Lumsden is a scientist by training and as one of the leading pioneers in the study of wood in relation to whisky maturation, he has been at the forefront of the ‘finishing’ programme spearheaded by Glenmorangie, in the first place with its Port Wood Finish.
“Our new product developments are hardly ever marketing-led; they are nearly always distiller-led,” Lumsden says. “Essentially, there are three potential areas for innovation with Scotch whisky. The most obvious, and the most exploited, is maturation. You can make use of a wide range of casks allowed by the Scotch Whisky Association, such as wines, Cognac, even ale. But overall, I think ‘finishing’ has been thrashed to death.
“The second is about marketing and packaging, but by itself I think that’s a pretty weak proposition, and certainly not something to excite hairy-arsed distillers like myself! I also think consumers now are too discerning to fall for that sort of thing.
“The third possible area for innovation is in relation to the primary production stage. There are a lot of areas to explore, but obviously this means you have a long lead time in terms of bringing the product to market.”
He makes the point that when you are dealing with well-established whiskies such as Glenmorangie and Ardbeg: “Some of the way-out things we may like to try just can’t be done. We have to protect the equity of the brand. It’s always vital that you maintain brand integrity and brand credentials.
“By contrast, someone like John Glaser has had a blank canvas, and I have to say he has painted it beautifully. I admire the fact that his products have good credentials. Some people have tried to be wacky and their products suck!
“So long as what you are producing is going to be called ‘Scotch whisky’ you have to have a sound working knowledge of the Scotch Whisky Regulations which legally define it. I wouldn’t say that we are held back by regulations. The situation would be far worse if people could add luminous green colouring and additional flavourings to whisky. It’s far better that we have a framework within which to operate.”
Lumsden may have no desire to produce green-coloured whisky, but the creation of Glenmorangie Signet, launched in 2009, certainly proved that he was not afraid to think outside the conventional Scotch whisky ‘box.’
During his earlier years with the Glenmorangie company, Lumsden was manager at Glenmorangie distillery, north of Inverness, and at that time he experimented with various aspects of primary production. Including trialling both winter and spring barleys, which produced a disappointing lack of real differentiation in spirit character, but Lumsden also made whisky using high-roast chocolate malt, and that led to the creation of Glenmorangie Signet.
“Signet is probably the biggest product innovation apart from wood finishes in Scotch whisky for many years,” he declares.
”I was looking for two things, really. Firstly, something that was genuinely innovative, and secondly, when I came to think more about what sort of Glenmorangie I wanted to make, I had something altogether deeper and richer in mind, and something that would work well on ice. On its own, the whisky made with chocolate malt was too full-on, too spicy and not refined enough. As it is, you can definitely taste the mocha in Signet, and whisky distilled from chocolate malt only makes up around 30 per cent of the total.”
That total also includes whisky of varying ages matured in a range of wood types, including ex-Sherry, new-charred oak and ex-wine casks. “I’ve described Signet as my ‘magnum opus,’” says Lumsden with a smile, “but I’m a big Michael Jackson fan and I hope it won’t become my Thriller moment!I don’t think he ever did anything quite as good again. Let’s hope Signet is my ‘magnum opus’ so far. Watch this space...”
Looking to the future, Lumsden says: “It seems we will see more companies focusing on primary production areas for innovation – using different barley varieties and strains of yeast, varying amounts of yeast, and even aerating the wash beforehand. That gives you different flavour congeners but there is a decrease in alcoholic strength.
“Yeast is a terribly neglected aspect of primary production innovation, I think. I am a great lover of beer as well as whisky, and it’s interesting that many countries have their own classic beer styles, created by using different types of yeast, like Belgian lambic, which has a very specific character and is not always appreciated by outsiders. One of the slightly wacky things we have done is to experiment with Ardbeg and yeast. Again, watch this space!”
Ardbeg also features in one of the worst-kept secrets of the Scotch whisky industry, namely Ardbeg Alligator, due for release later this year. Alligator is the name given to the deepest level of cask charring, which causes a scale-like pattern of burnt wood, so it does not require a great deal of imagination to work out at least one facet of the new expression’s character. “It will have classic elements of Ardbeg, but with a real twist in flavour,” says Bill, while loyally refusing to discuss the upcoming product in any further detail!
“We always have a range of short, medium and long term development projects ongoing for both Ardbeg and Glenmorangie,” Lumsden says. “One innovation we have tried involved experimenting with what I can only call ‘old-fashioned malting practices.’ The whisky is currently seven years old and we are monitoring its progress.”
Lumsden is also collaborating with whisky consultant Jim Swan on a number of ventures. “Specifically we are looking at the pedigree of the oak used and the influence of heat treatments and wood finishes,” he explains. “We have 12 to 15 experimental batches in the warehouses, and some may see the light of day as relatively limited releases. Some of them might end up being blended with classic Glenmorangie, as we did with Ardbeg Corryvreckan, which comprises 30 per cent spirit matured in new French oak barriques and 70 per cent ‘traditional’ Ardbeg.
“More than 90 per cent of the Ardbeg we produce is in the classical, heavily peated style, and it’s much more difficult really to be innovative with Ardbeg than it is with Glenmorangie, because Glenmorangie is obviously a more delicate spirit that can be ‘flexed’ to a greater degree.”
In conclusion, Lumsden declares: “Perhaps there hasn’t been so much ‘blue sky’ thinking in the Scotch whisky industry because we know we will always have to pull it back into the framework of the legislation. Having said that, most of the new things that have been tried have had some integrity, and that’s no mean achievement!”
Finealta is the second Glenmorangie expression to be released in the Private Edition series, with the first variant being Sonnalta PX, which was finished for two years in former Pedro Ximinez Sherry casks. Finealta – Gaelic for elegant –harks back to the style of Glenmorangie being produced in the early years of the 20th century.
Bill Lumsden says: “In general most whiskies distilled during the early 1900s were more heavily-peated, and were matured in ex-Sherry casks and what were called ‘plain’ casks – virgin oak casks made in Scotland and refilled. Medium-peated Glenmorangie ‘Aultnamain’ spirit which we produced when I was distillery manager there was a vehicle for recreating that style.
“We dug out some old, leather-bound ledgers that we keep at the distillery, which show every cask selection and filling that was done. There were some very specific recipes for Sherry wood-maturated and plain cask spirit, and I used that sort of percentage of Sherry wood and plain wood in Finealta. It was not an exact copy.”