How the Mad Scientist of Scotch Created His Signature Whisky
Dr. Bill Lumsden is a legend in the whisky industry. Over the course of his 20-year reign as director of distilling and whisky creation for Scotland’s Glenmorangie, Lumsden’s become known for his free-wheeling but scientific approach to the craft—he’s got a PhD in microbial physiology and fermentation science—fostering some of the most progressive innovation within Scotch while still respecting the boundaries of the style.
If Lumsden’s madcap experimentation and cheery enthusiasm have earned him the “Willy Wonka of whisky” nickname, then his distillery, set in the Highland town of Tain, is the Chocolate Factory of booze production. That comparison is perhaps even more apt during Signet Week: the highly unusual seven-day period over which the distillery halts production of all other whiskies, dedicating every still to Lumsden’s iconic chocolate malt whisky, Glenmorangie Signet.
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Signet is the first in its category to use a high roast chocolate malt barley, which joins Glenmorangie’s house malt to yield a powerhouse spirit laced with notes of mocha, espresso, ginger, dark chocolate, toasted nuts, and orange peel. Inspired simply by Lumsden’s love of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, whose aromas he hoped to recreate in a whisky, Signet marked a major departure from Glenmorangie’s hallmark style.
“Glenmorangie was all about elegance and finesse and delicacy before,” Lumsden says. “You would certainly not call Signet a delicate whiskey. It's a very rich, bold whiskey.” He adds, “I'm a scientist by training, so it was very, very natural for me to experiment and see what I could do differently.”
For the first time ever this year, Lumsden unveiled some of the magic behind Signet to industry insiders. While we can’t give away any secrets, just know it involves a motley assortment of Glenmorangie’s rarest stocks finished judiciously in a mix of specially-crafted bourbon barrels, sherry butts, and new charred oak casks.
The resulting medley of flavors and textures—creamy, sweet, with a backbone of spice—have won the distillery, and Lumsden, numerous accolades including the hotly-coveted Distiller of the Year back in 2012. But it wasn’t quite as easy to get the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), the trade organization regulating all Scotch production, on board when he first proposed the idea in the late 90s. As Lumsden tells it, whispers of his chocolate malt experiment quickly earned him a summons to the SWA office.
“I don't think at that time we in Scotland were necessarily open to what was going on round about us in the world,” Lumsden explains. “We've certainly woken up now and you see it in many, many different fields of art and culture and industry. I think the Scotch Whisky Association were fairly horrified at the time that I was doing something like this—I had to fight with them to get Signet across the finishing line.”
In the end, Lumsden was asked to show the SWA bigwigs his exact recipe for Signet, which, after consideration, was deemed to be compliant. After all, it’s still a malted barley product aged in Scotland in oak casks for a minimum of three years. And since then, that story has inspired a new generation of distillers in Scotland and elsewhere who want to bring the taste of coffee to their products.
Naturally, it wasn’t the first time Lumsden faced off with the SWA. Beyond pushing the envelope with barley, he’s been called in for some of his wilder wood cask experiments. One of his legacies within the industry? Being the reason for the Scotch Whisky Association limiting maturation casks to those made exclusively out of oak—thanks to an ill-fated experiment with Brazilian cherry wood.
And while Lumsden stresses the importance of maintaining the pedigree of Scotch, noting his fear of things devolving into “jungle juice” without rules and regulations, he says his experience creating Signet has taught him to be unafraid of challenging the status quo once in a while.
“Signet has made me think that almost think that almost nothing is impossible,” Lumsden says. “No matter how ridiculous an idea I have, or how difficult a project is, it no longer puts me off. I know some of the ideas I have are clearly against the laws of the Scotch whiskey industry, but I wouldn't reject them on that basis. I'll examine them and think well, how can I work round about this? How can I do it differently?”
He adds, with a grin: “I'm a passionate person—I take my pleasures in life very seriously indeed. And I'd like to think I've enthused a lot of people turned them on to an old man’s drink like single-malt Scotch.”