Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Innovation and Experimentation in Whisky: a chat with Dr Bill Lumsden

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

A couple of weeks ago, Dr Bill Lumsden did a whirlwind mini-tour of Japan. We caught him at the end of a busy day at the MHD headquarters in Tokyo and started by asking him what the first whisky was he remembered having…
Dr Bill Lumsden
The first whisky I tried was Glenmorangie 10yo in 1984. I had tried blended Scotch in my youth, which was illegal of course because I was a teenager at the time, but the first proper whisky I had was a Glenmorangie at a party in Edinburgh, and that turned me on to the world of single malt Scotch. So there’s a sense of destiny that I’m now doing what I’m doing.

How did you end up in the whisky industry – was that a serendipitous thing or were you intent on working in the whisky industry? 

I wouldn’t say it was serendipitous because it was basically as a result of becoming a malt whisky lover and studying for my PhD at Heriot-Watt University. That kind of led me into the whisky industry. But it was because I was a lover of malt that I wanted to work in the whisky industry and happily it has sort of worked out for me.

People tend to see innovation in whisky as the province of the so-called ‘new world distilleries’, but there is a great deal of experimentation and innovation going on in Scotland. You have been at the forefront of this for two decades. Let’s start by focusing on your work in the field of maturation. In your experience, are there finishes that don’t really work well with whisky in general? Or can any sort of finish be made to work given the right circumstances?

I would say no and there are some utterly appalling examples out there of things that have completely dominated over the house character of the whisky. There’s ones where people have finished for clearly a few weeks and a few months so why bother with that? And there’s other things – other spirits, other barrels – which, in my opinion, kind of fight against the flavour of the Scotch so it’s certainly not the case that you can make everything work.

Could you give some specific examples of such clashes?

I have one very specific example but because we are owned by Moet-Hennessy, I’d rather not say…

Vice versa, are there cask types that lend themselves more to finishes, rather than full maturations?

I think the fortified wines lend themselves to finishing and personally I think that full maturation in a sherry butt, for example, in most cases will ruin the whisky. But, you know, I may be expressing a bit of personal preference here. Also, if you’re using French wine oak barriques, a full maturation will generally be a disaster because there’s far too much tannins in French oak. I know some people have done it, but in my opinion, they’ve churned out products which I wouldn’t drink!

With Ardbeg, the experimentation in terms of maturation is not focused on finishes at all, so what shape does experimentation take there?

What we tend to do is: fully mature the spirit and then blend it with classic Ardbeg from bourbon barrels. Finishing just doesn’t work so well with a whisky of that style, in my view.

Word on the street is that 1) there is a cask shortage and 2) wood isn’t what it used to be (in terms of quality)? What are your thoughts on those two ‘rumours’?

I agree with both points. There is a cask shortage. We [at Glenmorangie and Ardbeg] don’t have a cask shortage because we’ve got long-term relations with our main suppliers, but you know, if someone wanted to go out today and buy an extra 50,000 bourbon barrels, they would just get laughed at. There is not a chance they would get them. I think that will ease over the next few years as more bourbon barrels are getting emptied again, but certainly I am watching very carefully what’s happening out there and I know some distilleries have actually scaled back production because they couldn’t get wood to fill into.
And in terms of barrels not being what they used to be, I think there’s definitely something in there. I’m hearing stories – and you know, they might be anecdotal – that it’s taking barely 8 weeks from the tree first being cut to it first being filled with spirit in some parts of the US. You know, that will have an impact on American whiskey, and then it will have a knock-on impact on Scotch whisky. But again, in the Glenmorangie company, we’ve got a program to combat against that for our ‘designer casks’ which are not being made into barrels until the wood is at least two years old, after it’s been cut.

People tend to focus on wood as the prime area of experimentation, but that doesn’t mean you don’t focus on other aspects of the whisky making process, for instance, the barley… We’d like to start by asking you about Signet. Can you give us some insight into what inspired that expression and the specifics of the way in which you went about creating it?

The inspiration for that – believe or not! – was born out of a dissatisfaction with coffee, in the first instance, because I was always intrigued by the fact that if you go into a coffee place or if you boil coffee up yourself, the beguiling aroma is absolutely fantastic and I found that the taste seldom lived up to that. So I was always a little bit disappointed. So it led to me, in my student days, mucking about, trying different types of roast, trying different types of beans and the one that I really, really liked – and still do, to this day – is Jamaica Blue Mountain with a medium roast. And it was that roasting process, coupled with my new-found love of malt whisky – a merging together of the two – that made me think: gosh, wouldn’t that be fun, instead of drying it over a peat fire, (to use a technical term) to ‘roast the fuck out of it’. And then, I thought, practically that will be difficult, so I then used my knowledge of craft beer and my love of craft beer and thought: ah, stouts and porters… high-roast chocolate malt! It’s there! So then, I started making secret batches of Glenmorangie spirit using the high-roast chocolate malt and then, took it from there. So that’s where the original inspiration came from, but it took a long time to finalize a recipe that I was happy with, because the whisky from the high-roast chocolate malt on its own was just brutal, frankly. So that’s the reason why it is this horribly complicated ‘assemblage’ of about 7 or 8 Glenmorangies.
How often do you put Signet together and how difficult is it to maintain consistency across batches?

In terms of the recipe, it gets put together once or twice a year and it is very difficult. And you know, it is not a consistent product, I will admit that. There’s just so many things going on there, how could it be?
Turning to a more recent example of experimentation with barley, let’s talk about Tusail a bit. For that, you used a different variety of barley…

That came about from my early days as Glenmorangie Distillery Manager. I had a very good relationship with one of my malt suppliers, Pauls Malt and a gentleman called Iain McLean. And Iain and I always talked about trying something different so I tried some parcels of winter barley, just to see if there was any difference, but I didn’t do 100% winter barley. It was like a 50-50 blend with spring barley, or 75 spring / 25 winter, and I felt there was possibly a difference there, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. So I thought: right, once and for all, I’m going to do this experiment properly. So that’s when I had Maris Otter grown for me and had it floor-malted, and the end results I was delighted with. You know, it’s not a black-and-white difference if you compare it to Glenmorangie Original. I’m always wanting to try things like that and see what happens.

Then, there’s yeast, generally a neglected area of experimentation. 

I have been working on many experiments with yeast over the past few years but it might well be another few years before I am ready to release the results of that. All I’ll say is: I found some really exciting things out and I’ve got one project in particular which I am just tickled pink with. I called it ‘Project Godisgoode’ because ‘godisgoode’ is what the Ancient Egyptians called yeast. Well, they didn’t know it was yeast that turned cereal juice into alcohol so they said ‘god-is-good’. Obviously, I’m being a little bit evasive – I like to keep my powder dry.

Since it’s in the nature of an experiment that the outcome cannot be foreseen, can you give an example of an experiment that didn’t work out?

To be honest, my success rate is very, very high in these things. The one that spectacularly did not work, I would not be allowed to release anyway (the SWA [Scotch Whisky Association] made that very plain to me)… all I can say is: Brazilian cherry wood is not a good type of wood to use for whisky barrels.

Most expressions of Ardbeg and Glenmorangie that you have developed don’t carry an age-statement. Some people make a big deal of that. What would you say to those who are suspicious of whiskies that don’t carry an age statement?

It’s going to be an ongoing fierce debate and it sometimes makes me a little bit annoyed to see somebody mouthing off saying “that’s obviously 3 or 4yo whisky in there”. None of my NAS whiskies have ever been that young apart from ones I’ve deliberately done that with… By that I mean, ‘Ardbeg Very Young’ which was 6 or 7 years old and the ‘Ardbeg Oogling’, which was 4 years old but the ‘Oogling’ was just a joke, really. It wasn’t serious. But what I would say to people is: it’s not about the age as far as I’m concerned. There are more important factors in giving taste to whisky and any of the NAS products I have put out, always have to be of a high standard before I would allow them to carry the brand name. But you know, you’re always going to get ‘doubting Thomases’ criticizing that.
Let’s talk about Perpetuum a bit, which was released in May 2015 to mark the 200th anniversary of the distillery.

For Perpetuum, rather than doing what I wanted to do myself in terms of an experiment or create a different taste profile, it was all about the 200th anniversary, so I thought: I could do something boring, like vat 200 casks together – and marketing actually suggested that at once stage, to which I said “get the fuck out of my office – it’s my job to decide this”. So I thought, over the last 200 years, lots of things have happened to Ardbeg Distillery and over our 10 years, I’ve tried lots of things. I just happened to have a habit of holding back a few barrels of most of the things I’ve done. So I thought, why don’t I just try and create a whisky where it has a little bit of everything in there. So that’s the idea behind that.

What do you think are the challenges lying ahead for the brands that you’re responsible for?

The challenges I see ahead for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg are that there is an almost insatiable demand and appetite for new products, and you know, there’s only so many things you can do. That’s always a bit of a challenge. Keeping up with demand will be a challenge. For example, if India finally did dramatically reduce their importation tariffs, the Scotch whisky industry doesn’t produce enough whisky to satisfy India alone! And, you know, we wouldn’t just suddenly start selling everything to India, but I am just saying that demand may well go up. Once the Latin American countries get a taste for single malt Scotch whisky, that’ll put pressure on it, as well.

What sort of inspirational figures – industry or non-industry, past and present – feature in the ‘Dr Bill universe’?

The late, great Michael Jackson would be there – that’s the singer… oh, and the whisky writer, too. Prince inspires me because he is just so unbelievably talented. On most of his albums, it says “written, composed, arranged, performed and produced by Prince”. He does everything! I find some fashion designers inspirational, in terms of the things they produce. And the other side of the coin is I find some of them just ridiculous and I think “who the fuck would wear that?” I find some of the great chefs of the world very inspirational, in that for anyone to actually be able to work like that, in a hot, sweaty kitchen and continue to generate fabulous food, that’s pretty inspirational. Some of the endurance athletes are pretty inspirational... Lance Armstrong. The New Zealand All Blacks inspire me – more so than the Scottish rugby team - … to name but a few.


Will Irwin said...

This was very interesting and an excellent read; but I almost choked on my coffee when I saw Lance Armstrong's name mentioned positively.

Tatsuya Ishihara said...

Thank you for the wonderful article!

This have clarified the questions I had for years with Glenmorangie!

Anonymous said...

From: Jeff

“But what I would say to people is: it’s not about the age as far as I’m concerned. There are more important factors in giving taste to whisky and any of the NAS products I have put out, always have to be of a high standard before I would allow them to carry the brand name. But you know, you’re always going to get ‘doubting Thomases’ criticizing that.”

If people have “doubts” or express opinions about the youth of many NAS expressions, they come by them honestly, because the totality of the industry’s position on age is disingenuous at best – “it’s not about age” where age is intentionally (not accidently) concealed, but very important, and prominently displayed, where it can be used as a selling point to justify premium pricing. Maturation has always been, and continues to be, one of the primary ways in which whisky acquires its character, but its relevance can now supposedly be simply “turned off” by sticking an NAS label on it and, one has to wonder, could the relevance of ABV, casking, and filtration just be “turned off” as well if/where they don’t serve industry marketing purposes? If age is truly “irrelevant”, why are industry “experts” continuing to lose gallon upon gallon in angel’s share in its pursuit and why aren’t whiskies that are 3 years and a day the equivalent of 20 y.o.+ whiskies if other factors are “more important”?

The overall industry message is “age doesn’t matter, but only where we don’t want to talk about it” and many can just see through it for the foolishness it is as the importance of age CAN’T be manipulated by a label design. Some people do “make a big deal” about NAS, because they can see the contradictions. Claiming high producer standards and saying “trust us” just isn’t very convincing, particularly where producers say one thing but do another.