Meet Dr Bill Lumsden, the Rockstar of the Whisky World

Tall, tanned and smooth, Glenmorangie’s latest private-edition single malt whisky sashays in from the tropics. Dan Ahwa meets its gregarious maker

Glenmorangie's Dr Bill Lumsden is a passionate advocate of all things whisky. Picture / Supplied

In the discerning world of whisky, Dr Bill Lumsden is a rock star. As Glenmorangie’s director of distilling, whisky creation and whisky stocks, and the winner of the 2016 Icons of Whisky Awards Master Distiller/Blender of the Year, Dr Bill is vocal when it comes to all things related to the water of life. “First and foremost, I love whisky and I am a whisky consumer and that’s why I continue to do and love what I do,” he says.

Working across the Glenmorangie and Ardbeg brands, Bill talks with fervency on the topic of whisky as we sit in a bistro preparing for a pre-whisky tasting menu. He’s in Auckland to celebrate the launch of his latest star, the Glenmorangie Bacalta (Scots Gaelic for baked), the eighth release from the Glenmorangie Private Edition range, and the first finished entirely in sun-baked Malmsey Madeira casks after a relatively lengthy two-year process.

“I feel relieved. It was a thorn in my side because historically, we had a product called Glenmorangie Madeira we’d finished more than 20 years ago, the world’s first whisky extra-matured in Madeira casks. I had to eventually discontinue it because I couldn’t get a steady supply of barrels from Madeira.”

Every year, Glenmorangie adds to its award-winning collection of rare single malts, inviting connoisseurs to explore the Scottish Highland distillery’s passion for innovation. The Bacalta joins a stellar cast in Glenmorangie’s luxurious portfolio, and has a complex combination of flavours including mint toffee, baked fruits, honeycomb, almonds, dates, marzipan, white pepper and melon with a rich, syrupy finish.

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“Madeira wine is an acquired taste, and good Madeira is made in very small quantities using one of four noble grapes: sercial [the driest], verdelho [medium dry], bual [medium sweet] and malvasia or malmsey [the sweetest]. I just couldn’t get my hands on enough barrels of the noble grapes — there just wasn’t enough,” recalls Bill.

“About eight years ago I set out on this project and thought ‘I want to have one last go at making the perfect Madeira finish whisky’, so I had Speyside Cooperage create barrels for me using tight-grained heavily posted American oak.”

Bill and his team persuaded a company in Madeira to work with them. “They were a little reluctant because new oak is not good for Madeira wines, but they ended up soaking my barrels in their Malmsey for two years using the traditional canteiro process, where the barrels are actually stored at the top of the vineyard, almost in the rafters, so it gets really baked by the sun. This oxidises the wine and gives it that unique character.”

The barrels were shipped to Scotland and filled with specially selected spirit (already matured in ex-bourbon barrels). Bill taste-tested it every three months over two years. Without the right barrel and wood, he believes it’s impossible to create the perfect taste, and much of his career has been spent finding the right woods to create great whisky.

“I learned pretty early on that wood was arguably the most important factor in giving flavour to a good-quality single malt whisky.”

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Gin and rum have experienced a recent revival among a younger demographic, and whisky is not far behind, evidenced by the sexy campaign imagery for Bacalta. Described by Bill as “the sunshine goodness of Madeira in a glass”, the sunny image looks like a campaign for one of Glenmorangie’s fashion design stablemates at LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate. A sun-kissed bottle of Bacalta is accompanied by an elegant vase of Bird-of-Paradise flowers, a bowl of oranges and peaches, a leather-bound diary, compass and a ship in a bottle — the latter a nod to the traditional wine barrels used as ballast on old ships.

“I was trying to capture the balmy beauty of the tropical Madeira with its lovely gardens and sunny climate,” says Bill.

We take a sip of our whisky sours, garnished with delicate flowers. “Twenty years ago, if you came to Scotland and asked for something like this you’d be thrown out of the country,” laughs Bill. “When I started out making whisky, malt whisky was still viewed as the drink your father or your grandfather drank. Over the past decade in particular I’ve seen spectacular change, especially in Asia. People now view it as an aspirational drink, which is great news for us. Single malt scotch should be part of everyone’s drinking repertoire. It’s a luxury drink.”

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