whisky master distiller Dr Ben Lumsden.
whisky master distiller Dr Ben Lumsden.

Hic! Sharing a wee dram with master whisky distiller

By Sipho Mabaso Time of article published Jul 29, 2019

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Recent global and local reports indicate that South Africa is the ninth-largest whisky market in the world, with about 42 million bottles worth R1.8-billion imported last year.

As if to celebrate the achievement, Glenmorangie brought the world’s leading master whisky distiller, Dr Ben Lumsden, to the country to bide a wee with us and have an audience with the media.

I meet Lumsden, head of distillery at the 1843-founded Glenmorangie Company, in Joburg. He is congenial and at ease, not quite what I had expected from a gentleman who was conferred with the title of 2019 Master Distiller of the Year award at the International Whisky Competition (IWC) in Las Vegas in the US last month.

At the glitzy awards, which are like the Oscars of spirits, Glenmorangie also won first place in five single malt categories, including best single malt whisky of the year.

We savour - over toasts, banter, chortles and zesty savoir faire - three Glenmorangie Single Malt Whisky tipples: Original 10-year Old, 18-year Old, and Signet.

Before the first swig, Lumsden points out a distinction that at first seems minor but is of critical importance to those who enjoy their tipple and want to trace its origins.

“If distilled in Scotland it is whisky, whereas, if distilled in Ireland, it is whiskey, ” Lumsden says.

“By law, to call your product Scotch whisky, it has to be made in Scotland. Glen is the Scottish word for ‘valley’.

“American slow-growth white oak, in my opinion, works much better with single malt Scotch spirit. When you heat the inside of the barrel, it releases all these vanilla, almond and coconut flavours. The maturation and the quality of the wood is the most important stage. You can taste right away whether the whisky you’re drinking has been well-matured.

“Single malt scotch whisky means the whisky has been produced at one single distillery. So, Glenmorangie can only be distilled at Glenmorangie. If you take malt whisky from two or more distilleries and mix them together you end up with blended malt whisky.

“The neck of the still is where all the formation of different flavour complexes happen. At Glenmorangie, the style is to make a very clean, fresh and perfumed spirit. The most prestigious, the most expensive and the most richly flavoured category is single malt.”

Lumsden was 26 years old when he “first entered into proper work” after graduating with a PhD.

“I was at university for eight years,” he says.

He got into whisky making while reading for his doctorate under the biological sciences department at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, which had “the only brewing and distilling school in the UK”, and there made links with the industry.

“But more important than that,” he reminisces, “I discovered the taste of single malt scotch. That taste of single malt scotch made me think: ‘Wow! I love this!’ And being a scientist, I had to know everything about it. So I thought what’s the best way to know everything about it? It’s to make it.”

He started in his current position at the Glenmorangie distillery in 1995 and now sits on the board.

After its founding by the Matheson family and installation of tall, giraffe-like stills by its subsequent owners, the Maitland Brothers, the Glenmorangie distillery was in 2005 acquired by LVMH (Louis Vuitton

Moet Henessy), owned by the second-richest man in the world, Frenchman Bernard Arnault.

As I totter away from the Four Seasons, I am in aware of this Scotsman who carries his national flag inside a bottle and shares it generously with the world. Och, a true Scot is Lumsden.

“Glasgow Rangers. That’s my team.”

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