Stuff & Things

An eye-opening pilgrimage to the Glenmorangie Distillery.

I Was Afraid of Scotch. Then I Went to Scotland.

The Glenmorangie Distillery is a Scottish postcard come to life. It’s a sprawl of ancient brick buildings perched on the rugged coast of Tain, Scotland. I’ve come here to cover one of the most exclusive whiskies in the world: Glenmorangie Signet, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Signet, distilled for just one week every year, is the brainchild of Dr. Bill Lumsden—who holds the lofty title of Director of Distilling, Whisky Creation and Whisky Stocks—along with his colleagues Brendan McCarron and Gillian MacDonald. Creating it is a labour of love for the people here, all of whom are extremely passionate and knowledgeable about whisky.

I’m feeling a little out of place because I am not one of those people.

Instead I’ve arrived at the distillery straight from a seven-hour flight, suitcase in hand and backpack on back, looking forward to a shower. The car ride from the airport was long enough to have two full naps in the back seat. I’m told the tour starts in 30 minutes and the rest of the group will be arriving shortly. When they do, everyone is stylish and beautiful and smart, as opposed to smelly, exhausted, and literally in their pyjamas.

I meet our hosts for the tour, Brendan and Dr. Lumsden, who politely introduce themselves. I say my name is Colin and one of them exclaims, “That’s a proper Scottish name!” I tell them they gave it to me when I got off the plane and everyone laughs. Thank God, I’m in!

Brendan is basketball-player tall and one of those people who is so affable and friendly he makes you want to try harder to be nice. A day from now, he and I will stand in front of a colossal painting of a battle and discuss its meaning and historical accuracy, then trade Airplane! quotes over lunch.

As Head of Maturing Whisky Stock, Brendan is the apprentice to Dr. Lumsden, whom everyone calls Dr. Bill. Bill has been with Glenmorangie for 20 years and Signet is his invention. While studying for his PhD in biochemistry, Bill simultaneously discovered coffee and whisky, whose comparative subtleties and nuances led him to dream of combining the two someday. Bill was the first to use high roasted chocolate malt barley in a whisky. Before we begin the tour, Bill and Brendan stand us downwind of the vent outside the distillery where we pull smells of rye bread and chocolate out of the air.

We make our way to the stills, the tallest in Scotland,1 and I scoot up to Bill to ask a question while we walk. Bill is probably the most animated man I’ve ever met2—and I went to theatre school. Every word is accentuated with full-body movement, like he’s extracting the emotion of what he’s saying from the air, and kneading it into his dialogue like dough. He has a way of leaning in close and squinting one eye while he speaks, lending everything he says a conspiratorial, “just between us” quality that is as intoxicating as his product. The guy is cool, is what I’m saying.

Later, nestled by white oak bourbon barrels in Glenmorangie’s dunnage warehouse, Brendan, Bill, and brand ambassador David Blackmore walk us through a tasting of the four whiskies that make up Signet. It’s here that feeling of not belonging creeps in again: I can definitely agree that all four of these whiskies are delicious, and I enjoy drinking them, but I can’t shake my outsider anxieties. I feel like a bear in a human suit, swirling this $300 whisky around in my giant bear hands, nodding along to the tasting notes, and when someone asks if I can see the “Heavy legs clinging to the side of the glass” I say “Yes” but it sounds like “AOUOUOU.”

I express this feeling of insecurity to Dr. Bill in our one-on-one interview. I reveal to him the secret I’ve been guarding all week: that I’m a cocktail enthusiast, that my passion for liquor comes from blending a variety of disparate, even incongruous, flavours into a cohesive whole. Even as I’m explaining this to one of the most accomplished whisky makers on earth, I realize he does the same thing I do. Bill left his last position at a rival distillery specifically to make Glenmorangie Signet—to advance the art form beyond the staid traditions of old, to experiment with new flavours and techniques and casks—something he could only do at Glenmorangie. He explains to me that he is a scientist but I see him equally as an artist: a man who is able to combine his professional passion with his personal vivacity, pouring everything he is into a product with the same joy and care he brings to his words. When I confess that I enjoy adding ginger ale, that most Canadian of mixers, to whisky, he doesn’t flinch.

“I want to give people pleasure,” he tells me. “That’s my life’s mission. Who am I to tell anyone how to enjoy anything?”

As if to accentuate this point, the Master Class tasting Bill gives us includes pipettes sitting in jugs of water for us to add to the Signet. Water, Bill explains, can help to open up the flavours of the drink. And there are plenty of flavours to explore: Signet presents a layered profile that smells of ginger and cinnamon, then gives a smooth chocolate taste that rides into a surprising spiciness, before finishing with a complex blend of orange and cappuccino. This Master Class, which I expected to be held in a darkened room surrounded by oak barrels, was conducted in the living room of Glenmorangie House, a two-story stone cottage surrounded by golden barley fields. The dichotomy is central to Glenmorangie’s brand identity: traditional, humble Scottish beginnings that have given Bill, Brendan, and Gillian a platform to innovate, experiment, and take the company beyond the stereotypical image of whisky drinkers.

“If I see a sign that says ‘Too hot, don’t touch,’ I’ll touch it,” Bill says. “Just to see what happens! I take risks, but I’m not reckless. They’re calculated.” Those risks are definitely paying off: the day I left Scotland, Bill and Brendan flew to London to attend the International Spirits Challenge. Glenmorangie won a number of accolades and Bill was named Distiller of the Year, the only person to ever earn that distinction twice.

Reading that news a few days after I returned to Canada, I recalled an image Bill created for me at the end of our interview: him, sitting in his well-worn green chesterfield-style chair, in front of a fire, with his favourite jazz record playing. There, all alone, he will take over an hour to consume only a single measure of whisky, savouring every moment of it. Pausing to let it breathe, sampling the nose again, then tasting, ever so slowly, as the music plays. He will even spend a few minutes with the empty glass, taking in the aromas left over in the absence of the whisky.

“I extract the most out of everything.” He proclaims, without a hint of irony or sheepishness. His story recalled in me a moment the day before, as our group was led along the coast through a sheltered green pathway, as the sounds of music beckoned us to a promontory where a piper was waiting to lead us to dinner in the walled garden of the Glenmorangie House. I was given a cocktail and allowed a minute to look back where we had come, down onto an auburn beach where a distant Collie streaked black and white against the sand. There, after being awake for the better part of 30 hours and crossing an ocean, I was able to fully quash that voice that demanded I was out of place in this world of high-class liquors and well-traveled writers. That, in fact, everyone there, writers and employees of the Distillery alike, were the same: passionate scientist/artists, trying to make a living consuming and expressing the things that meant the most to them.

References   [ + ]

1. And which give Glenmorangie its unofficial mascot, the giraffe.
2. He dresses like a boss and flies all over the world to speak and learn and represent his brand. He will confide in me that he is a shopaholic, he will often take an extra day in his travels to buy clothes, especially in NYC. I believe it—he’s wearing a light blue bomber that would make Karamo proud.