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The dream ticket

Joel Harrison talks to Gillian Macdonald about her new role as whisky creator with the Glenmorangie Company
By Joel Harrison
When I was child, I had just one hero: Colt Seavers. At the mention of that name, you either know what I’m talking about or you don’t. For those of you who have no idea who this ‘Colt Hero’ is, let me enlighten you.

From 1981 to 1986 an American action and adventure programme aired on TV called The Fall Guy.

The main character, the aforementioned Colt Seavers, played by Lee Majors, was a Hollywood stuntman who moonlighted as a bounty hunter in the evenings.

This TV show had everything: pick-up trucks, jet packs, 10-gallon hats. None of which, sadly, I have gone on to own since. But the show left a profound impression on me; it left me with the desire to be a stuntman when I grew up.

Now a fully-fledged adult I can honestly say that I’ve never done a day of stunt work in my life. The closest thing I get to risky living is the 20 minute flight from Glasgow to Islay which I do a few times a year.

Over time, my dreams have changed. The dream job is no longer to be a Californian stuntman. However, jostling for the number one spot at the top of my new list would to create and make single malt Scotch whisky. Maybe even have the title of ‘Whisky Creator’. One can dream, I suppose...

But dreams do come true. This mythical job exists and Scotland’s newest recruit to this role is Gillian Macdonald, joining The Glenmorangie Company from her previous role as distiller at the Welsh Whisky Company, Penderyn.

"Going from Glenmorangie to Ardbeg, there is so much difference between the two of them, it’s brilliant”


Becoming part of the ‘Whisky Creation team’ at a company that boasts two of the finest single malts in Scotland, in Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, couldn’t have been a difficult decision to make and Gillian explains her new role to me:

“I’ll be working alongside Dr. Bill Lumsden, head of distilling and whisky creation at Glenmorangie, on ensuring the consistent quality of all the bottling batches and cask selection going forward. That’s a major priority: quality and consistency; as well as then working on new and exciting developments as they come along and planning more for the future.

“It’s all very exciting.”

Dr. Bill Lumsden is at the forefront of whisky creation and anyone who has spent time chatting with him about Scotch, from grain to glass, cannot fail to catch some of his passion for the product.

“Dr. Bill is one of the world authorities when it comes to whisky creation and he has a huge amount of knowledge,” Gillian comments. “He’s been in the industry for a while, he’s worked in distilleries, which is very important, and has earned his stripes all the way up. The plan is for me to work alongside him and to learn from him. When you’re working alongside him, you can’t help but be passionate. It’s a lot of responsibility to be in charge of the quality of the whisky.

“Every single thing has to be exactly right and his attention to detail on every aspect on the whole process is amazing.”

With a background in whisky making in Wales with just a single still to play with, Gillian is moving to one of Scotland’s most recognised distillers with two of the best known brands in single malt whisky, but she seems confident that her experience will stand her in good stead:

“In my previous role we did wine cask finishing, the main one being Madeira, which was mimicking something Glenmorangie had already pioneered and is at the forefront of, so it is certainly exciting to be somewhere that has pioneered the parameters around that. There is a lot of scope here for things like that,” she says.

“If anything, I have more to play with now. I’m excited that I can get involved in the whole process that contributes to the final flavour in the glass.”

But is getting to know such a variety of casks a tough proposition? “I have only been here a month, but I’m getting my nose in tune with the core range. I’m on the tasting panel so I’m constantly assessing samples as they come in from the distilleries and working with the team on the cask selections as well.

“The plan is to really get to grips with not only the core range but the experiments we have going on too. I think I’m going to be spending quite a bit of time at both distilleries, get my hands dirty, getting in the back in warehouse, getting on the forklift trucks. Although I don’t know if they’ll let me do that!”

The two single malt whisky brands The Glenmorangie Company own both have a huge international profile, but few distilleries have the passionate following that Ardbeg has and this is something that clearly excites Gillian: “Ardbeg is an amazing whisky to work on. It’s really complex. It is not just about peat. It’s got so much going on, loads of levels beneath the peat. Obviously, it is one of the peatiest whiskies on Islay but there are a lot of sweeter, lighter elements beneath that; a lot of citrus flavours and it’s our job to ensure that that complexity remains there.

“It has such a huge following. Peat is such a decisive flavour, it causes lots of reaction; people either love it or they hate it. If people have bought in to Ardbeg, then they’re very enthusiastic about it.

“The (Ardbeg) Committee members are passionate and they’re really important to us so we consult with them a lot of the time as to what they want and where they want the flavours to go as well.”

But will going from working with a lighter style of whisky in Wales to something so peaty be a problem, or a pleasure?

“It’s really good to have two quite extreme whiskies under one roof. Going from Glenmorangie to Ardbeg, there is so much difference between the two of them, it’s brilliant! It makes it so easy to work with, because they have completely different outlooks. I count myself as very lucky, really. It’s a real privilege to work on two such well established brands.”

So what does the future have in store for the Whisky Creation team at Glenmorangie: “Well, the core range is what we produce the most of in volume, so that’s what we’re concentrating on; consistency and quality and ensuring that it’s the best it can be,” enthuses Gillian.

“But then additional casks and the different varieties of casks is where we play and where we can let our imaginations run wild. That’s where the ‘art’ side of it comes in. The science doesn’t go out the window at that point but there is only so far science can take you. You then have to rely on your sensory skills and knowledge and knowing what does combine well together to produce something that isn’t out there or you will know your consumer is going to taste and go ‘Ah, wow!’”

At a distillery, the staff is as important as the stills and with such a passionate team of ‘whisky creators’ and two great single malt distilleries, it seems that the future is bright; the future is Glenmorangie.