I like speaking in metaphors,” says Dr Bill Lumsden, head of distilling and whisky creation at Glenmorangie, the morning after the grand unveiling of his new playground. It would be hard not to notice. Lumsden is known for his ability to make nuanced, intelligent and often unexpected conversation – and the same could be said of his whiskies, for that matter. “My favourite Tom Jones song is ‘Thunderball’, and the line ‘he acts while other men just talk’ is the philosophy of what we do at Glenmorangie,” he continues, grinning.
Indeed, for four decades Lumsden has been conspicuous in the world of Scotch. Often referred to as the ‘Willy Wonka’ of whisky, he has put his stamp on the Glenmorangie brand. In his 26 years at the company, he’s become famous for pioneering new methods of cask ageing and using the hitherto unknown (to whisky makers) ingredient of chocolate malt. Between his PhD in biochemistry and his infectious inquisitiveness, it’s no wonder that Glenmorangie has built him his own multi-million-pound distillery to keep his creativity from overflowing.
Founded in 1843, Glenmorangie produces sweet and fruity whiskies using water which has been forced through limestone and sandstone for hundreds of years. The distillery’s historic buildings and original line-up of giraffe-like copper pot stills are iconic sights. Now, a future icon, dubbed ‘the Lighthouse’, has been born. Boasting views across the Dornoch Firth, the 20m tall, glass-panelled structure of Glenmorangie II stands proudly against the Tain skyline; despite the differences in style, it doesn’t look out of place alongside its ‘parent’ distillery.
Bill Lumsden in the still room of the new distillery at Glenmorangie
“I’ve done a lot of things; I’ve realised a lot of my dreams,” says Lumsden. “I wanted to take things to the next stage and I was in conversation with Thom’s [Glenmorangie’s CEO] predecessor and – I’m talking metaphorically – I said I was bored; I’d like to try some different things. So, ‘If you give me X, I will build you the perfect distillery.’ It came from a constant desire to try new things and try different things. I’m very adventurous in terms of my lifestyle, which often lands me in trouble.”
He may be leaving his troublemaking at the doors of the Lighthouse, but certainly not his adventurous side. What’s inside the distillery is everything Lumsden needs to make some truly innovative, category-bending liquids.
As we work our way from the bottom of the tower to its peak, we’re introduced to the numerous pieces of seemingly familiar equipment the team will be using to produce its whiskies. First we see the hammer mill, in which all sorts of traditional and untraditional grains will be processed, before moving on to the cookers. With a conspiratorial smirk, Lumsden explains that these will process “lentil soup or whatever else” he might try to distil.
Further up, we reach the still room, which houses two tall copper stills. They look like the original distillery’s stills, but modifications have been made. Perhaps the most interesting addition is an inner jacket through which cold water can be pumped to functionally double the height of the stills, not to mention a condensing system that allegedly replicates the impact of a worm tub without actually having one. Finally, at the top of the tower, is Lumsden’s lab: the place where he and his team can examine the new-make spirits and determine the next steps of each new Lighthouse release.
When it comes to talking about the actual liquids, Lumsden is unsurprisingly – yet uncharacteristically – tight lipped. “In the first instance I will certainly be making things that will be within the Scotch whisky regulations…by 2022 and 2023 we will be starting to do more radical things here, but I don’t even know what these will be,” he says, intimating that the first new release will be the limited-edition Glenmorangie Lighthouse bottling.
Dr Bill Lumsden
His plans may be radical, but Lumsden isn’t naïve about the danger of doing too much too soon. “One of the challenges I have within myself is not to take a scatter-gun approach,” he says. To prepare, he’s planned out the first 100 days of working at the Lighthouse – not that he’ll tell me what they look like. He does allude to some of the tricks he has up his sleeve: “Who says yeast is the only organism you can use? I’ll be doing things I’d never risk at the main distillery, but [here] I can do ridiculous, wacky, dangerous, illegal things.”
As for dealing with the inevitable questions, queries and intrigue from his peers, Lumsden is prepared. “I will take a leaf out of one of my heroes’ books, the late, great Prince. There were occasions when he often didn’t open his mouth at all – he just smiled at the interviewer.”
The Glenmorangie production team, with the spirit safe and condensers in the background
It’s clear that what Lumsden will be doing at Glenmorangie’s ‘home of imagination’ (as he calls it) will push boundaries, raise eyebrows and tread a thin line when it comes to what can be considered Scotch whisky. It is unarguable that Lumsden knows what innovation means – and acts on it. That’s what we can expect from the Lighthouse. It’s one of the most exciting developements in Scotch whisky in recent years, and one which its head of distilling and whisky creation hopes will lead to more experimentation in the category as a whole. “We do things other companies dream of. I hope it will inspire other people in the industry.”