No one nose whisky as well as Bill does

BIll Lumsden

BIll Lumsden

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IT was a Saturday night in 1984 and a student party in Marchmont Road was in full swing, wine and cider being drunk to the sounds of Simple Minds.

At some point through the fug of cigarette smoke, a bottle of malt whisky was opened and for the first time in his life Bill Lumsden took a sip of Glenmorangie. As the smooth amber liquid coursed its warming way through his body, his future was set.

David Hogg checks bottles in the bottling hall

David Hogg checks bottles in the bottling hall

Some 27 years on and much of the success of Glenmorangie – which sells millions of bottles around the world every year – hinges on the nose and tastebuds of 51-year-old Dr Lumsden, head of distilling and whisky creation with The Glenmorangie Company.

Not only does his nose have to ensure the flavour of every bottle is consistent, it has to help him create new whiskies for a demanding market of connoisseurs who clamour for different textures, aromas and tastes. Whiskies like the just-launched Pride 1981, a limited-edition malt Bill created by maturing an 18-year-old Glenmorangie for a further ten years inside casks which once held French wine Chateau d’Yquem. Bottles now sell for £2500.

It’s also his nose – though he insists it’s a team effort – which resulted in five Glenmorangie malts being awarded Gold Best in Class at the prestigious International Wines and Spirit Competition in July. If they weren’t up to scrtach, Bill would never have let the whisky be bottled.

As a result of such successes, it could even be said it’s Bill’s nose which has led to the new multi-million investment in bottling facilities in Livingston. While other brands might be feeling the pinch, the luxury end of the market, into which Glenmorangie falls, is seeing profits rise.

It’s a mammoth responsibility, but one which he wears easily on his slight frame. After a career drinking whisky, he’s still as lithe as his student days – and, he laughs, his doctor says his liver function is “excellent”.

“I’ve got to the point where I’m relaxed about it [the responsibility],” he says. “It can be overwhelming if you think about it too much. And as I get older I realise that there will be a dulling of certain aspects of physical performance, just as there is in anyone, and if that happens to my nose and my sense of taste then that wouldn’t be so good.

“But because I have worked with the brand for so long I will always know what we’re looking for. And there’s also my right-hand woman Rachel [Barrie, another whisky creator and master blender at the firm].

“More pressure comes when we’re releasing a new product. There’s a big expectation – you obviously have to try and produce something people will want to drink, but they will always compare it to what’s gone before . . . sometimes it can be a case of better luck next time.”

Surrounded by shelves displaying the many whiskies produced by Glenmorangie, Bill is the consummate salesman for the product. He swirls a dram of Pride in a glass and asks me to sniff.

The 56 per cent proof alcohol level nearly singes the nasal hairs. While he discusses notes of vanilla, liquorice and lemon, to the uncultured palate it tastes like . . . whisky. Until he pours some Ardbeg – another of the firm’s products, distilled on Islay rather than Tain – which tastes like antiseptic. Suddenly, Pride is a far more attractive proposition.

“There are so many myths around whisky,” he says, “such as you should never add anything but more whisky, but that’s wrong. A little water will open up the flavours and aromas and some of our newer whiskies have been developed specifically to go ‘on the rocks’ as that’s how people like to drink them.

“And I’m not averse to a dash of ginger ale and a slice of lemon – those flavours compliment the whisky.”

We’re in Bill’s laboratory-office in the company’s new headquarters in The Cube, Leith Street. Bill used to work from the old Broxburn HQ, but is delighted that the move last year means he is now in the heart of the city. He’s just back from the Whisky Live event in Paris, but waxes lyrical about his adopted city.

‘I love Edinburgh, always have,” he says, laughing as he recalls his days as a biochemistry and cell biology student. “I was studying in Glasgow, but back then Edinburgh had much better nightlife, though I believe that might have changed.

“We would come through at weekends and it was at a party I first tasted Glenmorangie ten-year-old and my interest in malts began, although I’m still very interested in wine,” he smiles. “I fell in love with Edinburgh and so came to Heriot-Watt to do my PhD.”

His project there involved distilling, bringing him into contact with the industry for the first time as more than just a consumer. He then got a job as a research assistant with The Distillers Company in 1986 before, eight years later, he applied for a job as distillery manager with Glenmorangie.

“When I went for the interview one of the things they said to me was they were gratified I could pronounce it properly,” he laughs. “I would say around 50 per cent of people don’t, but it doesn’t matter too much.

“You know, if I’m honest about it, you don’t need a PhD to do the job but it did give me an understanding of the scientific aspects of the job, but really it’s an art and you do have to have a reasonable nose and palate for it.

“It wasn’t until I came to Glenmorangie that I really started to develop those skills.

Whisky is a chemical compound, but you have to describe the tastes and aromas in ways people understand. There are lots of fruity and spice flavours in whisky, and we’ve been doing work with the Scottish Whisky Research Unit to try and break down the chemical composition of those to see if they are the same as the chemicals in fruits and spices.

“The citrusy aroma, for instance, comes from limonene which is found in freshly squeezed lemons, so using those descriptive terms is not as odd as some might think. The next stage is to find out where in the process that compound occurs, and then see if we can enhance it to have another flavour. That’s very exciting.”

His office has glass sample bottles, full of differently-aged whiskies, all ready for him to experiment with in the search for yet another whisky. “I get samples sent from the distillery of everything produced and it has to be approved by myself or Rachel before it goes into a bottle,” he says. “We look for consistency – it’s hard to be 100 per cent the same with a natural product.”

The Glenmorangie distillery is in Tain, where Bill worked for four years. The whisky is created in stills reputed to be the height of a fully-grown giraffe – which explains the statues of the African animal around The Cube – before being left to mature in toasted American oak casks.

Once it’s ready for bottling, tankers bring it to the new bottling plant in Livingston. The outdoor vats which hold up to 90,000 litres of whisky, before it’s pumped into the plant and into the bottles on the machine line.

Around 15,000 bottles a week can be filled on just one line, while another deals with 8000 miniatures a week, and yet another can fill the massive three and four-litre bottles which are all the rage in the Asian markets.

In the warehouse pallets are full of cases waiting to be shipped to the US, Japan, Vietnam and China, although the UK market is still the largest.

Bill describes the new plant as impressive, and just last week when it was officially opened he presented the Duke of York with a commemorative bottle. In the meantime, he has a new edition of the Private Collection to work on for launch next year. Would he ever work for another whisky firm?

He looks shocked: “I love the brand so much I would find that very difficult. But ever since that first taste I feel it’s destiny that’s brought me to this job.”

gina.davidson@edinburghnews.com