Where wine and whisky collide with Glenmorangie’s Bill Lumsden


Glenmorangie’s director of distilling and whisky creation Dr. Bill Lumsden has been at the forefront of whisky innovation upon his inception at the head of LVMH-owned The Glenmorangie Company in 1998. Since then he’s helped spearhead new initiatives at both Highland-based Glenmorangie and its Islay sister Ardbeg – whisky enthusiasts would no doubt be familiar with the cask treatments of many of Glenmorangie’s core expressions such as the port cask-finished Lasanta and sherry cask-finished Quinta Ruban, as well as Ardbeg’s iconic non-age statement Uigeadail, all of which he was personally responsibly in creating.

But what many people may not know about Dr. Lumsden is that many of his creations for Glenmorangie come as a result of his love for wine. He collects wine, and sometimes the taste of a particular wine would spark off a desire to recreate that flavour profile in a whisky.

Dr. Lumsden was recently in town to promote the distillery’s Legends single malt whisky range exclusive to DFS – the Tarlogan, Tayne and Duthac, all of which are appropriately cask finished – and we speak to him to learn more about his experiments with using wine casks.

You’re one of the earliest pioneers in the whisky industry to “cask finish” whiskies – to recask already finished whiskies in a different cask for secondary maturation – and particularly by using wine casks. How did that come about?

My interest in cask finishing was sparked in the early days when I joined Glenmorangie. I was particularly interested in some projects (the distillery was doing) that had fallen by the wayside, and I spent a decade trying to get them resurrected again. So I managed to persuade the board to give me a little bit of money to start things off.

I had many contacts so very quickly I managed to barriques from wineries such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Château d’Yquem, and other places; I had them before many other distillers in Scotland.

But I kept them until I felt they were ready to be bottled.

What is it about wine that ignites your imagination when conceptualising a new whisky?

There can be all sorts of things that can spark off an idea.

I am a lover of wine, and I have a wine cellar of over 200 bottles at home so it could be an interest in a particular bottle of wine. When you drink all these other things, and you eat all these other foods, you encounter different flavour profiles. That inspires me to try new things.

I might want to recreate a particular flavour profile which I did with Glenmorangie Milsean, for example.

That’s an interesting product, the Glenmorangie Milsean. We understand it uses retoasted wine casks. How did that idea come about?

The idea (for Glenmorangie Milsean) was a memory of my childhood and the candy sweets my grandmother used to give me. Believe it or not when I was a child I was every bit as precocious as I am today, and my grandmother used to pack my face with sweets to shut me up. I wanted to recreate that flavour profile, and it was never created in whisky before.

I sat down with Dr. Jim Swan, a consultant I use quite a lot who had helped me establish a supply of port casks from Byass in Oporto, and we were looking at some of the sweeter port wine casks. We eventually came up with this idea that we could maybe retoast the barrels with some wine still in it, and sort of caramelise the sugars inside. So that’s what we did.

It wasn’t port wine, as it turned out, but Duoro Valley table wine. The pedigree of the wine wasn’t as important as the fact that Byass was the only one who had agreed to do (the retoasting) for us!

My original plan was to leave the finishing for five years, but it leached the flavours out so quickly that I had to stop the experiment after just two and a half years otherwise I would have lost all the sweetness.

Are there any specific wine casks that you’re specially looking to experiment with that you’ve haven’t been able to?

There are a number of wine makers whose barrels I absolutely want to get my hands on, but I don’t necessarily want to name them right now in case anyone else stole a march on me.

And sometimes the people who work at the vineyards are sensitive souls; they might read this and say, “absolutely not!”.

How about specific wine styles from around the world?

I would like to revisit Tempranillo, because I tried Rioja barrels a long time ago and I didn’t like the result; it turned out too austere and tannic, and I ended up blending it away.

But my current favourite region for wine right now in the world is from Ribero del Duero in Spain where I think are making wines that are superior to Rioja. I’d like to do something there and I’m in the middle of trying to establish contacts with one of my favourite producers from that region.

The Rioja barrels I used them last time I had no control over, such as the pedigree of the wood, or how many times they have been filled. This time I’ve got a lot more experience so I will try to dictate a bit more.

That’s just one example. There are a lot of white wine styles I’d like to use, but unfortunately a lot of white wines I enjoy are seldom barrel-aged.

That’s interesting, that bit about pedigree of wood and the number of times a cask has been used. Tell us more.

One of the things you have to be careful of is that invariably these wine barriques are made of French oak and Frenck oak is very unforgiving for whisky. Typically my preference, if ever at all possible, would be for these barriques to have at least been filled with two vintages of wine first to tone them down.

I knew what the result of it was going to be, but I went ahead anyway and bought a batch of new French oak barrels from Tonnellerie François Frères at exactly the same specifications they would supply to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. I filled them with Glenmorangie new make spirit and after five years the whisky was totally awful, because the tannin had totally dominated.

But I had to try it.

You can try Glenmorangie’s recently introduced traveller’s exclusive Legends series of cask-finished whiskies by picking them up at DFS. The Tayne has been finished in Amontillado sherry casks, while the Duthac has been further matured in both Pedro Ximenez and virgin oak casks. The Tarlogan is the only one in the series that does not see the insides of a wine cask – it is completed using virgin oak and ex-bourbon casks.