Whisky master distiller, Dr Bill Lumsden. Picture: Supplied

It’s not every day that one happens upon a man who is a true master in his field 

Fondly referred to as the whisky doctor, Dr Bill Lumsden is the custodian of Glenmorangie whisky and a pioneer in the art of wood maturation. 

He is also the first in the International Whisky Competition’s history to have been awarded the coveted title Master Distiller of the Year three times, first in 2015, then again in July 2018 and again this year.

Dr Bill Lumsden tasting the Glenmorangie 12 Lasanta. Picture by Simphiwe Mbokazi

His impeccable track record of consistent distilling over decades begs the question whether genius is a combination of raw talent and immense passion or relentless hard work and dedication. 

We settled for a wee dram with this whisky legend to better understand the mysterious makings of the man and his delicate spirit in each of its elements; malt, maturation and magic….

Malt

Your single malts are internationally acclaimed for their smoothness, richness and complexity. How do the choice of malt, the terroir from barley to bottle and the distillery itself influence the character of your whiskies? 

This is a complex question that requires a detailed answer as there are so many stages in the production process, each of which can have an influence on the final flavour of the whisky. The most obvious difference for example between Glenmorangie and Ardbeg is quite terroir-based.  On the island of Islay, traditionally all of the barley was dried over a peat fire whereas in Speyside in the Highlands that used to be the case years ago and has been phased out as we’re looking for a much more gentle form of whisky so we use less peat. 

This whole idea of terroir is quite topical in the Scotch whisky industry now and it’s something which historically has been ignored. The popular view was that distillation and then many years ageing in barrel smoothed out any differences in the whisky. I’ve carried out many experiments with just that – and particularly with Glenmorangie – using different barley varieties, barley from different areas and different yeast strains. So I think that the simple answer to this question is that there is an infinitesimal range of ways in which you can impact the flavour and finish of your whisky. 

Maturation

You’ve been hailed as the founding father of finishing, an expert in the art of wood maturation, always in search of innovative ways to add finesse to the Glenmorangie house character while imparting extra richness. What are some of the ways that wood maturation influences the nose, palate and mouth feel? 

The first thing I would say is that it doesn’t matter how good your spirit is, how carefully you’ve distilled it and how small your cut points are – if you’ve then filled it into poor quality barrels you cannot make good quality whisky. Now it’s difficult to separate each stage of the production process but to my mind the maturation and the quality of the wood is the most important stage. 

If you’re using a barrel which has been used many times before you simply wouldn’t get a smooth, creamy or a full-bodied whisky so the choice of barrel is critically important. And whether or not you peat the malted barley, this very choice gives you the greatest potential to vary the flavour of your whisky. Whether or not you use American oak ex-bourbon barrels or Spanish sherry casks or red wine barrels, you can really introduce a dramatically different range of flavours into your whisky. So maturation really is where it’s at. And you can taste right away whether the whisky you’re drinking has been well-matured.