As soon as you meet Dr Bill Lumsden, head of distilling and whisky creation at The Glenmorangie Company, you know he is switched on, aware. He always remembers you if you’ve met him before, warmly shaking your hand and using your first name; he always seems to be smiling; and, as a fashion lover, is always well turned out. He seems, as it were, to have all of his senses tuned in constantly, a handy skill for someone who spends his life using those senses to create whiskies which become renowned globally.
He also travels a lot. When we meet at the LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, the company’s owner) offices near London’s Victoria, he is on a whirlwind trip to the capital, having recently been in Asia and with plans for New York in the near future.
I sat down with Dr Bill for an hour to gain his insights into all parts of the whisky industry. Here’s what he had to say.
Whisky has been on the rise for the past few years. What markets have surprised you?
There are quite a number of emerging markets where we’re doing good business. Mexico is one I didn’t imagine to be a potential market and we can’t keep up with demand in Russia with Glenmorangie. In a lot of them it does tend to seem that if your whisky is not expensive they’re not interested. But there are changing attitudes. South America is another one to keep an eye on. They’ve got a huge blended whisky market and where blends lead malts will follow.
Social media and blogs: controversial or helpful to whisky?
Some blog sites give people a stage to vent their spleen but by and large it has been very positive as they tend to reach huge numbers of people that we would never have been able to reach without them so it’s very positive indeed. But I tend not to communicate using those [Twitter] means. A little example was that I got a strange question passed to me about an aspect of Auriverdes and I answered it personally; at which point the recipient replied with another 50 questions and I thought: ‘Oh why did I do that?’ To be honest, if the only website out there was the Whisky Sponge that would be fine as I think it is hilarious.
Fancy packaging: worthless or integral?
If you’re saving up and wanting to treat yourself, then why shouldn’t it look nice? If you get the latest Louis Vuitton handbag, you’re not going to be very happy with it being just given to you; so if you’re buying an expensive product, then I think you should expect a nice level of packaging. Any responsible brand owner is going to ensure that the liquid in the bottle lives up to the promises. The thing is, a lot of the whisky bloggers out there are dyed in the wool whisky drinkers and they want nothing but the liquid so there can be a bit of negativity.
What does the industry need to be doing better?
I don’t think we do enough on education. In the supermarket you’re faced with this wall of whisky but there is almost no information. We’re 100 times better than we were twenty years ago but there is a long way to go.
NAS has been the big controversy of late. Thoughts?
It’s not even a question to me because we’ve been doing it for years.
When we bought Ardbeg distillery in 1997 the first one we released was 17 year old because the 1980 stock was the youngest of the old stock. But then we decided we wanted to have another whisky in the range that was totally all about flavour and style so I set out to make something different and that ended up being Uigeadail. We were using stock from the early 1990s and some sherry matured stock from the 1970s. I knew that wasn’t going to be sustainable from any age statement perspective, but knew I also knew I’d be able to do something with newer sherry stock so we decided to make it non age statement. And no one was bothered by it, they just loved the taste of it.
This whole debate is almost a non debate – if you love your brand and if you’re going to do NAS whiskies you’re going to make sure they’re going to be as good as possible. Obviously it gives charlatans the opportunity to put immature or bad whisky in there and I understand people can get concerned but such is the growing demand for whisky that the stocks are under pressure which is forcing us to look at younger stock. If you’re using good quality wood you can come up with something younger that has a fabulous flavour.
Speaking of wood quality, are you concerned about cask shortages?
It concerns me from an overall industry perspective in the medium term but doesn’t concern me with Glenmorangie because I have core wood suppliers who are all committed. But obviously if the industry keeps growing it will put more pressure on the supply chain.
From a geeky perspective I was part of a committee with the SWA looking into the long term sustainability of oak wood and learned a lot of interesting facts and figures. There’s a ratio measurement and the regeneration of oak wood in the US is ahead of the usage for barrels so there is not a shortage of quality oak wood per se. What is actually happening is that because of weather conditions the lumberjacks have not been able to get into the forests to get the wood to the cooperages at the normal rate. The cooperage industry in the US uses less than 5% of the total oak wood felled there. So, it’s something we need to keep our eye on – the rum producers and the tequila boys are getting in on the act and realising ex-bourbon barrels are good for them, but I don’t believe the new small distilleries on their own are big enough in scale to impact on availability or pricing of bourbon barrels.
The bigger issue is with sherry casks which are astronomical in price, and some people getting hold of poorer quality sherry casks. Some whiskies I taste that purport to use sherry casks are clearly old casks with a bucket load of cheap sherry thrown in and you get a really sulphury characteristic and I think what the f*!k? 95% of what we’re tasting makes me proud of being a distiller and whatever area I’m judging but sometimes I try things and think, ‘How can you even enter this in the competition?’ I tasted something from Germany and it was staggeringly bad. It tasted of mothballs.
You’re proud of being a whisky maker. Who else inspires you?
Right up there is David Stewart of The Balvenie: he’s not only a great whisky maker but such a lovely guy. And I like a lot of the stuff John Glaser has done with Compass Box that has made people focus on innovation.
Who would be at your ideal dinner party?
I have been asked a lot of questions in this work but never that one. Right, it would have to be, Valentino: he had an almost had arrogant and hautiness about what he did, but he’d be fascinating. Then Charles Luciano, the founder of the American mafia because I’m fascinated by criminology. And Charles Darwin, who is one of my scientific heroes. I’m also a great fan of movies and music so I would have either Michael Jackson or Prince, who are just so talented it beggars belief, andfrom the golden era of Hollywood, Kim Novac, to add a bit of glamour.
It’s your 20th anniversary with the company next year. Anything special coming out?
It is but more importantly it’s the 200th anniversary of Ardbeg so of course there will some interesting whiskies coming out there. My stocks of old, old Ardbeg are not huge but I have put something together. The date 1815 gives you a clue to some aspect of the whisky…
I also have a fascination with wood and maturation so have some ridiculous barrels being made for me that are causing the Speyside cooperage an awful lot of angst. However, I’m also going to be doing some experiments looking at the primary aspects of production, and have three major trials going on at Glenmorangie. So lots coming up.
Exciting times indeed. Thanks Bill for the candid interview. For more information on Glenmorangie or Ardbeg, visit: