Q. What makes a great Scotch single malt? Bill Lumsden, director of distilling and whisky creation, Glenmorangie
All single malts coming out of Scotland are of high quality. Other whisky industries may use the same raw material as us, but the unique taste of a Scotch single malt has to do with the maturation, and the particular climatic condition of Scotland that gives it a high level of finesse and complexity. Scotland has a temperate climate, with a temperature that is cool but not very cold, and that doesn’t vary throughout the year. If it gets too hot, it dries the flavour; that’s what I taste in a lot of new world whiskies. Besides, the dampness encourages complexities through oxidation reaction.Q. What makes each barrel distinct?
By law, Scotch barrels have to be made of oak. Where the oak comes from will determine the level of tannin and lignin. These are the two components that give flavour, and lignin when broken down gives flavours of almond, vanilla etc. The pedigree of wood is important. For instance, French oak is different from Russian or American. And then, what’s been in the barrel before—in Scotland, we generally don’t use new oak because it’s too strong. Like, if you use a barrel that earlier held sherry, and if too much of that is soaked into the alcohol, then its flavour can dominate the whisky. The next thing is the amount of time you leave your whisky in the barrel. Older is definitely not always better because it may lead to a high level of woodiness. The final thing is the number of times you use your barrel, so if you use it over and over again, you are not going to get much body or sweetness.
Q. How have distillation processes changed over the years?
What’s really changed is our understanding of the process. We now have a realisation of where a lot of the flavours come from. But the process of malt whisky essentially hasn’t changed for centuries, maybe only the level of controls of the process and the efficiencies are a bit higher. Having said that, a lot of distilleries have automated their production process. But I will never do that because I would want my products to be handcrafted. If the day ever came that I would be forced to automate, I would retire.
Q. What are the laws governing Scotch?
If you are making Scotch, the only ingredients you can use are water, malted barley and yeast. No flavourings, enzymes etc. After the fermentation, you must distil a minimum of two times in copper pot stills. The spirits themselves must be filled into oak barrels and matured in Scotland for a minimum of three years. Once it’s ready, it cannot be bottled at a strength of less than 40 percent.Q. Do so many regulations end up stifling creativity?
Of course. At times, I end up frustrated. But on the occasions that I’ve had the opportunity to lobby the Scotch Whisky Association to change the law, I chose not to. It is up to me to find creativity within the law. Like preparing my barrels in a slightly different way. Glenmorangie Signet was a good example of that; it was the first time a Scotch whisky was made using high roasted chocolate malt. The association had objected but I had persuaded it by saying it’s still malted barley and still goes through the same germination process.
But if you open the law up, it’s the thin end of the wedge. Before you know it, people will do all sorts of nonsense to the whisky. The laws frustrate me, but I completely understand why they are there.
Q. Micro-distilleries, making craft whisky, are coming up in Scotland. Kilchoman in Islay is an example. How are they altering the landscape of Scotch?
“ If the day ever came that I would be forced to automate the whisky-making process, I’d retire.”
Kilchoman, which has been around for at least 10 years, is a great example. Its business model is different from other micro-distilleries. Instead of making gin and vodka, the main products that bring money, or bottling whiskies that are just three years old, he and his investors wait patiently till the spirit reaches a suitable age.
At present, we have 131 distilleries in Scotland, and if I return to Mumbai next year, it may rise to 140 by then. The question is how many of them will survive? Investing in stocks and maturing them for 10 to 12 years is massively expensive. What makes me uneasy is that most of them are selling their whisky at three years and one day, and charging a lot. These whiskies are too young and not ready, and that is not a good advertisement for the Scotch industry. People might find these drinks a bit harsh and woody; that is not the way whisky is supposed to be. You can be ‘craft’ and still make terrible products. To me, being ‘craft’ is something done in an artisanal way, and which ends up being a top product.
Q. With the demands for brown liquor going up, there is talk about ditching age statements. Is that a good idea?
Irrespective of what I think, it’s happening. In some cases, the distiller or the blender doesn’t want to be restricted by having to work to an age. I deliberately chose not to mention the age in Glenmorangie’s private edition range, because the primary focus is not about the age. It is about the type of barrel and the special production technique. The whisky is actually about 10 years old but that’s by the by. Q. A single malt is often seen as one’s father’s drink.
We’ve already broken that barrier. It’s much more democratic now. A parallel that comes to mind is when journalists ask me about what I think about women and whisky, and I say absolutely nothing. Why should I? Why should women not drink whisky? Similarly, in Asian markets I see a lot of younger demographics drinking whisky. What we’ve done is contemporise packaging, and done some bit of education. In the past a lot more people used to think that a single malt is going to taste fierce and dry and smoky. Sometimes it can be, but there are a lot of brands now that are far easier to drink. So, perceptions are changing. I would say that if markets like India and China really take off, I am terrified of not being able to supply enough stock.
(This story appears in the 26 October, 2018 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)