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Labour of Love: a chat with Dr Bill Lumsden

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Last week, Dr Bill Lumsden made a little stop-over in Tokyo to introduce the eagerly-awaited 8th release in Glenmorangie’s award-winning Private Edition range, ‘Bacalta’, which was matured in ex-bourbon casks and then finished in bespoke ex-Madeira casks. Keen to pick up where we left off a year and a half ago (see here), we were thrilled Dr Lumsden managed to find time in his grueling schedule to sit down and chat about his latest baby… and other matters arising. We started by asking him about his relationship with the island of Madeira and its fortified wines.
It goes back a long way. It started off with the Glenmorangie Madeira Wood Finish (1995) where I was buying a range of casks from a number of suppliers. But, you know, to be honest, I was kind of suspicious about the pedigree of them. It was impossible to get the numbers I wanted with defined noble grape variety wines [Malvasia, Boal, Verdelho and Sercial (from sweetest to driest), ed.] I suspected that some of them had just chucked in a bucket of your Tinta Negra Mole, the indigenous one, and eventually I thought: I can’t continue with this – it’s not consistent. So I went out to the island of Madeira for the first time. This was around 1999. I’ve been three times now. As you know, it’s a popular holiday destination, particularly for older people in the U.K. It’s very warm all year round and it’s very lush and tropical. But the first time, I attempted to get into bed with John Cossart of Henriques & Henriques. Sadly, John is no longer with us. But it just wasn’t going to be feasible to do what we needed, not least because the wines hate wood. So I would be having very expensive new casks made, shipped out to Madeira, and John Cossart would have boiled up an ammonia solution to strip all the woodiness out so it was just a container, and I thought: I am not spending all that money on new casks to have them treated like that. I couldn’t help but think that that treatment wouldn’t be good for his wine or my whisky. So the whole thing just died a death, and that’s why I developed Nectar d’Or to replace that. But, you know, it kind of rankled with me a bit, but I’ll come back to that when we talk about Bacalta.

A little anedoctal tale – I mentioned the late John Cossart. He was a tricky gentleman, John – a very particular gentleman. When we were out there – for the two days I was with him – I was out there with our finance director and Willie Taylor from Speyside Cooperage, he took us to all his different locations on the island. And he was always complaining about the work ethic of the madeiranese people, insinuating they were lazy. And we were up in one of his highest wineries, up a wee windy road, and we’re coming back down around a bend and he suddenly screeched the car to a halt and there was a group of Madeira navis working on the road. And he said: “Look at that, just what I was telling you, there’s twelve of them – one person working and the other eleven doing the square root of fuck-all.”

The second time I was on the island of Madeira I went for a little holiday. You know, it was a great holiday, but I have to say, one week was enough, cause I’d seen everything that there was to see, visited a number of vineyards, went to the botanical gardens, bla bla bla, and also it made me feel quite good, because my wife and I were about the youngest couple there. (It’s very popular with retirees.) So that was the second time.

And the third time was at the tail end of this project. But you know, it’s a lovely little place, and I possibly will go back again at some stage. It’s a good place to go from the U.K. because during the wintertime you are almost guaranteed good weather with its proximity to Africa.

You mentioned the Glenmorangie Madeira Wood Finish, which was released in 1995. How is the new Private Edition, Bacalta, different from that?

There was tremendous variability with the old Madeira Wood Finish, and when it was on song, it was my favourite of the old wood finishes, but you know, if it was on song even 50% of the time, I would be surprised, so when I discontinued it, it kind of rankled with me a little bit. It annoyed me that I basically had failed and failure is just not an option.

What sort of casks did you use for that back then?

It was a whole variety of old traditional drums – so, you know, 650-litre monsters. There were some kind of 500-odd-litre butts, which I very strongly suspected had come from the sherry industry. And then, towards the end, there were 225-litre barriques, which had come from the Douro valley that, again, had had a whole hotchpot of different juices inside it. So, you know, it rankled with me so much that I thought, I have to make a good Madeira wood finish before I get fired or retire or whatever. So that was the project which eventually led to Bacalta.
For Bacalta, you wanted to make the “perfect Madeira casks”. What went into making those?

Well, this product is completely bespoke, so I controlled every stage of the process. I reckoned that I wanted American oak rather than European oak, cause there was going to be an oaky influence to it, and I wanted softer flavour notes. So, I basically used the same wood as I use for my Glenmorangie designer casks: tight-grained, sort of 36-month air-seasoned wood but rather than going through the Brown-Forman process [the cooperage in Kentucky, where the bulk of Glenmorangie’s designer casks are made, ed.], I took it over to Scotland and it went to Speyside Cooperage, and they manufactured that into 250-litre hogshead-sized casks. The casks were heavily toasted on the inside, which, of course, immediately was going to cause a problem because of the massive influence to the wine. They were then shipped out to Madeira and a combination of myself and Willie Taylor of Speyside Cooperage, the MD there, managed to persuade the D’Oliveiras brothers to take the casks and season them with their wines. But I knew from the outset that the wines were going to become sacrificial. They had to be discarded because they were just too woody. You know, new, toasted American oak like that is going to have a big impact. So, the casks were seasoned with their sweet wines, Malmsey or Malvasia, for two years and the barrels were stored in the traditional canteiro method, essentially up in the top of the wineries so they get “baked with the sun,” hence the name Bacalta, the Scottish Gaelic word for “baked”. Then, after two years, they were sent back to Scotland. So these projects are very time-consuming – they’re a real labour of love – and very costly: wood from the States to Craigellachie, manufactured into casks, casks from there to Madeira, seasoned and then back to Glenmorangie in Scotland. They came back – and they were very rich when they came back and they had notes of that classic, tangy, sort of oxidized, madeirised character. And I filled them essentially with Glenmorangie Original. Now, the plan was to leave it in for four years, so they were actually slotted in to be Private Edition 10 or 11 in my little mini-pipeline, but you know… we sampled it – myself and Brendan [McCarron], my assistant – every three months, every single cask. And I have to say, for the first 6 months – and this is often the case, and I’d love to understand scientifically why this is – it was the same with the Chateau d’Yquem barriques for [Glenmorangie] Pride [1981] – after 6 months, there was not a lot happening there, and then suddenly … I don’t know if the whisky takes time to leach in and start diffuse out the flavours, but then it started to ramp up in terms of flavour. And after two years and not my planned four years, I thought: right, this has reached that degree of balance. And you know, it’s not something I can describe perfectly in words. It’s not something I can particularly teach Brendan – other than just getting experience – but it gets to a stage where there’s a very harmonious balance of flavours. And the term I use is “very rounded”, so there’s not any spikes of one flavour. It’s just beautifully integrated. And I’ve learned from the past, and I thought, you know, if I leave it in here, there’s a risk I will lose that. So it was bottled and that became Bacalta.

You chose to season the casks for Bacalta with Malmsey (or Malvasia), the sweetest type of Madeira. Did you try the different varieties?

I had already done that with John Cossart and while at that time I was leaning towards Boal – which is the style I prefer for drinking – I thought for this project Malmsey might have the nicest impact on the flavour of the Glenmorangie.

From what you said earlier, it seems like close monitoring is of crucial importance to projects like these.

It is and it makes us deeply unpopular with the warehouse squad at Glenmorangie who are very, very busy anyway, but it’s the only way you can do it. So, the whole thing was as controlled as I could possibly make it. Don’t get me wrong. I sometimes enjoy the spikes in flavour you got with Madeira Wood Finish but, like I said, my goal with this was to try and make the most perfect rounded style I could.

Do you think a full maturation in the sort of cask you developed for Bacalta would work?

It wouldn’t really be what I was looking for, but – you know me – it’s not outwith the realms of possibility that I didn’t fill all of the barrels with mature whisky. Just saying. You know, when I am long gone, I would like Brendan to find all these little nuggets in there. But, you know, I’ve trialed a number of whiskies recently. There was one I used at Whisky Fest in New York two years ago, which was a full maturation in sherry and the cask was about 16 years old at the time. Personally, I hated it, but I asked my audience – and there were about 120 people in the audience – their view on it, and half the audience said it was their favourite whisky that night. And the other half said: no, we don’t like it at all. So you lose the Glemorangie subtlety and elegance when you do that.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you always start with Glenmorangie Original when you do finishes.

Almost always, unless it is something really quite different. And, you know, I like to do that, because we always talk about the Original being the backbone of the range.

I asked because I was wondering if you had ever modified the primary maturation in function of the secondary maturation?

Oh yeah, I’ve done a few bits and pieces like that. And, you know, I can’t say too much more. And sometimes I change the recipe. When I say “essentially [Glenmorangie] Original”, sometimes I’ll be using a higher proportion of refill casks because I am wanting more of the secondary wine to shine through. Other times, I’ll actually move more towards almost 100% first-fill casks because it needs a big, buttery, full-on whisky to stand up to the flavours. So that’s the main way I change it: the ratio of cask types in it.

As you’ve said, “bacalta” means “baked”, and it refers to the canteiro process, where wines are matured in lodges, welcoming the sun’s heat, as opposed to most wines which are matured in cellars. When we talk about whisky and maturation, we tend to focus on the wood rather than the actual conditions in which the whisky is matured, so this seems like a good opportunity to talk about the actual conditions in which different expressions of Glenmorangie are matured.

The only way in which I control that is by putting it in different styles of warehouses. Now, while I am not a hundred percent in favour of this, palletized warehouses are the way forward. You can get more than double the amount of barrels in there for the same cost, so it’s a no-brainer at a time when most of the distilleries in Scotland are running flat out. But you know, I always have a view – and I don’t necessarily have reams of scientific evidence to back this up – that the real sublime whiskies I’ve had from both Glenmorangie and Ardbeg have all come from old-fashioned dunnage warehouses. And for these experiments, they have to go in dunnage warehouses. I’ve actually got one butt-racked warehouse, which we built at Glenmorangie, just because of the volume of Lasanta and Quinta Ruban we’re doing. But these sort of experiments are all going into dunnage warehouses and it’s not even so much just because of the damp conditions being ideal for oxidation but it’s more for practical reasons, that if I am asking for hundreds of samples at regular intervals, the guys have to have easy access to them.

Some whisky fans find it difficult to distinguish between different types of fortified wine finishes. If you had a line-up of, say, Glenmorangie finished in Oloroso sherry, PX sherry, port and madeira, what notes would signal to you which dram corresponds to which finish?

To be honest, if you nosed or tasted it blind, you know, you would be able to pick it out quite easily. So you know, dry Oloroso gives that very distinctive nuttiness and can sometimes have a kind of treacle-y, molasses-type note to it. Pedro Ximenez has loads and loads of sun-dried raisins and chocolate ginger in the flavour. With ruby port – which is what I use, from Oporto, as opposed to older tawnier wines – we get a lot of things like prunes and plums, and chocolate and mint. And then for Madeira, you know, it’s a bit more of a lottery – it’s maybe a bit more difficult to tell and it does depend on the style of wine that goes into it.

Another anecdotal story: today in the office [at MHD in Tokyo], I picked up a bottle of Quinta Ruban, and while personally, I don’t like the new black label cause I don’t think it shows off the colour of the whisky as well as the white one used to do, I was looking approvingly at the colour of the whisky, which was very, very ruby pinkish in nature. But about 8 or 9 years ago, I was noticing that vattings of … it might even have been the old Port Wood Finish then, rather than Quinta Ruban, but vattings were not nearly as pink or vibrantly ruby in colour, and I thought: what’s going on, here? And I was deeply worried about that. I went back to the Dias Cooperage [in Portugal] and it turned out that the late Mario Dias was thinking he was doing me a favour and he was giving me casks which had held better-quality, older, more tawny wines. But I thought: that’s not what I’m looking for at all! I want young, vibrant, very fruity ruby casks. The industry there is moving over from pipes towards barriques. They are easier to handle but you get more maturation potential out of a barrique because of the surface area to volume ratio, and that’s one of the reasons why with Quinta Ruban we’re getting loads and loads of that red colour just now.

Like the other Glenmorangie Private Editions, Bacalta is non-chillfiltered. More and more whisky makers are choosing to bottle their products, including core products, without chillfiltration. What are your views on this?

Generally, I am not hugely in favour of chillfiltration. I do believe that you take something out of the whisky, but if you are going to do it – and we do it for Original and for the 18yo, for example; we also do it for Lasanta, which I am in two minds about – we don’t chill it right down to 2°C like a lot of people do. And we use a looser filter so we’re not taking so much out. And the most beautiful illustration of that was when I did some training for World Duty Free staff at Heathrow two or three years ago, and there’s a couple of guys in the audience that I meet a lot – they run some of their whisky shops and they’re real whisky geeks – and they said: one of the things we love about Glenmorangie Original is it still has that nice texture to it. And you know, if you put a bottle of Original in the fridge, the oils will come out of solution. It will go slightly opaque, but even though we are chill-filtering some of our larger-volume products, we’re doing it in a much more gentle way. You know, I’ve tasted a few whiskies of late – and I’m not going to name any names here [makes a guttural noise starting with M and ending in -n] – and it’s been so heavily chill-filtered that it’s thin in the mouth. You know, the mouthfeel is part of the experience. There should be a real wow-factor there, but if you take too much out… So either don’t do it at all or be very careful with the way in which you do it.

Another hot potato: it’s not uncommon to hear hardcore whisky fans say that older bottlings – by which I mean, expressions released decades ago, i.e. in the 70s or 80s – are “better” than what we have now. As a contemporary whisky-maker that must grate you.

Very much so.

So, I wanted to ask you about continuity, not from one batch to the next or one year to the next, but across decades.

The first thing I would say here is that obviously it’s human nature to look back with rose-tinted spectacles at all aspects of our life. You know, when I was on the plane yesterday, that long flight, and I had been loosened up by one or two glasses of wine, I was looking back to the time when I was a student and things, and thinking: god, it was just so good then. So, there is a tendency to do that.

Back in those days, the single malt Scotch in particular was in much, much smaller quantities, so there was the opportunity, perhaps, for there to be small batches which were very outstanding in nature. But, you know, the other side of the coin was that, back then, there was some fucking awful stuff being bottled and there was massive inconsistency.

So, nowadays, we’ve introduced much more consistency. Now, I don’t think total consistency is a good thing. I like there to be batch-to-batch variation. I think it makes it interesting. But I’ve had one or two groups of people who have honestly compared batches of Ardbeg 10yo – and when I say “honestly”, I mean: they’ve done it blind rather than saying “oh, this is the one from ’97” and then inevitably “oh, it was much better” – and these two groups both came back and voted for the newer releases as their favourite ones. So, I don’t buy into that, that older is better.

In terms of consistency, there is a company called Rare Whisky 101 in Scotland, and one of the partners in that is a good friend of mine, David Robertson. And they carried out a big experiment where they had batches of about 7 or 8 different brands – including Macallan, including Glenlivet, including Johnnie Walker, including Glenmorangie 10yo – where they had managed to get bottlings from … I don’t know if they went back as far as the 60s, but they had 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s and now, and Glenmorangie 10yo came out as being absolutely the most consistent over that time period. So, we’ve done a pretty good job with that. But you know, I am sure for every person that says “oh, it tasted much better back then,” they’ve probably had whiskies back then which were terrible but they just don’t remember that, or don’t talk about that.

Moving on to another hotly debated issue among consumers recently, the ever-increasing price of the amber nectar on the market. Do you think we are going to be on that escalator for much longer?

Whisky is not going to come down in price any time soon, but I don’t think it will ramp up dramatically. I think we’re already seeing the impact of two things: firstly, producers no longer being willing to drop their trousers and bow down to the big supermarkets and heavily discount it (and, you know, we’ve gone through that ourselves in the days of Moet-Hennessy). And more and more people are thinking: you know, whisky is a high-value product. It’s a bloody expensive product to make, and it’s an even more expensive product to finance for all these years while you hold the stock. And the second thing is: yeah, we’ve seen an impact of scarcity and rarity, but I’m not at any time just now anticipating a big hike. However, and this is where I might get myself into the soup here (cause we’re not supposed to talk politics), but if the awful Scottish National party manages somehow to have a second independence referendum and the unthinkable happened and Scotland became independent, once they had achieved their goals and realized that the country was totally fucked and bankrupt, then they’re going to have to try and find money from somewhere and the Scotch whisky industry is a huge piece of low-hanging fruit. So, if that was to happen, there is no question the cost of whisky would go up dramatically.

A year and a half ago, we spoke about Project Godisgoode and you said it would be a few more years before we would see the results of that. Well, we’re a few years further. Are we getting close?

In the last month or so, I have actually requested this year’s samples from Project Godisgoode and I will take a view, but you know, my feeling is we are still three to four years away. Now, what I would hate to think might happen is that – and I don’t think I gave you too many details, Stefan – someone else would get in there and beat us to it. And I heard a little whisper, and again this is anecdotal, that Jim McEwan stood up at some tasting event in Islay and said that for the very first time ever in the world of Scotch whisky, a whisky was going to be matured in Chateau d’Yquem wine casks. And somehow, that got back to me, and I thought: bullshit, I had my casks filled three years ago! And that did lead me to release the 21yo Sauternes Wood Finish earlier than I was planning, just because I thought: I’m not letting these bastards steal our thunder. Then I never heard another thing about it. But as far as Project Godisgoode is concerned, we’re still a few years away, I guess is the answer to that.

I’ve also picked up rumours of a project called ‘KGB’. I’m sure you can’t say much about it, but something is better than nothing.

Your sources, Stefan, are very, very good, indeed. I am prepared to say and put my neck on the line – because actually I’ve seen something on the internet last week about it and it wasn’t me that shot my mouth out – but this year’s Ardbeg Day is Project KGB. It’s going to be called ‘Kelpie’. Obviously, we would have struggled to actually call it ‘KGB’, although myself and the former marketing director, we thought it was great and we had a list of things. I guess the best I came up with was ‘Kildalton Grand Bottling’, but the boss – and you know, I understand why, given the current political climate – said: absolutely not. If you were to sit there and ask me: what does a mythical water beast, the Kelpie, have to do with this whisky, I would say to you: absolutely fuck-all.

What is the Russian connection?

I’m not telling you, but you know, you are a smart guy. You can work it out. What would I possibly get from Russia? It’s not vodka. Russia has very large forests and a coopering industry. It’s almost got to the stage with that thing that it’s almost too full-on. Really wow, in-your-face, that style of product. So I’d like to think that for some of the Ardbeg aficionados who have leveled criticism recently – saying some of the Ardbeg Day products have been a little bit lily-livered compared to Alligator, for example – KGB / Kelpie will be even more full-on. So, that’s what that project is.

You’re a very creative fellow, yet you have to work within the constraints of the Scotch Whisky Association regulations. Do you find it stimulating to work within those constraints or do you feel they hamper creativity?

While at times I get tired of having debates… like for Signet, they said they couldn’t allow us to call that “malt whisky,” and I said: yes, it is – high-roast chocolate malt is malted barley. Of course, it is. And I won that one with them. See, sometimes I get a bit wearied by it all, but on balance, it would be a terrible shame if we lost the regulations and it would open the door up for all sorts of nonsense happening, which you see in lots of other categories. And, you know, I’m quite astonished that there are so many flavored brown spirits. Do they actually sell? How many more different flavours can you actually put into it there? And we would see things like that happening. So, definitely, I am in favour of the laws.

If you were in charge of the SWA, which area(s) would you loosen up?

I think the one I might loosen would be allowing distillers to try other types of wood. And, you know, it wouldn’t open the floodgates to all sorts of things happening because a lot of the other wood types which might have a flavour profile would not have tyloses in the internal structure, so your spirit would just leak through them – you couldn’t make barrels out of them. There’s only a few other types of wood you could use. But you know, I tried things like Brazilian cherry [wood] and I got my fingers rapped for that. It was terrible, incidentally. But things like acacia, or walnut, or maple – things like that. It would be quite fun to try that. So that’s the one area I think I would like to see relaxed.

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