Tyler Lunceford and 'The Smoker' at his shop in Leith. Photo by John Need.
Whisky and motorcycles. They have more in common than you might think. Both invariably invoke a visceral, passionate response in people exposed to them; both can be divisive, either loved or loathed; both have spawned cult followings and, indeed, their own subcultures (don’t try to tell me that being a whisky geek isn’t a subculture); and both, according to Tyler Lunceford of Ducati specialist North Motorcycle
in Leith, attract people with an eye for detail and quality.
“I feel like there’s a lot of people out there that share the same two passions. Not that whisky and motorcycles go together at the same time! But I feel like a lot of people who are passionate about whisky ‘get’ motorcycles and vice versa,” says Tyler. “You don’t have to be into both, of course. But it’s cool to see people building stuff and making things — whatever their art is.”
Nine months ago, Tyler was commissioned to build a custom Ducati motorbike, dubbed ‘The Smoker’, for Smokehead, the heavily peated Islay single malt brand owned by Ian Macleod Distillers, parent company of Glengoyne, Tamdhu, and Rosebank distilleries. Although Smokehead has been around for a number of years, the brand has recently been shifted up a gear and is becoming known as a vocal advocate of no-nonsense whisky with above-average ABVs and big flavours. A packaging refresh was followed by the launch of three new expressions: High Voltage (58% ABV), Sherry Bomb (48% ABV) and, most recently, Rum Riot (43% ABV).
“Smokehead were like, ‘We like what you do, what’ve you got?’” explains Tyler. “They seem to like what I do and I like what they do.”
This unprecedented partnership offered Tyler an opportunity to make ideas previously relegated to his sketch pads a reality, while uniting two of his greatest passions. Indeed, he makes it very clear that he has been enjoying Scotch whisky for almost as long as he’s had a passion for motorcycles. Even better, he’s a peat head:
“I generally go for Islay whiskies, too. I like the smoky stuff, but I also like grain whiskies. I don’t want to call myself a whisky snob, but I definitely really get into the details of how it’s made and, you know, there’s so many whiskies out there that are really generic,” he says. “So, when you find something distinct, it becomes a go-to. Islay whiskies in general, and Smokehead in particular, is a perfect example of that – distinct whisky.”
In fact, both Scotch whisky and motorcycles have been common themes throughout his life. Tyler met his wife Maeve, a self-confessed Scotch whisky aficionado who hails from Edinburgh, many years ago when both were taking motorcycle road trips with friends. Back in 2010, Maeve’s artistic eye and passion for Scotch whisky led to her appointment as the jeweller to create the silver decanter which held Highland Park’s inaugural 50 Years Old expression. Clearly, creative minds and whisky lovers are drawn together!
The road to Leith, and the Smokehead collaboration, has been a long one for Tyler, who hails from a farming community in Oregon, on the West Coast of the USA, and has been interested in bikes and cars since he was a child:
“When I was 12 years old or something, a neighbour’s kid had a dirt bike. I grew up in a farming community, so was able to ride this thing out in the oat fields. It was amazing to just feel so able to fly through the fields and get the wind in your face. It just felt good! But, I think later, when I was about 16 or something, the Ducati 916 came out and specifically that bike just grabbed my attention and it was like ‘oh my god what is this, it’s so beautiful. People still look at them and think it’s a 2018 model — the design is so timeless. These bikes are recognised as iconic in the motorcycle world and they are going up in value every year.”
Having caught the bike bug, at 16 years old Tyler bought his first bike, a Honda Nighthawk, before getting a 1994 Ducati 900 Supersport. This began his love affair with Ducati that would last a lifetime. But for Tyler, it wasn’t just about the ride, it was also about the mechanical tweaks and improvements that could be made:
“I’d always been into working on old cars, it was sort of like a family thing, and my best friend growing up, his family was really into classic cars. I was always turning wrenches and really interested in the things I was riding and working on. I’ve always been interested in the mechanics of things and fixing things.”
After working in a paint shop and eight seasons in farming, driving ‘tractors and things’, he began to find himself naturally gravitating toward the automotive industry, rather than actively pursuing a particular career path. Then came the chance to work in the service department at MotoCorsa in Portland:
“I didn’t even realise how excited I should’ve been. But, you know, I was sweeping floors and learning how to change tyres and oil, and eventually got all the factory training. After a few years I was treated like a technician and given cool jobs like engine building and tuning – cool things like that.”
Then, in 2007, Tyler got the chance to relocate to the opposite side of the country to Ducati New York, where he worked for a time before founding his own shop in Brooklyn. This business was a huge success, with more than 2500 clients on the books, and it was during this time he became known as ‘the Ducati whisperer’. However, after nearly 10 years, Maeve and Tyler chose to move to Edinburgh and start over, seeking out a calmer lifestyle:
“We felt like we’d got what we needed from New York and it was time to take it down a notch,” explains Tyler. After securing an old railway arch on Manderston Street in Leith, Edinburgh, he set about renovating the space himself – turning his hand to sandblasting, roof repair, plumbing and more.
“Also, as far as motorcycles are concerned, it’s given me the opportunity to do more frame building, fabrication – you know, stuff that I felt I never had time for in New York," he adds. "It was really fast paced there. I worked on an average of six bikes per day. It was mental. Coming here with all my tools and knowledge and starting over gives me time to explore all those things I’ve been thinking about all those years.”
This change of pace has allowed Tyler to pursue other projects, including one or two custom bikes per year that allow him to showcase his skills. “It’s like a piece of art that you get to finally make into something physical,” he says. “It’s nice for Smokehead to be meeting up with craftspeople and letting them express themselves.”
Now complete, The Smoker will be official unveiled on 12 November at an event held at The Bike Shed i
n Shoreditch, London. Though this project is complete, Tyler won’t be sitting still for long:
“I’ve got all these engines sitting here, they’re waiting for their new life. I’ve got some really good ideas for all of them,” he says pensively. “You’ve got to pace yourself. I’ve got endless ideas but only so many days on the planet!”TASTING NOTESBy Christopher CoatesSmokehead
Islay Single Malt Scotch WhiskyIan Macleod DistillersABV:
Single Malt REGION:
: Specialist, On-Trade, Worldwide
- Nose: Smoky barbeque beef and Chinese-style pork ribs, there’s fruity sweet-and-sour sauce and a first-aid kit medicinal note. Seaweed on the beach, with engine-oil. Maltiness, too.
- Palate: Smoked venison with red onion chutney. Sweet, with woodsmoke and a little prickle. Cranberry sauce, cherry boiled sweets and elderflower. A touch of antiseptic.
- Finish: Medium, smokiness lingers.
- Comments: Sitting round a fire on the beach, having a Chinese takeaway.
The Smoker will be unveiled to media, trade and bike fanatics on 12 November in London at The Bike Shed, Shoreditch. Hosting the evening will be bike blogger Motobob
who will run a Q&A with Tyler, while custom motorcycle helmet designer Piers Dowell paints two Smokehead helmets live on the night. Bike fans will enjoy video footage of the creation of The Smoker, including the final video of the bike on the open road. Cocktails made with Smokehead will be served throughout the night, including a drink named after The Smoker: a mix of Smokehead, lemon juice, honey syrup, ginger liqueur and a pinch of activated charcoal, which is shaken over ice and strained into a rocks glass before being garnished with crystallised ginger.
Tyler and his creation, 'The Smoker'. Photo by John Need.
Tyler and 'The Smoker'. Photo by John Need.
The Smoker. Photo by John Need.
A bottle of Smokehead in Tyler's workshop, with The Smoker under construction. Photo by Christopher Coates.
A bottle of Smokehead and The Smoker under construction. Photo by Christopher Coates.
A bike in Tyler's workshop. Photo by Christopher Coates.
A bike in for work at Tyler's shop. Photo by Christopher Coates.
Tyler in his shop. Photo by Christopher Coates.