Distillery Focus

Highland Roots

Glenmorangie has been at the forefront of single malt whisky innovation in recent months. But as Dominic Roskrow reports, the distillery's staying true to its roots
By Dominic Roskrow
If I had to use two words to describe the last 18 months they would be ‘frantic’ and ‘fantastic’. That’s fantastic as in the stuff of fantasy.

It’s been a hell of a ride, hasn’t it? Six figure whiskies .launched in the most expensive crystal-ware with labels featuring the exclusive pictures of the world’s coolest photographers; malt at the centre of record-breaking auctions in the heart of London and New York; swanky launches in the world’s greatest hotels, luxury whisky shows in Vegas and Taipei; daily reviews of new whiskies fired through the stratosphere by an army of bloggers who have already moved on to the next release before you can say ‘twitter.’

It all seems a long way from a quiet dram in the Craigellachie after trekking in the Grampians, from the theraputic calm of salmon fishing The Spey near Easter Elchies House; and most of all, from the small and sleepy beach at Tain in the North East of Scotland.

I was on this beach the day the management of luxury giants Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey asked for some privacy while they told the staff what the future would hold under their stewardship, and in some ways lit the torch paper for the industry madness that ensued.

When you take a walk along this beach and look over to the distillery, London, New York and Taipei have never looked further away. And as you take in the serenity and beauty of it all, you can’t help but ask yourself: are our whisky makers losing the plot? Have the marketers turned single malt whisky in a plastic circus decorated with garish finery and little soul?

Then you talk to Glenmorangie’s whisky maker Bill Lumsden. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re meeting in the opulence of The Savoy or at a whisky tasting event in Paris, you realise that Scotch whisky is safe. There’s too much passion and too much love from the people at the heart of it for it not to be.

Glenmorangie is a good distillery around which to raise such weighty issues. In recent years it has been a conundrum: it is a distillery producing one of the world’s best known and most loved malts. Distinctive, well packaged and well made, it is capable of greatness and it has often led the way in seeking out new paths. But it has been accused of trying to be all things to all people, the Stella Artois of malt whisky, at times reassuringly expensive and at times the bottles stacked high and the price knocked down and to cap it all, it has been dogged by rumours, stretching back a couple of years now, of an LVMH exit strategy and an imminent sale, possibly to Diageo. Is it losing the plot and are the luxury marketing people turning it in to a commodity without a soul?

“My view on that is very simple,” says Bill Lumsden. “I believe that you can’t compromise on the whisky, and it’s very important that a distillery stays true to its traditions and maintains a strong and reognisable house style. That is very much the case with our Original and 18 Years Old. We might do special releases and experiment with new styles which can be found in China or Russia. But we sell an awful lot more Original and 18 Years Old and you’ll find them there too.

“As you pointed out in a feature a while ago, the reason Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich , and Glenlivet sell as much as they do is because they’re fantastic whiskies. Because of my position I can drink anything I want from our range. I could have a bath in Signet if I wanted. I come back every time to the Original because it defines what Glenmorangie is, and it’s an all rounder malt for any time.”

Glenmorangie has been through big changes of late, with the range repackaged and reshaped, and the distillery expanded to meet rising demand from the emerging markets going forward. But Lumsden fiercely rejects the suggestion that any quality in the whisky is being sacrificed for quantity. He even rejected one of the new spirits because it wasn’t exactly to his specification.

“The still maker said afterwards that he knew I wouldn’t accept it and I thought why did you send it then?” he laughs. “But yes I would say I am a perfectionist. Everything has to be just perfect to ensure that the whisky we produce is perfect. I have been known to throw my toys out of the pram in defence of the quality of the whisky here. I’ve had run ins with the marketing people and on one occasion I had a major tantrum when they tried to put something out before I said it was ready. I can completely lose it and there can be a lot of eating humble pie. But the company has learnt how to deal with me and I would say it’s always about the whisky. While I’m here the reputation of Glenmorangie is in my hands and frankly if I don’t care, no other bugger will.”

This refreshingly frank and increasingly rare defence of the core malt at Glenmorangie should reassure anyone that there’s no dumbing down going on in Tain. But the icing on the cake for whisky lovers comes courtesy of a string of special releases which have put Lumsden and fellow whisky maker and blender Rachel Barrie at the very forefront on Scotch malt whisky innovation.

Signet, a sensual, luxurious dark chocolate and spicy delight, was stunning. More recently came Finealta, a rich and surprisingly peated whisky, and most recently the company has released Pride 1981, a 28 year old whisky which was matured to 18 years before being transferred to Chateau Y’quem Sauternes barriques for 10 years. It’s limited to 1000 bottles will set you back what one website described as ‘a very affordable’ £2500.

Lumsden says that such experimentation is exciting, important, and essential when looking to the future.
“With Finealta we set out to try and make a Glenmorangie would have tasted in the past,” he says.” Back then peat would have been used. We had some fabulous recipes recorded in old leather-bound ledgers. It is different to other Glenmorangies but it attracted interest. At the launch a couple of people highly respected in the industry said it was the best Glenmorangie they had ever tasted. While I disagree, it’s nice they were being so positive.

“With Pride, we had some casks that were truly exceptional and when I first arrived I started looking at what wine casks Glenmorangie would work in and Sauternes was the most obvious. So I set out to source some barriques and got some from Chateau q’uem surprisingly quickly. Much of the stuff we used became the blueprint for Nectar D’Or but we kept the most exceptional stuff to see what would happen and it just got better and better. I monitored it carefully and took it out when it was ready.

“Which is why it is 28 years, nine months, 17 days and four hours old and not 30 years which I might have been aiming for.”

While he’s been talking Lumsden has been multi-tasking, scurrying around his samples room as he works on new experimental malts for the future. He admits that he can’t stay still for any period of time. He means physically, but there’s a metaphor there, too. Frantic and fabulous. That’s Bill Lumsden and his whisky all right.

But with both feet firmly rooted on the beach of Tain.

Tasting note

Glenmorangie Pride 1981

Nose: Rustic, meaty and with traces of sulphur but complex and evolving with a hint of aniseed, some apple tart, polished wood and pantry shelf.
Palate: Evolves quickly on the palate and quickly shifts up the gears with baked apple and pear, aniseed, brittle toffee, woody tannins hazelnut, chocolate and coffee. It’s not an easy ride and you have to cling on as it opens up but it tastes like nothing else. Orange arrives in to the mix at some point, as do berries.
Finish: A flavour rainbow with plenty of burnt raisin and oakiness. Plenty of length and with little or no cloying sweetness.