Dr Bill Lumsden

Updated: 31 Mar 2017 | By:

Glenmorangie's latest edition is the Bacalta from the award-winning range of Glenmorangie’s Private Edition. The mastermind behind this expression is Dr Bill Lumsden, a scientist by practise and the Master Distiller for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg.

Dr Lumsden is named the Master Distiller / Master Blender of The Year by the Icon of Whisky 2016. He spent some time with Kim Choong talking about booze, wood, geeky stuff, movies and the planet earth.

Is there a place you wish you could go that you’ve never been before?

I’ve never been to South America and I’ve had some good feedback about that place, so I’d like to go there. I’m a lover and collector of wine and there’re some nice wines outside of America. I’ve been to most places around the world but would like to go back to Rome one day. I was there a few times but just for one day and I’d actually like to see the city properly.

Do you drink beer as well and are there any particular styles that you like?

I drink beer, yeah and I am very, very particular about the beer I drink. Unless it’s a high quality craft beer, I wouldn’t bother. So if I’m drinking lager, my absolute favourite is Pilsner Urquell from Czechoslovakia. I also like German Hefe Weisse and India Pale Ale. There’re so many different styles and quite interestingly, I had some nice Hong Kong brewed IPA (we found out it’s by Young Master) at the Mandarin Oriental hotel bar where I was staying during my last trip.

Have you ever thought about combining beer with whisky?

Not really because there are a lot of brands in the industry which have started using beer for whisky, which frankly I don’t think is a good idea. I like whisky and I like beer, but not in the same glass.

How about barrel-aged beer?

That’s the opposite. I actually supply a batch of ex-Morangie barrels to the famous Fullers brewery in London and they make a very good old ale aged in those barrels. So I think it can work that way, but I’m not convinced about the other way around.

You’re very particular about wood. What is it about wood that interests you so much, you’re almost obsessed?

My philosophy is that it doesn’t matter how carefully you’ve distilled the spirit and how good your eau de vie is, if you then do not mature it in good quality oak barrels, you would not make good whisky. So that’s kinda led to my obsession in trying to find the perfect barrel for Glenmorangie.

Have you found the perfect barrel?

I found one that I think is the best that is available at the moment. I would never go as far as to say it’s the perfect one, because I always think I can do better. I always think you can improve things.

What’s the best one that you’ve found so far?

It’s the American white oak barrels, which we have manufactured to my own specifications using very small growth tight-grained oak root. It’s air-seasoned for a minimum of 2 years, normally closer to 3 years. It’s then seasoned with American whiskey for 4 years. We don’t tend to use new wood for Scotch whisky, but a normal bourbon barrel is heavily charred whereas my barrels are lightly toasted rather than being charred. So the whole process takes 8 years from start to finish before I can get my hands on them.

Geeky-ing it out

Does that include growing it?

No, if you include growing them, that’s a minimum of about 18 years before an oak tree is ready to be felled and have enough girth to make a barrel. An 18 years old American white oak tree would probably be about the diameter of this table (bar table). Some of them are much more than that. Just in case people are thinking that it’s a shame that a poor old oak tree takes so long to grow and then we cut it down, for every one oak tree that’s felled, in Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee where the majority of them come from, as many as 50 acorns will have seeded themselves into the ground and grow. They actually have to go and trim the trees out.

I am recently in the committee for the Scotch Whisky Association looking at the sustainability of oak wood for our industry and in the United States where the vast majority of oak comes from for both the bourbon and the Scotch whisky industry. The bourbon guys use it first so the wood they use is new wood. The so-called sink-to-drain ratio, which means the number of new trees growing compared to the ones that have been used is 2:1. So it’s very environmentally friendly and sustainable.

How many barrels can you make out of one oak tree?

It depends on the girth of the oak tree. Once, the late Michael Jackson (not the pop star but the writer), myself and Bob Russell the forester were counting the growth rings of a tree we were going to use and found that it was 150 years old! It was this wide (Dr Lumsden extended his arms. According to our research, a healthy 150 year old oak tree is about 3 meters wide) but for a more average 80 to 90 years old tree (around 2.5m wide girth), which would be about 60 feet high, you will get between 3 and 4 barrels per tree. This is because you can only use the heart root of the tree and not the outside or the bark.

So there is actually an organization that is looking after the growth and the use?

Yeah, each of the states in the US has their own conservation department and they manage the forests.

Is that the wood that you use for the award winning whisky Signet?

There is some of that wood in it (the whisky) and there’re also different types of wood. I’m also using some very unusual virgin charred oak and some Spanish sherry casks as well.

On Awards

Congratulations on the Gold Medal in the World Whisky Awards for Glenmorangie Signet. How many awards have you won so far?

Thank you. I can’t really remember how many, Kim. One of these days I’m going to sit down and go through them all. Maybe my PR department and the company would. So I kind of don’t keep tally of awards, but there are lots.

Yeah, I can imagine. Does it make you a little bit of a celebrity?

Yeah, I guess *chuckle*. When I was in the USA 3 or 4 years ago, one group I was speaking to said that I am the rock star of the whisky industry. I’m not quite that, but yeah, I’m well-known and have a high-profile. I’d like to think that I’m still quite a humble guy but would inspire a new generation of young distillers to come through.

It must take certain qualities in a person to be a master distiller. It’s a meticulous profession, isn’t it? You’d have to be so particular about things until you have to be so fussy. Do you consider yourself OCD somehow?

Oh, I’m not just fussy, Kim. I’m way more than that. And I suffer from OCD in all sorts of facets of my life. You do need to be very particular, single-minded, passionate and have good nose power and if you have a technical background as well, that helps.

Yeah, you are a scientist?

Yes, a research scientist by training.

On movies

I don’t want to be assumptive, but do you like sci-fi?

I do, yes.

Star Wars or Star Trek?

It would be Star Wars without question, even though I grew up with the original Star Trek series with William Shatner as the captain of the Enterprise. Star Wars really captured my imagination and the script appeals to me because I hate the thought of doing or having something that lots of other people do. I like to be more individualistic. Of the seven Star Wars films, my favourite was “The Phantom Menace” and that was panned by most other people. I just like the whole thing that explained the genesis of the Jedi Knight. So yes, I do like sci-fi but it’s not necessarily my most favourite genre or film.

What’s your favourite genre?

I really like gangster films. My favourite movie of all time is by some considerable margin is “Once Upon A Time In America”. It is an absolute legend of a film and it’s Robert De Niro’s best work, ever, in my opinion. So I like that, I like historical drama. It’s certainly the best film for me but it killed the production company, it bankrupted them, it was such a massive production because the film was four and a half hours long.

One of my other favourite films, actually along the same genre as that, is “L.A. Confidential”. I think it’s just so good. But I also am partial to the odd rom-com (romantic comedy). I watched a film on one of my flights out to Seoul which starred Rebel Wilson in “How To Stay Single”, it was very funny. So I like all sorts of bits and pieces.

So if a director comes and asks you to be in the cast of a movie that you like, which movie would you pick and what character would you be?

I think it would have to be “Once Upon A Time In America” and I wouldn’t take the Robert De Niro part for a host of reasons.

Why not? He’s the main character.

Because it’s so tinged with tragedy and sadness, especially what happens to 'Noodles' Aaronson, the character he plays. So I would play his nemesis 'Max' Bercovicz played by James Woods, because he’s such an underrated actor. His character has all sorts of different facets to his personality and he was vaguely OCD and vaguely psychopathic in the movie.

So you think you kind of relate yourself like him?

Yeah. The other thing again about one of my other favourite movies “L.A. Confidential”, I’d like to play the part that Kevin Spacey played (Jack Vincennes). But if I played it, he wouldn’t get killed in it, he would survive.

So you like happy ending stuff.

I do, I find that “Once Upon A Time In America” is not a happy or uplifting film but it’s such a breath-taking epic.

Would you watch it over and over again?

I do, I’ve got the full remastered director’s cut version on DVD and I watch it once a year.

And it’s four and a half hours?

Four and a half-hours long, yeah.

What would you be drinking then while you’re watching it?

For something that long, almost invariably I would have a couple of drams of whisky with it. It’s a serious film that needs serious liquor to go with it.

A cause

If there is a cause that you can contribute to yourself, what kind of cause would that be?

It would be to trying to eradicate cancer because it’s such a challenging disease. My own family has been touched by it, many people have had it, I’ve lost a few relatives to it and I contribute to various cancer research charities. I did a big charity whisky-tasting back home in December and that’s primarily to raise money for cancer research. But also, I would like to try to do something to combat global warming and pollution throughout the world.

What are you doing for the conservation of global warming?

Both Glenmorangie and Ardbeg distilleries are now using all of our by-products, we’re fitting bioreactors to them (the distilleries). So we’re doing 2 things here. We are stopping putting any form of affluent into the water courses, which you’re still allowed to do as long as you treat it but we’re stopping that completely. And the processing of the by-products generates energy, not a lot at this stage but we will get to the stage where all of the products of the Scotch whisky industry are used, or be used to generate energy. So we’re going down that route.

But you were also working with NASA last time in 2014 and I saw your white paper. Are you going to have any more projects with them?

I’m liaising with them just now on that and I have the opportunity on another project with them, but it will cost a lot of money to do that. So I need to weigh up if the benefits are worth it. I am hopeful that I would be able to do something but I need to persuade our chief executive to give me a very large budget to do it.

What is your most memorable dram?

My most memorable dram was a single barrel I kept sampling at a distillery in a 1981 ex-bourbon hogshead (that is a 250-liter capacity). I was so blown away with it as it was such a perfect Ardbeg/Glenmorangie whisky that I bottled it by hand as my first distillery and my own choice. When I say bottled it by hand, I mean I literally bottled it by hand and that becomes a much sought after whisky with only 357 bottles.

You still have any?

I’ve got 3 left in my collection but I deleted one for a seminar I was doing down in London last year. I still have two left. It’s such a beautiful, amazing whisky.

 


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