Champions of innovation

Our columnist sits down with Glenmorangie’s Dr Bill Lumsden to find out more about the distillery’s future direction.

IS the Glenmorangie Ealanta the best whisky in the world?

Jim Murray, whisky critic and author of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible certainly thought so, giving it a 97.5 out of 100 points to beat 4,499 other whiskies to the title of “World’s Best Whisky” in the 2014 edition of his popular whisky guide.

According to Murray, Ealanta earned the title because it “went out and did something different”.

Whether you agree with Murray’s assessment or not, one thing is for sure, the creator of the whisky – Glenmorangie’s Distilling and Whisky Creation Director, Dr Bill Lumsden – certainly likes to do things differently.

In an interview with UK newspaper The Scotsman, Lumsden claims that he hid the whisky away 19 years ago so that they were not used to make blended whisky. “I first opened (them) three or four years ago and realized I’d created something different,” he said in the article.

The Ealanta was the 2013 addition to the Scotch whisky producer’s ongoing yearly Private Edition range, which so far consists of Sonnalta PX (2010), Finealta (2011), Artein (2012), and the latest 2014 edition, Glenmorangie Companta.

Lumsden, who was in town for a trade visit a few months ago, said the idea for the Private Editions came a few years ago after a conversation with then Glenmorangie Group marketing director Mark Hoellinger, who was recently appointed the CEO of the company.

(From left) Glenmorangie 18 Year Old, Glenmorangie Original, and Glenmorangie Signet.

“We had already garnered a reputation for experimentation and bringing out new products, but they were always fairly limited, sometimes single barrels, sometimes half a dozen or so casks. So many Glenmorangie whisky lovers were disappointed that they could not get hold of it,” he said. “So when I sat down with Marc, he told me, ‘Bill, I like all your ideas, but can you maybe give me something with a bit more volume and more strategic placement? And being a marketeer, he gave me a ridiculous timescale in which to come up with the first product!

Fortunately, Lumsden already had one or two things on the go in the warehouses, and so in 2010, the distillery rolled out the Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX, which is a 10-year-old American oak cask-matured whisky that was extra-matured in Spanish ex-Pedro Ximenez (PX) casks (the so-called “king of sherry casks”) for an extra two years.

“The Sonnalta PX surprised me because I honestly didn’t think it would work. I thought the PX wine would dominate the whisky, but it didn’t,” he recalled. “That, and the Artein are my favourites so far.”

The popularity of the Sonnalta PX led to the creation of more Private Editions, namely the Finealta (a recreation of a recipe dating back to 1903), the Artein (inspired by the influence of stone in the making of whisky), the Ealanta (a 19 Years Old Glenmorangie, fully matured in virgin American white oak casks from the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri), and the latest, Companta, a tribute to Lumsden’s longstanding love for French vineyards.

The success of the line can be a little daunting as well, as Lumsden has to keep coming up with the Private Editions while making sure production of the core range of Glenmorangie whiskies remain intact.

“It’s not easy (to come up with them). There are only so many things you can do!” he lamented. “Thankfully, I’ve got a pipeline going now - I’ve got the next five years of Private Editions now fully under development. We’re doing this on a big scale, so it’s obviously a bit risky, because if it doesn’t work that’s a big volume of whisky to have to do something else with!”

“In the grand scheme of things, the majority of the Glenmorangie distillery is still dedicated to the core range , so we can only provide so much whiskies for limited specials like the Private Editions,” he said, adding that he has no plans to change the core range of seven whiskies so far – which consists of the Original, Lasanta, Quinta Ruban, Nectar D’or, 18 Year Old, Signet and 25 Year Old.

However, he admits that even he can’t predict what will happen in the future.

“Sometimes, things happen that force you to change. For instance, the grape harvest in Bordeaux, particularly in Sauternes in 2011 and 2012, was not as big as it normally is,” he said. “Happily, I had already laid down lots of stock of whisky in sauternes casks, but things like that can happen that might lead you to change.”

One thing is for sure though – Lumsden plans to stay around for as long as he can, though like his whiskies, he is already planning for the future. “We are actually recruiting for a position known within the company as the Son or Daughter of Bill!” he said with a laugh. “So we’re looking to recruit someone who will be groomed up over the next decade to succeed me. But I’m never going to retire ... they’d have to shoot me!”

> Michael Cheang is glad he didn’t seem as clueless as he was when he first interviewed Dr Bill Lumsden, three years ago.

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Champions of innovation


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