Dr Bill

Glenmorangie’s Bill Lumsden is to scotch whisky what Dr Who is to the BBC. Christian Davis travels to Ardbeg to meet the man who makes Glenmorangie and Ardbeg

Dr Lumsden is: ‘director of distilling, whisky creation & whisky stocks at the Glenmorangie Company’, which is a division of the huge French luxury goods group, Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. It’s a mouthful. To most people in the trade, he is the approachable, down-to-earth, Bill Lumsden. Dr Bill is the International Spirits Challenge’s Master Blender/Distiller of the Year, as voted by his peers.

Even to his greatest competitors and meanest commentators, Dr Bill is a luminary – a ‘person who inspires or influences others, especially one prominent in a particular sphere’. He may not have a Tardis (Range Rover more like) or travel through time – other than via ageing barrels – but he is the Dr Who of single malt scotch. His standards are rigorous, he has vision and he is prepared to experiment and push the boundaries, within the strict perimeters of scotch whisky making. There may not be any Daleks or Cyberman but there is always the Scotch Whisky Association.

His work on wood management in the ageing of whisky and developing different cask finishes for Glenmorangie has marked him out. Prior to his joining the company, Glenmorangie was a rather light, uninspiring single malt – one for beginners (how damning is that?). No longer. He admits to having “tweaked” the blend over the years, without changing the house style, to make it “rounder, more full bodied, sweeter”.

The scurrilous whisky blog, Whiskysponge – which is to the scotch whisky industry what Private Eye is to British politics – calls Bill Lumsden: “Jill Bumsden, chief wood-getter.” It doesn’t quite say it all. Master blenders and distillers do not often get on the board, but Lumsden is a full member of the Glenmorangie board. So how did it all start? Was his father a distillery man?

“No, my father was a motor electrician,” Lumsden tells DI. “I did a BSc in biochemistry and cell biology. I enjoyed my science studies so much I went on to do a PhD in Microbial Physiology & Fermentation Science at the International Centre for Brewing & Distilling at Heriot-Watt university.

Love for malt

“My mentor was Dr, now professor, Sir Geoff Palmer. He took me under his wing and introduced me to the distilling industry. Through him I developed a love for single malt whisky.” Lumsden says he had tried blended scotch whisky but it failed to impress. He recalls his first time drinking scotch in 1976/77 at his best pal, David’s, house.

“His parents had gone out so we did what most teenage boys do – we raided the drinks cabinet. There
was a bottle of Stewart’s Cream of Barley. We started drinking it, mixing it with lemonade and ginger ale, listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.”

So, did he have a eureka moment? Lumsden’s eyes light up as he recalls: “Yes I did. It was 1984, my first year of my PhD, I was 24 years old and at a student party. I remember Deniece Williams’s ‘Let’s Hear for the Boy’ (from the film, Footloose) was playing. “I got it (the whisky that is). It was the smoothness, mellowness and complexity of the flavours – and it turned out to be Glenmorangie 10 Year Old. So the studious Lumsden got his PhD. “I was thinking of doing post doctorate research but I had been at university for eight years. I needed to earn some money. I was interested in whisky,” says Lumsden. 

Boffin in a white coat

DCL (Distillers Company Limited, forerunner to what is now Diageo) was looking for research scientists. He applied and went to work at Menstrie, near Stirling in Scotland, where DCL had a large, bonded warehouse, yeast factory and research centre.

“I was a boffin in a white coat. I was working with Jim Beveridge, who is now Johnnie Walker’s master blender. I had been concentrating on malting, mashing and fermentation. But Jim was the person who homed in on maturation and oak management. He elevated the absolute importance of wood.

“I could have continued as a boffin but I was looking for an opportunity for promotion and progression. I went on to work with a great team, Ian Miller (now Glenfiddich’s global brand ambassador) and Gordon Donoghue (he was at Bushmills but is now back at Diageo as operations director, distilling and maturation).

In 1993 Lumsden became assistant manager at United Distillers’ Burghead and Roseisle operations (Then owned by Guinness. In 1997 Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to create Diageo). Lumsden, ever appreciative of former colleagues, says he worked with the “dream team of Alan Barclay and Andy Cant (now Cardhu’s group manager).

“Alan was great on strategy while Andy was good on the PC with things such as scheduling, while I liked rolling up my sleeves and getting stuck in. It was a great job and I have certain regrets [he pauses but isn’t forthcoming] but Glenmorangie was looking for a distribution manager. I was going from being a medium fish in a very big pond to Glenmorangie, where I was left to my own devices. I had complete responsibility for all the whisky and I had a great team of blenders, including Rachel Barrie, who is now master blender at Morrison Bowmore,” says Lumsden.

Now 55, Lumsden acknowledges that Brendan McCarron, head of maturing whisky stocks at Glenmorangie, is his heir apparent, or “son of Bill” as he puts it. On McCarron’s Linkedin profile, he states that among his many responsibilities listed, the first is: “Learning from Dr Bill Lumsden… how the whisky creation and maturing stocks department at Glenmorangie company runs, with a particular emphasis on understanding the stocks laid down and developing new expressions of Glenmorangie and Ardbeg.” Lumsden says: “Brendan is a fellow west coaster (of Scotland). He’s a chemical engineer with a killer discipline.” He obviously approves of those attributes.

Lumsden acknowledges the significance of Glenmorangie’s takeover by LVMH at the end of 2004. He says the company was basically on its knees prior to the acquisition. The French giant has pumped in investment to restore the operation and build its two major brands Glenmorangie and Islay single malt, Ardbeg.

When pushed to name the expressions he is most proud of, Lumsden goes for Glenmorangie’s Signet, which is made using heavily roasted ‘chocolate’ malt, and Ardbeg Uigeadail, World Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2009. Lumsden coined the name, which is the loch that supplies the peat-laden water used to make Ardbeg.

By scotch whisky standards Lumsden is quite open and forthright in his opinions. On the increasing trend towards non-age statements to protect ageing stocks, he says: “As long as people act in a responsible manner – I cannot imagine a brand owner wanting to damage the image of their brand. It was inevitable as no company has infinite aged whiskies. This is nothing new to us. Ardbeg Uigeadail has no age statement. We were taking whiskies from the 1970s, eight to 30-year-old. We are not doing that now as it was not sustainable.”

On flavoured ‘whiskies’, he is more strident: “This is potentially the thin end of the wedge. Glenmorangie will not be doing it any time soon. I think it smacks of desperation. If they are making a truly delicious product, fine, but none of the ones I have tasted are a step up on the base spirit.”

On the subject of the use of caramel, Lumsden is even more emphatic: “A little caramel for consistency is one thing – I do not use any caramel in any of the Ardbeg expressions. I use a little with Glenmorangie because some markets want such consistency.”

Without naming names Lumsden waves a bottle of water, indicating the overuse of caramel in some immature spirits. The fact is overuse of caramel to imply ageing and therefore premium quality, imparts a characteristic burnt sugar taste which is easily picked up, certainly by professionals.

In Lumsden’s opinion: “You add things to make a drink taste better. In a lot of cases the opposite is the case.” Moving on to less contentious topics, when you ask some senior figures what their favourite tipple is, they’ll immediately chose their own brand and would rather have their fingernails pulled out than mention a rival. Not the good doctor. Asked what his favourite drinks are, Lumsden reels off a list of rival whiskies: Mortlach, Highland Park, Springbank, Balvenie, Lagavulin and Dalmore.

He then goes on to say he has “rediscovered gin and tonic”, Beefeater being a favourite. But, being a bit of a gourmand, Lumsden can think of nothing better than fine wine with great food. He cites white Burgundy, Condrieu, Bordeaux, Super-Tuscans such as Sassicaia and Wendouree from Australia’s Clare Valley.

Lumsden is married with two grown-up children, Daniel (23) and Alexandra (19). Daniel got a 2:1 in brewing and distillation at Heriot-Watt and is about to start work at Diageo as a trainee site operations manager at Cardhu. “Diageo still has one of the best training programmes in the industry,” states Lumsden. “Daniel is already home brewing,” he says, approvingly.

As he approaches the twilight of his career, Dr Bill is trying to reduce his travelling. He used to do three-week tours but is trying to cut it down to two. He now insists on some ‘down time’ after long haul, so distributors be warned – don’t try to squeeze in a quick tasting after he has landed before dinner.

As with so many other travelled brand ambassadors, Lumsden likes Japan. “I love the orderliness, the cleanliness, their manners, the respect. It is such a fascinating place, and the attention to detail…” So, Dr Bill Lumsden is a worthy recipient of the ISC Master Blender/Distiller of the year award. A pioneer, an innovator with quality an absolute given. More of a lord of the wood or oak than a time lord. Will son Daniel be a chip off the old block? Only a lot of barrel ageing will tell.