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Talking Whisky With Glenmorangie’s Dr Bill Lumsden

When you get a opportunity to sit down and have a one-on-one conversation with a legend in the whisky industry you drop everything and seize it with both hands and that’s exactly what I did. On a chilly spring morning in Johannesburg I met up with the man responsible for creating the Glenmorangie and Ardbeg range of whiskies that I love so dearly – Dr Bill Lumsden – and here is how the conversation went…

WTF: Hi Dr Bill, to what do we owe the pleasure of your visit out to South Africa?

BL: This is the second time I’ve been out to South Africa. I was here in 2006. I spend about 25% of my time out in the markets doing promotional work: product launches, whisky festivals, press events, whatever and certainly from a Moët-Hennessy perspective (our owners) they are very keen for all the Creators to get out into the market. So I go to Asia twice a year and I’m en route to my second Asia trip this year starting with Hanoi in Vietnam.

After a number of years of lobbying the company have allowed me to come back to South Africa. Look, I can understand their strategy is that they want me to visit their key strategic markets. So the fact that I’m back here is a very good sign of how well things have been going in this market since I was last here in 2006. I’m here to do a little few low-key consumer events and press interviews.

It’s a frustrating trip for me because I arrived on Monday morning and came straight from the airport to here (Westcliff Hotel). I don’t get to see much of the countries I visit!

So it’s just an opportunity for me to see customers and consumers first hand.

Dr Bill Lumsden nosing a Glenmorangie

WTF: While out here has the focus been mainly on the Glenmorangie range, or have you been covering Ardbeg too?

BL: For this trip it has mainly been Glenmorangie, although we did a consumer event last night where a lot of the attendees there were big Ardbeg fans as well. But currently we only have one of our Ardbeg range available here – the 10 year old – so it’s kind of a seed market for Ardbeg.

WTF: There are so many die-hard Ardbeg fans in South Africa and it’s very frustrating that we miss out on so many great releases. Take Ardbeg Day for example. We really need an Ardbeg Embassy here.

BL: Yes, and I think that will come. South Africa is definitely knocking on the door of becoming a key strategic market. There are two challenges here: The first one is volume. Because it’s a smaller distillery and we inherited a horrible stock profile from the previous owners with lots of gaps in it and we’ve done our very best to try and spread the stock out evenly and we started off with UK, Germany, Japan, the United States. The more obvious markets. But given the nature of the Ardbeg brand and your typical Ardbeg consumer there is monstrous demand for new expressions, but I can only make them in fairly limited quantities.

To give you an illustration of that just look at Ardbeg Day. Previously I would select one or two barrels and that would be bottled and available only at the distillery, with the obvious challenges that gives and obviously lots of angry Committee members who couldn’t make the pilgrimage to Islay which we understand. So the brand manager approached me about a year and a half ago and said “Bill, I would really like to increase the volume of Ardbeg Day. What do you think?” And I said “Alan I’m all for it, what numbers are you talking about?” and I was thinking of upping it to six or twelve barrels. And he said 6000 cases! I can’t do that, that’s too much, but we worked a compromise and took the decision, I think correctly, that we would make it available in Ardbeg Embassies throughout the world. And of course, the poor old brand team and distributors did get angry messages from Embassies saying “we’re only getting 26 bottles!” which is about what everybody got. So Ardbeg is one of the two or three whisky brands in Scotland that have true cult status. Whereas you could argue that Glenmorangie has a much wider appeal.

But we do have the annual limited release which I always target 5000 9-litre cases (12x75cl) worth. And last year’s offering was the much anticipated Ardbeg Alligator. And a couple of days ago we launched Galileo, the latest offering. I’m always laying down bits and pieces which I’m never quite sure how they will turn out and in the late 1990s/early 2000s I went mad and laid down all sorts of things and that lead to Corryvreckan, that lead to Alligator and that lead to Galileo. And I’m using Sicilian Marsala wine casks as part of the recipe. And my target for that is I had about 4 or 5 different things I could have used which I probably will use over the next few years. Alligator was all about the ferocity/bite/intensity but Galileo is an altogether more gentle concoction and when I first tasted the Marsala wine casks I did a bit of very rudimentary bench blending and I said to the brand team it’s a veritable cornucopia of tropical fruits (being a bit OTT) and they just loved it. In the fullness of time it’s not quite as overtly fruity as that but that gives you an idea of the style of it and we’ve of course tied it in with the Ardbeg in space experiment.

The thing I really love about it is that the brand team are terrific and I work very closely with them. They work closely with a very creative agency in Edinburgh called The Story and the packaging says Space… 1999. Of course you could argue that space doesn’t really have a direct link to the style of product that is Galileo or Sicilian Marsala. When Hamish, the former brand manager and I started mucking around with this we had all sorts of ideas that because it was Sicilian casks there would be a Mafioso type theme but we were quickly dissuaded from that by our boss. The positioning of Glenmorangie is all about elegance and finesse, with Ardbeg it’s about intensity but not taking itself too seriously.

WTF: I’ve read some interviews where the point was raised by detractors that the focus with Ardbeg in some cases is “show over substance”, which I think is a load of rubbish. What is your take?

BL: I would argue that it’s not the case with Glenmorangie either. In our first attempt to rebrand Glenmorangie which was heavily influenced by (Moët-Hennessy) was wonderfully creative and I worked with the marketing team in Paris to develop a kaleidoscope to bring it all alive. But I understand that in a lot of markets, and South Africa is probably one of them, malt whisky is still viewed as overtly male-centric. In other words not in the same category as champagne or perfume so I do accept that in the eyes of some people there was this idea. But from my perspective the quality of Glenmorangie whisky is better than it’s ever been. Of course I would say that, but the quality is always underpinning all of these campaigns. I was a little saddened that people lost sight of that.

WTF: With Glenmorangie, has your house style evolved over the years?

Dr Bill Lumsden working hard in the lab BL: I’ve been with Glenmorangie for 18 years now and no, all we’ve done is focus an awful lot on trying to fine tune the flavour at every stage of the process to try and make it as complex and smooth and fruity as possible. At the end of the day, no one would thank me for coming in and completely changing the house style. When we re-launched the brand in 2007 and the 10 year old morphed into the Original, what I was actually trying to do was take the 10 year old back to what it used to taste like in the past. So I’ve actually tried to go back to our roots a bit. The brand will long outlive me, so I’m just the current custodian of the quality and character of the brand and of course it’s a big responsibility but as I said to the consumers last night, “I get treated with quite a degree of reverence wherever I go, but don’t ever lose sight of the fact that I’m just like you. I’m a whisky consumer, I just happen to be in this job just now.” And that’s what it’s all about – we love Glenmorangie and Ardbeg as much as the consumers do so we’re going to do the very best we can to make sure every drop is as good as it possibly can be.

That is one of the things that has been really fantastic with the LVMH takeover of the Glenmorangie company, there is funds available to invest and make sure that is the case.

WTF: Looking at your whisky stock, how much of it is experimental?

BL: In terms of percentage of the overall Glenmorangie or Ardbeg stock profile, we’re talking 10-15%

WTF: That’s quite a sizeable number!

BL: Yes, it’s a very substantial chunk of it, and you know I have to take a pragmatic view that not all of the experimentation is going to give me exactly what I want. An example of that is the product that became Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX, which was the first of the Private Editions. I’m staggered about how well that was received. I was personally a bit worried about it. I know sherry wine very well, I’m a big fan of it. I know the difference between Fino, Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez and I honestly thought that the PX might overwhelm Glenmorangie but I had a view that if that was the case then in the fullness of time I would use it sparingly and drip it into the recipe for Glenmorangie 18 year old which of course is sherry-finished or into the 25 year old, so you always have to think of a fallback position but the instances of me not being able to do what I first wanted to do in some way are thankfully very slim.

There is an expectation, particularly within our company, to maintain a stream of new products so you really have to lay down a lot of stock and invest upfront. I’m currently doing the rounds with our CEO in Paris regarding my wood capex (capital expenditure) budget I’ve submitted for 2013. It’s a big number! Many, many millions of Pounds.

WTF: Now you source wood from just about everywhere, can you elaborate?

BL: We do. Of course the vast majority is American White Oak which is the bread-and-butter barrel for both Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. And I’ve got two main suppliers for that who I am very happy with. Then underneath that you’ve got the port casks, the sherry casks, the Sauternes casks, this, that, all the NPD casks.

The other thing I try and strike a balance with is doing something that will be worthy of the brand names Glenmorangie and Ardbeg and frankly some of the things that have been done by the other companies have just been silly or gimmicky. I’ve tasted one or two awful products. Now don’t get me wrong, there are one or two – like William Grant’s Balvenie range – who have superb products.

One of the biggest accolades I got happened when we launched Glenmorangie Artein earlier this year. Whisky Magazine’s tasting panel gave Artein the top score and it got the gold award. But the comment the editor made was something like “Its a shining example of how to finish whisky in wine casks.” and that was a tremendous accolade for me because I take that very seriously and really do try to enhance the character but not lose the essential house style of the whisky.

WTF: Are we ever going to see Artein in South Africa? We missed out on Sonnalta PX and Finealta too.

BL: Thus far, the Private Editions have been targeted at 5 or 6 key strategic markets. South Africa isn’t quite there yet. I know South Africans want it. I have total control of the whisky, but I don’t really have too much influence on the distribution strategy of the company. So to answer your question, the only Artein you’ll see is those brought back from people travelling. All 3,850 9 litre cases worth have been distributed. So it’s all distributed now. I know for a fact that the shop at Glenmorangie is down to its last 90 6-bottle packs, so it’s going fast!

WTF: Glenmorangie Private Edition #4 must be just about ready now right? What can you tell us about that?

BL: Private Edition number four, I actually wanted to bottle it 2 months ago because I am happy with the quality now. Unfortunately it just didn’t fit in with the production schedule. But that will be bottled in October I think. So that’s ready – it’s good to go.

WTF: And the style of Glenmorangie Private Edition #4?

BL: Well you know the first Private Edition (Sonnalta PX) was rich and very sherried. The second Private Edition (Finealta) was the old-fashioned Glenmorangie. The name was Elegance, but actually it was a very robust, old-fashioned style with a bit of peat in there. The third Private Edition (Artein) was a classic wine wood finish.

The clue, and that’s all I’m going to give you at this stage about Private Edition #4, is that it is very, very classically Glenmorangie in terms of our wood strategy.

WTF: And that’s all we’re getting? 🙂

BL: That’s all you’re getting at the moment. The wood finishes and all of that is a bit of a tangent. But if you think of the core goodness, the raison d’être, of Glenmorangie – what really sets us apart from any other whisky to me is the American White Oak wood policy. It’ll be again an older whisky, substantially older than 10 years old. It’s going to be knocking on the door of 20 years old.

WTF: Great stuff! And how many years has it been finished in non-American White Oak casks?

BL: You’re now starting to probe a bit deep… It’s not finished in anything. There’s another little twist to the tale in there. I have dipped my toe in the water with one or two single cask bottlings of the same style over the last decade. I described Sonnalta as Lasanta on steroids. I would describe this one as very much Original or Astar on steroids. And that’s it, I cannot say any more!

WTF: Thanks for the scoop! Managing your pipeline, that must be incredibly challenging. From customer demand to wood stocks, how do you do it?

BL: We just do the very best we can and you’re always projecting what your sales will be. The Moët-Hennessy way of working is based on a medium-term plan (5 year period). You’re looking at the stocks you have and trying to decide where you’re going to distribute it with constant fine-tuning going on there. But I would say the process is far more robust now than it has been in the past. Historically in a lot of companies, if they over-produce their malt whisky it would simply go into blends. That’s not an option for us – it won’t happen. One of my biggest challenges is to keep enough juice supplying the pipeline and it’s a nice position to be in but ultimately there will be degrees of frustration. Things happen throughout the year, for example a particular product sells especially well in a particular market and if it’s part of the core range – 10, 18 or the extra-matured range – there’s a bit of leeway to flex supply in there but if it’s something older or more limited we’ve got what we’ve got and that’s it.

Me & Dr Bill with my (now signed) Sonnalta PX

WTF: Earlier you touched on the Ardbeg stock that you inherited and the gaps that were present. How have you managed to smooth that out over the years?

BL: We bought our distillery in 1997. The production at Ardbeg under the previous owners ran through the 1970s and then in 1980 it was shut down completely and they didn’t fire up the distillery until 1989/1990. So for an entire decade there was nothing. So in 1997 we obviously wanted to do our re-launch of the Ardbeg brand so we bottled quantities of the youngest of the old stock – in other words 1979-1980. A lot of that whisky was experimental which they called Kildalton style and it was light-peated and that lead to the wonderfully elegant and much missed Ardbeg 17 year old. Because in 1997 the 1979-1980 stock was 17 years old and then it wasn’t until the year 2000 that we re-launched the 10 year old using the oldest of the young stock i.e. 1990. There was a big spike in production in 1990, 1991, 1992 and gradually it petered off until 1995 and then in 1996 there was a handful of casks and bang it was shut.

It took us quite a few years until we were able to run the distillery at anything like maximum production again. So it was really a challenge. But, you know, we’re getting there now and the distillery is running flat out. Actually I can’t see that ever not being the case now. We have very ambitious sales forecasts for Ardbeg. Ambitious and realistic forecasts and we are now laying down the stock to satisfy that. So Ardbeg has been an exciting and interesting challenge.

I think we’ve been guilty in the past of maybe releasing too many single cask bottlings for individual markets and it muddies the water and again collectors want to get everything and you can’t if you’re releasing 12 expressions a year. That’s not happening again. We’ve got our core range – 10 year old, Uigeadail, there will continue to be a limited amount of Corryvreckan, there’ll be an annual limited release (Alligator, Galileo, etc) and occasionally there will be other or limited vintage ones.

WTF: I was going to ask that next. Will you be releasing more vintages?

BL: Yes. The quantity of old, old 1970s stock we’ve got now is very limited. There’s no 1980s – they just didn’t produce any which, actually when you think about it, is utterly criminal for a whisky as good as Ardbeg. I understand Allied Domecq also had Laphroaig, their number one malt brand and they chose to run that. But we could shift shed loads of the 1980s stock if there was such a thing.

WTF: I have to ask… What is the 1974 vintage like? It’s my birth year so I have a particular affinity.

BL: ’74, like a lot of the old stock, is variable. But there are one or two absolute peaches of casks in there. I might choose to bottle a cask, but there would literally be a couple hundred bottles at a very high price but they would be sublime! It’s very mellow. Not robustly full-on the way Corryvreckan or Alligator is for example. It’s quite elegant.

WTF: I did a head-to-head review of the Corryvreckan vs the Uigeadail on my blog a little while back. I described the Corryvreckan as a Cro-Magnon man wielding a club. What’s your take on it?

BL: It’s one of these ones… I’m not very much at ease with Corryvreckan because when I introduced it, it was a one-off which was suddenly heralded as being part of the core range without really checking with me what stock I had. So I continue to have challenges with Corryvreckan but it seems very popular in certain circles.

WTF: I must say Uigeadail is my favourite…

BL: I think Uigeadail is my favourite Ardbeg too and it’s also very personal to me as it’s the first Ardbeg I personally created. When the distillery was bought I was still the Glenmorangie distillery manager at the time so when I got my hands on it Uigeadail was the first output and then everything since then has had my stamp on it.

WTF: You’ve just launched the Galileo, is it too soon to start talking about next year’s release?

BL: It’s a bit too soon to say. But I have two or three parcels of stock I’m very actively looking at. The chances are that I will be doing what I’ve been doing with Corryvreckan, with Alligator, with Galileo in that I will select a quantity of stock that has been wholly matured in something and blend it with classic Ardbeg. It seems to work better than finishing and it spreads out a bit. Sorry, I’ve given you lots of clues about Private Edition, so I’m not prepared to say any more at this stage.

WTF: Talking about casks now, have you ever thought of using South African wine casks? Would they measure up at all?

BL: I see absolutely no reason why they would not give me something similar to what I’ve got from French oak. The only slight fly in the ointment would be that Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) is a bit funny about using certain things and as long as you can prove it was traditionally used. But frankly I would find it impossible to believe that in the past ex-South African wine casks did not make their way to Scotland because there is a very long history of wine making in South Africa.

I’m a big fan of wine. Wine’s my hobby. I’m very familiar with French, Italian, Spanish and to a certain extent Australian wines but I do not yet have a feel for South African wine particularly although Patrick (local presence for Moët-Hennessy) has very kindly agreed to start educating me. So, it’s most definitely something that could be done in the future. I don’t have any contacts as yet in the South African wine industry.

WTF: Moving onto your lab now. Your whisky creation team – can you let us know who they are, what do they do?

BL: The team are the two distillery managers – they now have a reporting line into the Operations manager who is responsible for all the Health & Safety, etc. but ultimately I control the way in which it is distilled. So they’re key members of the team. We’ll decide the quantity we’re going to distil. I’ll buy all the raw materials – the malted barley, the casks and we’ll agree the way in which it will be distilled. I’ll set the distillation cut points, the fermentation times, etc, etc.

Gillian has a chemistry background and has actually run a distillery (Penderyn), so she’s done everything. Gillian’s doing a great job – she’s my right hand woman and all of the whisky quality gets signed off by herself or me. I’ve got the final say in it. She’s still learning about our brands.

She has a new assistant called Bryony MacIntyre who’s father Ruarie is a stillman at Ardbeg distillery. She was also a chemistry graduate. I’ve given Gillian and Bryony a budget to re-equip the laboratory. They’ve bought a new GC, HPLC and their main task, along with approving the samples is to assess our maturing stock quality, starting off with distillation year 2003 for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg because that’s what we’ve got to start bottling next year and so on and so forth.

I have a gentleman called Rab Sorman who basically manages the day-to-day logistics of my wood budget and he makes sure the right casks are purchased, that they’re delivered from the appropriate country and dispatched to the appropriate distillery for filling. That’s his key raison d’être.
I have another lady called Ann Livingstone who is a laboratory assistant and I have my PA Christina, who does all the admin work. I also have, reporting into me in a dotted line, Karen Fullerton, brand ambassador who is coming out here for Whisky Live and David Blackmore our man in the United States who also does global brand ambassador work and a number of part-time brand advocates. So that’s the whisky creation team for you.

WTF: To conclude on a lighter note, we often see photos of you in your white lab coat toiling away in the lab. Is that a fair representation of how you spend your time?

BL: Oh yeah, I don’t *always* wear the white lab coat, but I am in the lab a lot of the time.

WTF: Dr Bill, thank you for your time. It was a real pleasure. Hopefully next time we catch up it can be over a few drams!

I had a truly brilliant time and could have easily spent several more hours delving into Dr Bill’s world, but unfortunately with a plane to catch we had to wrap it up. A big thanks go to Niel and Patrick from RGBC for the privilege of being able to sit down with Bill. It ranks as one of the highlights of my whisky journey so far.

Sláinte!

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