Innovation has been a buzzword in the scotch whisky world for years. Distilleries tout their creative use of barrels, experimental barley types, and other variations as examples of experimentation. No one in scotch whisky has been more forward thinking for longer than Bill Lumsden, director of whisky creation at Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. He’s the man who sent whisky into space and one of two single malt distillers to pioneer cask finishing in the 1980s and 90s. And now, with the opening of Glenmorangie’s new innovation distillery, The Lighthouse, Lumsden will have the chance to bring his wildest imaginings to life.
“The beauty of this plant is that it’ll let me trial these things,” Lumsden says, explaining that many ideas couldn’t be tried out on Glenmorangie’s main stills because of the distillery’s tight production schedule.
The Lighthouse sits at the heart of Glenmorangie’s historic site but is clearly set apart. It rises several stories higher than the surrounding buildings, the stillroom paneled on all sides in sleek glass. The Lighthouse has been equipped with state-of-the-art equipment that enables customization and almost infinite tinkering at every step of the whisky-making process. It’s far beyond what a normal scotch distillery can do.
Inside the Mad Scientist’s Lab
It starts with the first step: milling the grain. The Lighthouse will be able to process not just malted barley, but a variety of grain types. It’ll even process non-grain ingredients, which Lumsden says he’s eager to work with. A pressure cooker and variable mash tun allow for more flexibility at the mashing stage.
The activity of yeast is the first major building block of flavor for whisky. Lumsden wrote his doctoral thesis on fermentation science, so naturally The Lighthouse will give him many tools in this arena. Fermentation takes place in temperature-controlled washbacks, which are common in other whisky industries but unusual in Scotland. Manipulating the temperature will allow Lumsden to ferment for longer times—a week, two, maybe more. It will bring out additional flavors and increased complexity in the whisky. “I’m hoping to create a whole range of new and exciting flavors,” he says, noting that fermentation will be the first thing he plays around with.
Things get more interesting in the stillhouse. “The stills have lots of bells and whistles on them,” Lumsden says. “I have the capability to produce a whole range of different styles of spirit—not just Glenmorangie’s classic, floral, delicate style, but a much more full-bodied style.” Different elements, like the ability to control reflux and two different types of condenser, afford Lumsden huge flexibility when designing new whiskies.
Expanding the frontiers of whisky
Lumsden has been experimenting for over a quarter century at Glenmorangie. He made whiskies like Signet, which pushed the boundaries of the tightly regulated scotch industry through its use of heavily roasted chocolate malt. Lumsden had to convince the notoriously finicky Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) that Signet met the strict qualifications of single malt. He may well have to do the same for future creations from The Lighthouse.
He’s ready. “[My boss Thomas Moradpour, president and CEO of The Glenmorangie Company,] maybe thinks if I don’t tangle with the SWA then I’m not being as successful as I could be,” Lumsden says.
In addition to experimenting with yeast and fermentation, Lumsden will play around with ingredients beyond malted barley. Not just other cereal grains, but even non-grains like fruits, vegetables, and more. He may work with peat as well, though he says, “It’s not going to be at the top of my list for the time being.” Lumsden has no shortage of ideas. “Inspiration comes basically from anywhere and everywhere,” he says. “I’ve got a very vivid imagination. My imagination often runs away from me and lands me in trouble.”
Although he turned 60 last year, Lumsden has no plans of retiring, especially with The Lighthouse at his disposal. “The advent of this distillery is something that will keep me absolutely interested and intrigued for many years to come,” he says. “Frankly, the prospect of retiring fills me with dread and horror. I’d like to think I’ll be around for a few more years.”
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