Whisky & Culture

Pride In The Name Of Jazz

Neil Ridley visits Manhattan for the launch of Glenmorangie's latest, and oldest, release to date
By Neil Ridley
If anyone reading this has been fortunate enough to visit New York in the spring, then you'll know that you should definitely expect the unexpected. As a city, it is arguably one of the finest melting pots of talent in the world; where the arts seamlessly intertwine alongside the distinct NY way of doing things properly and to the highest possible standards. Having visited many times before, however, I should know better than to casually ask my friends who live here what the weather is like before idly packing a suitcase. An unprecedentedly cold blast of North Atlantic wind - brutal even for this hardened Eurotraveller - brought in several inches of snow, which was mercifully just about ploughed away before I arrived.

It is in this supremely chilly and blustery environment that I meet up with Dr Bill Lumsden for the launch of his latest, and perhaps greatest, creation - the third instalment of the Glenmorangie Pride series, this time a 1974 vintage, the oldest Glenmorangie expression to be bottled by the distillery. The whisky's release is partnered by legendary piano makers Steinway and acclaimed jazz musician Aaron Diehl, who composed a bespoke solo piano piece to accompany the whisky.

As we sit down, the good Dr's legendarily refreshing candour immediately warms up the room. However, something has clearly rattled him today as we chat all things Glenmorangie, music and his passion for the unconventional.

"I'm a deeply unsatisfied character," he jokes, referring to a previous tasting deconstruction he led of the arguably peerless Glenmorangie 18 Years Old, where he revealed he wished he could revise the recipe slightly: currently a blend of wholly matured Bourbon cask whisky, which sits beautifully with a secondary 15 years old finished for a further three years in Oloroso sherry casks. "I was brought up a Protestant Lutheran, but I'm a closet Catholic, because I metaphorically flail the skin off my back on a daily basis," he laughs, mocking a painful looking swinging motion, repeating "must try harder".

It's the first of many hilarious 'Lumsdenisms' of the day, which begin to reveal a lot about the man responsible for creating almost all of the Glenmorangie (and Ardbeg) releases for the past two decades. "I'm never particularly satisfied as a person," he explains. "I always feel I can do a little better than I have."

It is this unrestrained discontent that has led to the creation of Glenmorangie's many successful experiments with different wine finishes and malt types; most notably the Private Edition series which explored casks from legendary wineries such as Tuscany's Sassicaia (Artein) and Malmsey Madeira (Bacalta), alongside Signet, the first Scotch single malt to use chocolate malt in the whisky's brewing process, ripping up the rule book on flavour in the process.

This brings us neatly onto Pride, which is clearly something Dr Lumsden is filled with regarding this latest incarnation, the pinnacle of the distillery's Prestige Range. So is there anything that links it to the two previous releases?

"There's no real lineage as such. The fact that they are progressively older (the first, a 1981, led to a 1978, then the 1974) is actually purely by chance. The next is likely to be younger, if I choose to do another one at all," he explains. "The only real similarity is that they're all little nuggets of really rare stock. I don't generally like to release old Glenmorangie, because you tend to lose the uniqueness of the distillery."

For this latest release Lumsden brought together two parcels of aged stock, distilled on the 30 October 1974, filled into ex-Bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry butts. "What's remarkable is that the sherry element was not dominated by the wood, which was a total surprise to me, given the 40 odd years it had spent in the cask," he continues. "It's a real mystery, as I've previously explored fully matured sherry cask Glenmorangie and not enjoyed it at all."

Tasting Pride 1974, one is immediately hit by the unmistakable freshness that has helped build the distillery's reputation for a highly approachable flavour. Alongside the subtle dried fruit and sublime fragrant notes, there are richer, spicy notes, which take its profile in a very different - and it has to be said - wonderfully complex direction.

Speaking of directions, I'm keen to find out just how this particular partnership came about, especially the personal journey which Steinway artist, Aaron Diehl underwent to compose his accompanying piece, entitled Echoes of the Glen of Tranquillity.

"In my career at the Glenmorangie Company, we've had a number of creative partnerships; some of them 'interesting' - and by that I mean the exact opposite," laughs Lumsden. "But this particular partnership with Aaron Diehl and Steinway has been truly inspirational. Outside of whisky and wine, music is probably my greatest passion. Jazz is my favourite genre, because it feels unstructured, which is something I really relate to. The first time I met Aaron, we just hit it off straight away. His creative thought process is so similar to mine."

To get the creative juices flowing, the musician spent three days at the distillery in Tain, shadowing Lumsden and immersing himself in the sights, sounds and, of course, tastes. The resulting 12-minute piece took around four months to compose and is an extraordinary journey through contemporary jazz, traditional bluegrass, Spanish samba, Scottish folk and classical musings, which mirrors the whisky's many twists and turns in flavour and complexity. The piece was debuted at Steinway Hall for the official launch, which is where I got the chance to speak to the composer himself to understand his approach to structured musicality and the more freeform elements that make jazz such an intriguing genre.

"I started playing piano relatively young, at the age of seven, although not as young as some," explains Aaron. "My grandfather is a jazz musician and I started out playing classical and then found jazz in my teenage years. There's a sense that music isn't a staple, conventional career, but for me I always had the passion to give it a try. I was fortunate enough to move to NY in 2003 and study at Juilliard school of music (one of the most prestigious conservatoires in the US) and then things really took off for me."

As we chat, it strikes me that despite the transatlantic distance, and obvious differences in career paths, Diehl and Lumsden are indeed very similar characters in their approach to their specific art forms; both have, what you could say, traditional roots (Aaron in classical music, Bill in scientific studies) but both pursue, and clearly enjoy, a more deconstructed, unconventional style. "It takes a lot of dedication and discipline, especially any art form where you're given a certain amount of latitude; you have to start by knowing the rules to break the rules," smiles Diehl, just as he takes to the stage, Steinway grand ominously stretched out before him, waiting to be tamed.

One suspects that this pair of genuine characters will be, at the very least, bending the rules for some time to come.

For more information on Glenmorangie Pride 1974 visit glenmorangie.com

To listen to Aaron Diehl's piece, Echoes of the Glen of Tranquillity, visit tinyurl.com/GlenmorangieAaronDiehl