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What does Scotch whisky taste like? What could it taste like? And how, in the future, could it break the rules?
These are the sorts of questions that are constantly bouncing about the restless mind of Dr Bill Lumsden, director of distilling, whisky creation and whisky stocks at Glenmorangie, the historic Highland distillery in LVMH’s luxury spirits portfolio.
For almost four decades now, the 61-year-old master distiller has been at the forefront of innovation in scotch. He’s the man who kickstarted the trend for “finishing” whisky in fine wine casks, extra-ageing Glenmorangie malts in barrels from Sauternes, Madeira and Burgundy grand cru Clos de Tart. And the one who created Glenmorangie Signet, the world’s first malt made with high-roast chocolate malt – a nutty, mocha-flavoured variety of malt usually reserved for making stout.
Armed with a PhD in the workings of yeast, Lumsden has delved into the minutiae of fermentation, unpicked barrel-ageing – two crucial steps in the formation of flavour – and even blasted whisky into space in a bid to understand maturation in a micro-gravity environment. Lumsden’s rampant creativity has seen him dubbed the “Willy Wonka of whisky” and “the mad scientist of scotch”. But behind the carefully cultivated air of eccentricity, the Gucci sneaker-wearing Scot is also a savvy marketeer – one who has succeeded in turning what was once an underperforming Scotch whisky brand into the fourth-biggest single malt in the world. Now, that creativity is being put in the spotlight by the Glenmorangie Lighthouse – a cutting-edge new “whisky lab” in the heart of the 178-year-old distillery.
“If I’d had my way it would have been a windowless, corrugated-iron shed with no visitors allowed,” grumbles Lumsden as we make our way to the site on the shores of the Dornoch Firth. “When I first had the idea to do this, it wasn’t how I imagined it at all!”
Designed by Barthélémy Griño – a Franco-Uruguayan practice better-known for creating premises for Berluti, Dior and Louis Vuitton – the 20m-high glass tower takes its inspiration from the lighthouses that dot the Dornoch coastline. Here and there, the Lighthouse makes reference to the old distillery: there are details fashioned from reclaimed stone and slate, and wall panels embedded with wood from Glenmorangie casks. But its mirror-like cladding is what stays in the memory: as gleaming and smooth as the neighbouring sandstone buildings are weathered and rough, it reflects the racing clouds so crisply that the Lighthouse, at times, almost seems to disappear. Inside, it is equipped with everything Lumsden needs to make Glenmorangie – but also a whole lot more. “We’ll be doing things that have never been done before in Scotch whisky,” he says. “Nothing is off the table.”
The focal point of the building is a pair of 8m-high copper pot stills that sprout up through the three floors. Designed to be exact replicas of Glenmorangie’s famously lofty stills, these will allow Lumsden to craft “new make” – or unaged malt spirit – in the signature Glenmorangie style: fruity, elegant, light. But these stills can also be adapted, with the help of temperature-controlled “cooling jackets”, to create other styles of new make too. “We can make them act as if they are shorter, so they create a heavier spirit more like Ardbeg [the Islay distillery also owned by The Glenmorangie Company], or taller, so they produce a spirit that’s even lighter than classic Glenmorangie,” explains Lumsden. “They are capable of producing standard Glenmorangie spirit, yes. But if we ever end up just making standard spirit then I will have failed.”
For the first time in Glenmorangie’s history, its stills will also be used to make whisky from things other than malted barley. There are plans to distil wheat and maize and oats – and possibly even make spirit from things that aren’t cereals at all. In his new HQ, Lumsden will also be able to take a deeper dive into his favourite subject, fermentation – a step that gets a lot of air-time in winemaking and brewing, but historically not so much in scotch. “I’ve always had an interest in the primary production of wine,” says Lumsden, “and the Lighthouse may allow me to put those things I’ve learned from the wine world into making things that would be a first in the scotch industry.” Does that mean Lumsden will be fermenting and distilling actual grapes? “If I did, I couldn’t legally call it whisky, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t come up with something,” he says, with a wink.
At the top of the Lighthouse is the lab, a sea-facing penthouse where Lumsden and his team will do their nosing, blending and analysis. “It’s wonderful because you get so much wildlife here,” says Lumsden, looking out of the window at the panoramic Dornoch Firth. “Seals on the sand spits, pods of dolphins, kites, buzzards, eagles, deer… It’s going to be a lovely place to work.”
Jean MacKay, a senior operator at Glenmorangie, cannot wait to get in either: “We get to see amazing sunrises at the distillery – the sunrise from inside the Lighthouse is going to be spectacular.” From their lofty position, Lumsden and his team will also be able to keep an eye on the Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project (DEEP), a marine regeneration scheme that Glenmorangie helped to start in 2014. In 2018, this partnership with Heriot-Watt University and the Marine Conservation Society began to re-introduce 20,000 oysters to the Dornoch Firth in a bid to boost water quality and biodiversity in the local area. A study of the project published at the end of last year was hailed as a “milestone for marine environmental restoration” by Dr Bill Sanderson, associate professor at the Institute for Life and Earth Sciences at Heriot-Watt. Similar initiatives, spearheaded by the Native Oyster Restoration Alliance, are now being rolled out across Europe.
Distilling at the Glenmorangie Lighthouse begins this autumn – but it’s likely to be several more years before any aged spirits reach the market, says Lumsden: “We’re looking at three to five years minimum before any of these products are anything like ready so it’s a very long-term project. I’ve just turned 61 so I probably won’t see the launch of some of the products I’m working on, but it will be a legacy for the company.” Instead, the launch will be marked with the release of Glenmorangie The Lighthouse, a limited-edition malt from Glenmorangie’s existing stocks. Priced at £85 and limited to 4,782 bottles on sale at the distillery, the 12‑year‑old malt has been aged in the very same bourbon and sherry casks that are now embedded in the Lighthouse distillery’s walls.
Not everyone on the workforce is bowled over by LVMH’s shiny new building. “Changes the face of the place” is the gruff verdict of warehouse team leader Alan Duff Jr, 27. His father, Alan Duff Sr, 58, however, is clearly delighted by the prospect of having a dedicated space in which to experiment. “I’ve been working at the distillery for over 25 years now,” he says, “and have seen the size and capacity more than double in the past 12 years. The Lighthouse is an exciting new project – I look forward to trialling new products and ideas.”
Scotch whisky is one of the most tightly regulated spirits in the world, which means innovation can often be quite difficult. There are rules governing where it can be made, what it can be made from, how it is distilled, what it’s aged in, and how long it must be aged for. These rules have been key to building its cachet, ensuring a baseline of quality – and provenance – that many other spirits categories can only dream of. But some now believe that those rules risk holding the category back by stifling innovation at a time when Scotch whisky’s pre-eminence is being challenged by an influx of maverick New World whiskies from producers unbound by traditional rules.
A potential sign of industry unease came a couple of years ago when there was a very slight relaxation in the rules surrounding the type of casks that distillers could use for ageing. But the pace of change is slow. And more distillers than ever are now straining at the leash to try new things. In 2019, William Grant & Sons – the company that makes Glenfiddich, Grant’s and The Balvenie – unveiled the latest genre-bending experiments from Kininvie Works, a micro-distillery in Speyside that describes itself as “a collective of determined free-thinking distillers that go against the grain to challenge what we know about Scotch whisky”. Diageo’s new Port Ellen distillery, set to open on Islay in spring 2023, will also boast a set of stills dedicated to making more experimental drams.
“Of course we’re feeling the heat from other whisky categories,” says Lumsden. “But I view that as positive competition. I think we’re going to see Scottish distilleries releasing more and more spirits that are not actually Scotch whisky in the coming years.”
Frustratingly, the Lighthouse isn’t open to the public. Visitors on the regular Glenmorangie tour – which attracts 30,000 people in a normal year – will have to content themselves with admiring it from the outside. But I get the impression that, just occasionally, really V, V, VIPs may be given a glimpse within. A warm welcome will, however, await anyone who wishes to stay at the revamped Glenmorangie House, the distillery’s handsome nine-bedroom lodging that lies a 20-minute drive along the coast. The house is a fully fledged boutique hotel, with three additional cottages, restored gardens and a whimsical, multicoloured interior by Russell Sage Studio.
I’ve visited on a few occasions in the past. And call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I actually rather liked it the way it was before: an old-fashioned Highland retreat where you could go for a blustery walk along the beach and then curl up by the fire with a tray of shortbread and tea. I’m not sure I want a tiger trompe-l’oeil in my cupboard or a knitted cake stand in my room. But that is exactly the quandary the Scotch whisky industry is now facing: modernise and potentially jettison the credibility that the spirit has spent more than two centuries building? Or cling to the past and risk getting left behind? I don’t know what the answer is – but hopefully Lumsden, his team and the Lighthouse will shed some light on it.
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