As the director of distilling and whisky creation for The Glenmorangie Company, comprising the Glenmorangie and Ardbeg distilleries,
has built a career working with two of the most well-known Scotch whisky brands. That wasn’t always the case—particularly at Ardbeg—which went through a period in the 1980s and ’90s during which it was fully shut down, and then only partially reopened.
One factor that helped to spark its revival was Lumsden’s devotion to experimentation in all facets of whisky production. Nowhere was this truer than with his early adoption of cask finishing—transferring whisky from its initial maturation barrel to a second variety, injecting a new dose of flavor into the spirit.
“I really liked this idea of the wood finishing because I felt it would give the opportunity to introduce a whole technicolor rainbow of new flavors and colors, and I embarked on it immediately,” Lumsden recalls. “Now, I didn’t go completely mad and just do it for the sake of it. I went for things that I thought would actually work.”
His use of wine and fortified wine casks at Glenmorangie in particular helped spark the cask finishing revolution, which has since spread around the world. Today, he’s continuing to push Scotch whisky boundaries not only with cask types, but with projects involving everything from fermentation to malt type. This year’s Ardbeg Day release, Ardcore, exemplifies his ongoing experiments by using a contingent of heavily roasted malted barley known as “black malt” into the whisky.
Lumsden, 61, sat down with Penta amid the Ardbeg Day crowds on Islay to speak about the history of cask finishing, some of his latest creations, and the state of the Scotch whisky industry.
PENTA: Finishing whiskey is now ubiquitous, and you’re one of the people credited with popularizing it.
Bill Lumsden: The real story behind that was that when I joined the company, there was a gentleman who had been the managing director,
who was responsible for putting Glenmorangie on the map back in the day. It was him, in conjunction with a number of scientific consultants, who first introduced this concept of finishing.
Now, finishing has been done forever, but back in the day it was done because the quality of the whisky wasn’t good enough. They were trying to improve it and give it a bit of oomph by transferring it. But the Glenmorangie Company commercialized it and invented the name of ‘finishing.’
It was one of the reasons that I joined the company, because when I was working for Diageo, I read an advertorial in British GQ magazine and it was about this funky new whisky called a ‘portwood finish.’ I thought, ‘That’s really crazy, I like this idea a lot!’ When I joined, the fledgling wood management policy had been discarded, and so I fought hard to reinstate it and at the same time started experimenting with things.
That includes the type of malt used in whisky. Can you describe what that entails and how that plays into Ardcore, incorporating black malt?
While Glenmorangie really lends itself to finishing, with Ardbeg, it’s a bit different. One of the inspirations for Ardcore was I thought stout casks would be interesting, but I couldn’t get them, so I said, “Okay why don’t we just make stout?” We had lots of experience with chocolate malt, of course, which forms the heart of the recipe with Glenmorangie Signet. We know how difficult it is to process. We know it disintegrates into powder. And black malt is different from chocolate malt, it’s the most heavily roasted, and I mean the next stage after that is it catches fire!
] and I talked about this and we felt for Ardbeg, given the style of the whisky, that we had to go the whole hog and use the most richly flavored stuff we could find. And it wasn’t until a few weeks before production that, I thought, “Hmm, am I maybe going too far with this? So that’s when I decided rather than use [Ardbeg’s normal] heavily peated malt, I would use more lightly peated malt, about 75%, to go with 25% of the black malt.”
You got involved amid a much darker period for the industry. What’s it like for you to look around at the bustling scene on Islay today?
The renaissance of not just Ardbeg distillery, the renaissance of Islay whisky, is utterly remarkable. The renaissance of the whole island is remarkable. I know that there will be 11 distillers on the island very soon and I think there will be more, no question about it. The infrastructure is challenging here, somewhere remote like this on an island. But I can see there being 15 distilleries.
Is there a certain magic that’s at risk of being lost with that increase?
I don’t think so. I mean, the population is very small here, so I think it will always be a little bit of a remote outpost. Islay is not going to turn into Manhattan. We welcome everyone here, and Kilchoman and Ardnahoe, the two most recent on Islay, have done a wonderful job.
When you think about Ardbeg, how do you describe its character and what makes it so special?
For me, Ardbeg has a little bit of everything in it in terms of the flavor. It’s the great all-rounder on Islay. Even though it has enormous peatiness, it’s not just that. It’s much much more than that. If you compare it to Lagavulin or Laphroaig, which are tremendous whiskies in their own right, I just think Ardbeg has a little bit more complexity to it, and I think you need a little bit of that fruitiness to give balance; it’s important to balance out the peat smoke.
What is it like for you to work for two distilleries who have such dedicated, passionate supporters?
It’s a bit of a challenge because when something has such a passionate cult following, I just know that I’m not going to please everyone with that. I’ve had a lot of comments, I’ve had one death threat, so it puts a slight edge on things. But yes, it’s fulfilling when you see people actually enjoying the product. But I want to make Ardbegs that not everyone will like. And I do have a future bottling coming out, think it’s next year, maybe later this year, which I think is just [so unexpected for our super fans that it’s] ‘disgraceful’. Except there are people who will love, who will kill for it. In terms of flavor, it wouldn’’ just blow your socks off. It’ll blow everything off, O.K.! It’s really outrageous.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.