The renaissance man

The renaissance man

Dave Broom talks innovation,metabolic pathways and obscure Scottish rock bands with Glenmorangie's head of distilling & flavour creation,Dr Bill Lumsden.

People 27 Feb 2009 | Interviews | By Dave Broom

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I want to see that again. It’s my favourite bit. Look at that! It’s like fireworks going off!” Bill Lumsden hits the button again and the screen ripples with images: honey, lemon blossom, incense sticks, marmalade, jasmine, créme brulée. “You see that sugar-coated almond? and when you taste it, there’s a smokiness though of course it’s not peat but wood-derived polyphenols.” That’s the two sides of Dr Bill Lumsden.There’s Dr Bill Lumsden the scientist and there is Billy Lumsden the whisky lover from Greenock who is still excited and enthused by the endless complexities and potential of the cratur. It’s a Scottish thing, this divided personality: Jekyll & Hyde, the Caledonian antisyzygy at work.“Now I’m getting eucalypt and mint.” Funny I say, chipping in, I get mint in a lot of mature whiskies. “Yes!” he’s off again, words almost spilling over each other. “It’s diethylacetal.You don’t get a lot in new make, but in the casks the acetaldehyde interacts with free radicals in oxygen in the presence of alcohol and developes diethyl-acetal and if you have very active wood that boosts the caskdriven oxidation.” All this would be scary to non-scientists, which is where the kaleidoscope comes in, Glenmorangie’s visual aid which allows the aroma, flavours and textures of the whisky to be articulated on a screen. Images explode, revolve, fade and ripple. It is a powerful and effective tool which can be used to explain whisky to the beginner or as a pathway for the anorak who wants to stroll down some of the lesser-known metabolic pathways.“We used to refer to the character of Glenmorangie as kaleidoscopic, as always revealing something else. Moet Hennessy in Paris drove us to be more creative and develop the tool to bring it all to life; so rather than just standing up and saying, ‘now you get orange’ etc we can create more of an emotional link. We’re trying to bring it to life and it’s great fun to use.” He talks of aroma psychologists, sensory panels, of him and Rachel Barrie at the SWRI nosing aromas as they popped out of a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer. “That helped us elucidate where some of the flavours came from. We’ve described 140 different aromas in Original alone. We’ve taken it to the next level. Ultimately I’d like to elucidate where each flavour is created in the production process.” You want to know everything?He laughs. “It’s probably a lifetime’s worth of work.” The image of Pappy van Winkle’s sign outside the Stitzel Weller distillery: “No chemists allowed” flashes through the mind.The cold hand of the boffin resulting in technically ideal but soulless whiskies. The reverse is the case here. There’s practical application at the root of his chemistry. The radical improvement in the Glenmorangie range is proof of that.The clearest manifestation of it is Astar, the whisky whose bespoke casks made from slow-growth, fine-grained American white oak sit at the heart of the new Glenmorangie.“The intention was to have this element just as the foundation for Original, which it is, but when we started using it we wanted to offer some of it in its purest form.” He tastes.“Oh gee whizz! I’m getting big buttery notes, honey, wood shavings, spice, toasty oak, pineapple, marzipan then dessicated coconut and loads of cooling menthol. It’s very, very, Glenmorangie.” But is it? Is this new recalibrated buffed-up Glenmorangie the real style which was hidden for years or a new Glenmorangie for the 21st century?“Astar is a new dimension, but this is the direction I always wanted to take the style and the Astar element has really added something to Original, giving it more structure, more roundness, more sweetness.“The first single malt I ever tried was Glenmorangie 10 Years Old. I wanted to bring back to my recollection of how it tasted in 1984 when it had more depth. Recapture that deep, powerful, rounded sensation.” The same back to the future approach could be said to be taking place at Ardbeg.“We’ve tried to faithfully recreate the style of old Ardbeg, but one thing you’re seeing is an injection of higher quality oak, new exbourbon barrels and a wee smattering of decent sherry casks. You can really taste that injection of wood in Renaissance. That very fruity pineapple note is the wood. That’s the main difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’.” Actually, it’s not that simple. With the launch last year of Signet, his whisky journey came full circle. In some ways, one of his newest whiskies is his oldest.“In ’84 I was living a carefree postgraduate student existence at Heriot-Watt and had become interested in ways of giving intriguing flavours to craft beers with crystal malt, chocolate malt etc. At same time my friend Ian and I had ideas way above our station and would occasionally buy Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee: the kilning and tumble-roasting technique used there also became of interest.“Then, at a party someone gave me glass of single malt and I became instantly hooked. Hand on heart, it was Glenmorangie 10 Years Old. That’s when I decided that distilling might be an interesting career.” A spell at Diageo’s labs in Menstrie, then the firm’s distillery manager scheme led, in 1995 to the manager’s job at Glenmorangie.“At last, I thought! Wouldn’t it be fun to take some of these tumble roasted materials and make whisky? In the 90s I started producing small batches using chocolate malt. On its own it’s pretty full-on, but as part of a complicated recipe like Signet it works.” The I-word is an over-used term in Scotch, but this is innovative. Signet combines chocolate malt, very old whiskies, sherry finished and matured whisky, new charred oak, Cadboll barley “and other secret things.” In the narrow, conservative whisky world, it’s way out there... but it works.Could we see something similar in Ardbeg?“It’s not easy to innovate with peaty whisky and extra maturation is not part of the Ardbeg strategy, so in some ways we have to be more radical. That’s where Supernova comes in. We decided to go big, so this is from first-fill barrels of our own peatiest whiskies picked on their taste profile. If Blasda is at one end, then Supernova is at the other.” Somehow, the conversation strays from whisky into obscure Scottish bands. I throw in Chou Pahrot, he counters with Abandon Your Head. It seems a pretty appropriate moniker for a whisky innovator. He laughs.“Innovation isn’t easy in Scotch whisky because there are such strict laws. I understand why they’re there, but you cannot be shackled by convention. I’d argue that wood finishes and use of chocolate malt are the only two pieces of innovation in the industry in the past 20 years and we’ve been behind them both.“Now we’re working on new things that the industry hasn’t done before.” Doesn’t that put you on a collision course with the SWA?“Undoubtedly. They might even have had a problem with Signet if it were 100 per cent chocolate malt.” He recounts how he reracked some 10 Glenmorangie into Brazilian cherry wood barrels. “I used it for illustrative purposes at the SMWS and within a week I had a letter from SWA saying I hope you realise this is not legal. I wrote back to say I disagreed, but added I wasn’t pursuing the technique... as the whisky was bowfin!” [Scots for disgusting – Ed] If it had worked?He just smiles and pours a glass of the newest Glenmorangie expression that’s had extra time in a PX cask. It’s a balanced and integrated mix of raisin, beeswax, tonka bean, kumquat and black banana with a gingery finish. Again it works, but surely finishing can be seen both as a positive innovation and a Pandora’s box and you, Dr Bill, are Pandora.“The background philosophy is as solid as it has always been, but yes, in my opinion there have been one or two companies who have brought out things which are extremely contrived. Some have tried to coin different terminology, which is just silly.” Surely there’s also an incalculable number of poorly made, slapdash examples where the finishing cask is used in a clumsy way to cover up immature spirit?“I’ve tasted one or two which are atrocious, but there will always be someone with less integrity who may do something silly and unscrupulous. For me, the product must have real merit or I don’t bottle it.” What else is in the cupboard?“I’ve only revealed all my wares to the company once,” he laughs. “I’m working on some things for the next innovation but it might be a five or 10 year process.Remember, Signet took 24!” Will that process of innovation underpinning quality be slowed due to the recession? There’s an argument that rather than wood policy improving, industry-wide, poorer quality wood is currently being filled.“I was optimistic that more people would follow the stance we took on wood. Now, with an economic downturn and increased production there is more poor wood [he uses a more vernacular west coast descriptor] being filled. It’s building up problems for the future. We however have increased the quantity of ex-bourbon barres we are buying an the company has supported that. We’re investing in quality.” There’s an inference that all of this: Astar barrels, a reformulated range, Signet, the renaissance of Ardeg would not have been possible under the old ownership. Was it frustrating?“Without doubt. All of us knew the direction in which we wanted to take the brand. Moet Hennessy has been the key to allow us to unlock that door.” There’s an assumption that all of this was the hand of the French at work.“There’s an element of truth in that, but these innovations started many years before, so the hand of the French didn’t guide us, but it did go deep into the pocket. That’s the main contribution. Genuinely, it’s all been positive.” That Caledonian tussle between two personalities was seen in the firm itself. The single malt company that also had an ownlabel arm, the luxury firm which sold one of its malts as a loss-leader. Acouple of months after the revamped and repositioned range was launched you could buy Glenmorangie Original with £10 off in the UK. The timing couldn’t have been worse. While discounting inevitably will continue in the UK, the firm has divested itself of its ownlabel arm, and Glen Moray. It’s now a luxury global brand, not just Scotland’s best-selling malt. That’s a big psychological shift, which begs the question whether luxury is an uneasy fit within whisky, that it soon becomes more about the bling factor, the pack and less about the liquid.“We can’t lose sight of the fact that we are whisky distillers and not a fashion house.We’re not Guerlain, we are Glenmorangie and we make Scotch whisky.” He pours a dram of Supernova and beams as he inhales.I’m intrigued at this creative tension between Dr Bill the scientist and Billy Lumsden the whisky lover.“I guess in 1980s I saw myself as a boffin wearing the white coat, working in a comfortable post-doctoral world. Then the whisky thing happened.” He takes a sip.“Science wants to explain everything in black and white, but it is nice to have creativity as you can see things from a different perspective. Creativity opens up options but so does science!” On the way to the airport the taste of Supernova is still blasting in my mouth. It’s huge, overpowering, all bog myrtle, salt, dubbin, chilli and tar, a vast, complex mix of contradictory flavours: the elemental and the ethereal. Effusive yet crafted.Maybe there’s a parallel with him. There’s a precision to Bill Lumsden, the way he speaks, the way he dresses, the thoughtful manner in which he patiently explains complex chemistry, but the other side is always present: the man who is enthused by a kaleidoscope “It goes wooosh!”, the ready laughter, the sense of the absurd, the fact, ultimately that he is a whisky lover, a punter.Abandon Yer Heid? Aye, but stay in control.Very Scottish.
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