Interview

Culture Club

Talking new-wave innovation with Dr. Bill Lumsden, director of distilling at The Glenmorangie Company
By Christopher Coates
Dr Bill Lumsden at Glenmorangie Distillery
Dr Bill Lumsden at Glenmorangie Distillery
Innovation has become something of a buzzword of late. Whether it be blasting maturing whisky with sound, ‘double double’ ageing, field-specific barley provenance, Scottish rye spirit, or imbuing whisky with ‘punk attitude’, it seems distillers are rushing to one-up each other in their pursuit of newness. This penchant for pushing boundaries, whether real or perceived, is, of course, not restricted to the whisky industry.
However, while the fast-paced world of electronics can rely on Moore’s law to double processing power every two years and thus propel each fresh batch of product offerings to new technological heights, whisky making innovation quite simply can’t happen overnight.

Though out-of-the-box thinking can take distillers down all sorts of weird and wonderful paths, the guiding handrails of industry regulation and the necessary maturation X-factor of ‘time in cask’ discourage (or simply make impossible) the release of palatable overnight novelties or liquids which wildly diverge from the protected characteristics of a particular style.

Nevertheless, a few vocal distillers, more often than not owners or employees of new enterprises, have complained that these regulations – especially those protecting Scotch whisky – are not guides but shackles that benefit the big players while preventing small producers from bringing truly innovative products to market. These critics look to the craft scene in the US, mainland Europe and beyond as the home of truly experimental spirit. It’s a romantic notion that plays well with the underdog narrative of start-ups, but does it hold water? I decided to drop by the offices of The Glenmorangie Company, in Edinburgh, to ask someone who knows a thing or two about leadership in innovation.

“Most things you can think of, apart from the really crazy things (and I've got a few of these up my sleeve), have been done,” says Dr. Bill Lumsden, director of distilling, whisky creation and whisky stocks at The Glenmorangie Company.

“The mighty DCL almost certainly has tried everything.”

Having spent many years with the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), the precursor to Diageo, at the start of his career – starting as a research scientist and progressing to distillery manager, with dips into quality assurance and malting – he’s well situated to make such a statement.

“I was laughing when one particular distillery, not naming any names, published a piece in the press a year or two years ago about owning innovation and doing this and that, and I thought, ‘every single thing, not only have we done but other companies in the industry have done before,’” adds Bill with a wry grin. “Part of me is very proud of my industry, but part of me is a little bit frustrated that there's an awful lot of 'me too-ism'.”

Bill is quick to clarify that this doesn’t mean he feels there’s not some truly original thinking and experimentation going on – “There’s loads happening!” – but that some of the results are perhaps best left unreleased. “I've tasted one or two examples of people just doing silly stuff for the sake of making it different – but does it actually taste good, at the end of the day?”

He continues, gesturing to the laden shelves in his lab, “These cupboards are full of examples of things that I've tried that tasted terrible, and guess what? They're not going to be bottled. It's as simple as that. I don't commit tens of thousands of pounds to hundreds of casks until I've at least trialled one or two of them.”

Of course, even small trials take time and money – resources that some producers simply don’t have. But that doesn’t mean there’s no pressure on the big players to get new and unusual products out of the door – even those that have been decades in development. The latest Glenmorangie Private Editions release is a perfect example of this. Named Allta, it was the result of Bill’s long-brewing idea about culturing production yeast from a wild strain.

“If I'm ruthlessly honest about it, I bottled Allta probably a little bit sooner than I would ideally have liked to. And for two reasons,” he begins. “Firstly, I didn't want to lose the unique difference of the yeast,” he explains, referring to the delicate balance between the influence of wild yeast on the spirit character and impact of cask-derived flavours.

“Secondly, I was well aware that every distiller under the sun – especially the new, so-called craft distillers – would soon be saying, 'Oh look at what we're doing, looking at wild yeast.’ I thought, 'I did that ten years ago.' I wanted to give my product the spot it deserves.”

It’s easy to understand why he feels protective. After all, though discussion of yeast’s importance has risen to the fore of late – largely thanks to new distilleries such as Kingsbarns, Ncn’ean, Lone Wolf, Raasay, and Inchdairnie, all of which are experimenting with different yeast varieties – Allta was in the works over a decade ago. In truth, it stretches back further than that and could be characterised as the fruit of research Bill began at the start of his illustrious career, when he trained as a yeast physiologist. It was during these years, when surrounded by passionate young brewers and distillers, that he also developed a love of beer and whisky. So, in many ways, it’s thanks to his work with yeast that Dr. Lumsden entered the world of whisky in the first place.

More specifically, Allta is the result of Bill’s musing on the origins of whisky production in Scotland. “Way back in the day, I can only believe that most of the distilleries probably did have something a bit more indigenous to them,” he muses. “It might be impossible to prove, but I have this wonderful theory that the distillers would take ears of raw barley, dip it in the mash and inoculate it that way. It’s the most obvious way of them doing it, because guess what? In the 17th and 18th centuries, there would not have been the National Collection of Yeast Cultures in Norwich, which could send them batches of the yeast!”

Bill believes that local cereal crops would have been the most likely source of inoculation yeast and he has a side project on the go that’s attempting to prove it, “I can't see any other place they would get it from. They might have kept a little stock pot culture growing, but again I have my doubts about that.”

But what about a distillery’s ambient microflora, couldn’t distillers have simply taken the lead from brewers of lambic beer and left their vats open to the elements? “Monsters in the mash, there!” he exclaims. “The most obvious place for me to find wild yeast is on the very fields of barley right next to the distillery, so that's what we sent down to Lallemand,” Bill continues. The new strain isolated and cultured by Lallemand was christened Saccharomyces diamath, where ‘diamath’ is the Gaelic approximation of ‘God is good’.

“The ancient Egyptians, who are largely credited with first discovering alcohol, didn't know what was causing it. And so they thought, 'God is good,'” adds Bill.

To my surprise, despite the change of yeast, Bill notes that Allta is not that far away from the usual Glenmorangie profile. Indeed, he took pains to keep as much of the process through mashing and distillation the same, in order to highlight only yeast-derived differences. It was for this reason that Bill eschewed the 60:40 split of first fill and second fill Bourbon barrels that he usually uses for Glenmorangie Original, instead only utilising refill barrels to mature the Allta spirit. “Otherwise I would just have lost that little nuance of difference,” he says. What’s more, according to Bill, there’s more unusual whisky from Glenmorangie on horizon. “We've got some other pretty funky stuff up our sleeve, and I'm choosing my adjective very specifically. Allta was wild. The next one is funky.”

But what does he make of calls for the industry to shift away from high-yield distiller’s yeast in favour of less efficient, but arguably more characterful, strains? Bill is not convinced this would have a meaningful impact in the long run. “As someone who has experimented with various varieties of yeast and strains of yeasts – not just saccharomyces – at the end of the day, getting good fermentative performance to give you enough to actually distil is not easy, depending on what organism you're using,” Bill explains.

“You can buy a dozen different strains of saccharomyces from Lallemand, but, after 10 or 12 years of maturation, how much of it are you actually going to find in there?”

Nevertheless, the release of Allta was clearly a milestone for Bill; one that was made all the more meaningful off the back of the recent industry chatter on the subject of innovation. “You know the James Bond film Thunderball? And the wonderful theme tune sung by Tom Jones? There's a line in that and it says, ‘He acts, while other men just talk.’ That's what I like to think we do. We act while others just mouth off about it.”

Tasting The Spirit

Glenmorangie
Allta (51.2% ABV)

Nose: Crème pâtissière, poached pear, iced buns, heather honey, elderflower cordial. Almost straying into sweet Sémillion territory.
Palate: Creamy. Honeydew melon, bittersweetness of green apple flesh and core, orange blossom water, vanilla. The sweetness becomes more prominent with water.
Finish: Medium length. More crème pâtissière. Ends on earthiness of apple skin and core.
Comment: Outstandingly delicate considering the age (<10 Years Old) and ABV, though nowhere near as sweet as the nose suggests. Although matured differently, it would be worth tasting alongside Glenmorangie Original.

Glenmorangie Allta
Glenmorangie Allta