Dr Bill

25 September, 2015

Glenmorangie’s Bill Lumsden is to scotch whisky what Dr Who is to the BBC. Christian Davis travels to Ardbeg to meet the man who makes Glenmorangie and Ardbeg

Dr Lumsden is: ‘director of distilling, whisky creation & whisky stocks at the Glenmorangie Company’, which is a division of the huge French luxury goods group, Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. It’s a mouthful. To most people in the trade, he is the approachable, down-to-earth, Bill Lumsden. Dr Bill is the International Spirits Challenge’s Master Blender/Distiller of the Year, as voted by his peers.

Even to his greatest competitors and meanest commentators, Dr Bill is a luminary – a ‘person who inspires or influences others, especially one prominent in a particular sphere’. He may not have a Tardis (Range Rover more like) or travel through time – other than via ageing barrels – but he is the Dr Who of single malt scotch. His standards are rigorous, he has vision and he is prepared to experiment and push the boundaries, within the strict perimeters of scotch whisky making. There may not be any Daleks or Cyberman but there is always the Scotch Whisky Association.

His work on wood management in the ageing of whisky and developing different cask finishes for Glenmorangie has marked him out. Prior to his joining the company, Glenmorangie was a rather light, uninspiring single malt – one for beginners (how damning is that?). No longer. He admits to having “tweaked” the blend over the years, without changing the house style, to make it “rounder, more full bodied, sweeter”.

The scurrilous whisky blog, Whiskysponge – which is to the scotch whisky industry what Private Eye is to British politics – calls Bill Lumsden: “Jill Bumsden, chief wood-getter.” It doesn’t quite say it all. Master blenders and distillers do not often get on the board, but Lumsden is a full member of the Glenmorangie board. So how did it all start? Was his father a distillery man?

“No, my father was a motor electrician,” Lumsden tells DI. “I did a BSc in biochemistry and cell biology. I enjoyed my science studies so much I went on to do a PhD in Microbial Physiology & Fermentation Science at the International Centre for Brewing & Distilling at Heriot-Watt university.

Love for malt

“My mentor was Dr, now professor, Sir Geoff Palmer. He took me under his wing and introduced me to the distilling industry. Through him I developed a love for single malt whisky.” Lumsden says he had tried blended scotch whisky but it failed to impress. He recalls his first time drinking scotch in 1976/77 at his best pal, David’s, house.

“His parents had gone out so we did what most teenage boys do – we raided the drinks cabinet. There
was a bottle of Stewart’s Cream of Barley. We started drinking it, mixing it with lemonade and ginger ale, listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.”

So, did he have a eureka moment? Lumsden’s eyes light up as he recalls: “Yes I did. It was 1984, my first year of my PhD, I was 24 years old and at a student party. I remember Deniece Williams’s ‘Let’s Hear for the Boy’ (from the film, Footloose) was playing. “I got it (the whisky that is). It was the smoothness, mellowness and complexity of the flavours – and it turned out to be Glenmorangie 10 Year Old. So the studious Lumsden got his PhD. “I was thinking of doing post doctorate research but I had been at university for eight years. I needed to earn some money. I was interested in whisky,” says Lumsden. 

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