Not an exact science

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on September 28, 2018

Alchemy: The ultimate aim of Lumsden’s research would be to try and manipulate the distillation process

Whisky distiller Bill Lumsden opens up about his creative process

DBill Lumsden had a PhD in microbial physiology and fermentation science but did not know where his research would take him while pursuing academics. His first job was with alcoholic beverage giant, Diageo. But the Scottish biochemist was destined to be the director of distilling, whisky creation and whisky stocks in Tain, Ross-Shire, Scotland, at the Glenmorangie distillery.

What made him leave the deep end to what could be called a plunge into the backwaters in comparison?

“It would be interesting, I thought,” says Lumsden. He was looking forward to a shift in the style of functioning from the rigid, precise ways of a multinational company to a smaller, niche distillery. Thirty-eight years later, Lumsden seeks to leave behind a legacy as Glenmorangie’s whisky creator. In Delhi to launch the annual limited edition release of Glenmorangie’s range Spios, named after the Gaelic word for spice, a spirit that has been bottled after 20-odd years, Lumsden has finally begun to reap the fruits of his labour. A distiller with the reputation of being a bit of an eccentric, he has experimented with Glenmorangie’s original using a variety of techniques, some of which have earned him a good name in the industry. He was feted for the now famous extra maturation process and for using different kinds of oakwood to mature the scotch in. Luxe caught up with him before the launch to understand the method in his madness.

How has the whisky distiller’s job changed since the beginning?

In the olden days in our industry, people were referred to either as a distiller or a blender, but I’m responsible for both, a trend that’s becoming increasingly common in the industry. I’m known as master distiller at Glenmorangie, but I’m both the distiller and the person who marries two blends. I’m responsible for the golden liquid, and the entire process of production, from buying the raw materials to the barrels which the drink will sit in.

Does the bottle or the glass that the whisky is had in, or stored, reflect anything about the drink?

The shape of the bottle would be designed to reflect the personality of a certain whisky. The glass makes a big difference in the way you’re hoping to drink it. As I have discovered in my laboratory, where I do tastings out of my tulip-shaped glass, it only requires a few drops of water, as opposed to ice, to open up the spirit’s flavours.

How much of whisky creation is an exact science, and how much is instinct?

When I first joined the industry, I was using my scientific knowledge to create distils, but I soon realised that about 70-80 per cent of it is an art. You need to depend on your nose and taste buds more than anything else, and it is very important, therefore, to have an acute sense of smell. Some companies have recipes for their whiskies — say 20 casks of this type, add some caramel colouring — and so on. However, I personally make a general cask selection, vat the whiskies together, then analyse and taste it, perhaps use some gas or liquid chromatography at this point, just to indicate trends in the fermentation process. Then my team and I taste the product extensively, and adjust and fine tune. This is a slightly lengthier process, and it doesn’t augur well for my colleagues in marketing who are desperate to bottle the product. I think at the end of the day, you can measure a one thousand and one things in the whisky, but all you decipher are but trends — the level of different components within it. At the end of the day, the person drinking it is going to judge your product on the basis of the taste and smell of it. You can be trained to differentiate between different smells, and distinguish between flavours but you need an innate good sense.

Are you saying one needs to be born with it to be a good distiller?

If not, one needs to develop that sense. That’s why i do very detailed tasting notes. Sometimes, they’re a bit tongue-in-cheek, and some of our geeky consumers prefer that. Whisky expert Jim Murray claimed there were 140 tasting notes in the Glenmorangie Original, and to back up the claim, as well as a fun experiment, I ran an exercise for jotting down all the different notes during the distillation process. Your average consumer probably doesn’t have the patience to listen to all of that.

What are the unusual notes among the ones you found?

When the whisky is broken down, aromas are not necessarily those to be found in the final product. The most unusual smell that I found was that of a damp tent canvas, not something I want to find in tasting notes for sure! The most interesting thing from a scientific perspective is that most of the more complex flavour clusters, inevitably produced by the yeast, or drawn from the oak wood, are found in many other different places in nature, where the whisky may not have a direct association. In the original, there’s something that reminds me of lemon, mandarins or orange, some of the chemical components that are found in fruits. Part of my current research is to try and explain where these flavours come from. The ultimate aim is to try and manipulate the distillation process, so you can accentuate different flavours.

What are your thoughts on single malts from other countries?

There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to called whisky and there are some very good ones from here, but it can’t be Scotch whisky by law. It can be Scotch in style, however. I’ve tasted many whiskies in India. Some locally produced whiskies from a technical perspective are rum. Whisky can only be made from cereal, and a lot of them here are made from molasses, which makes them rum. In India, Amrut is the best single malt.

How do barrels make a difference in the fermentation process?

Scotch whisky needs to be matured in an oak wood cask by law, to be called as such, but it can be oak from different parts of the world. Generally, we use once used barrels to mature the spirit, and I often use the ones which have contained different wines, since they often retain some of the characteristics of the wine. Nine years ago, we decided to do them in smaller editions, and it was so successful, collectors went mad. Spios is the no 9 in that series.

Thoughts on using single malts for cocktails?

There are a lot of purists among us who are horrified at the idea of using single malts for cocktails, and while I don’t recommend it, it is ultimately up to the customer how they enjoy the taste of their whisky. I do acknowledge that the growth in whisky drinkers among the younger generations is also because of cocktails, so tastes change, and that’s okay.

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Published on September 27, 2018
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