Listening to Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie’s head of distilling and whisky creation, it’s hard not to be seduced by his passion for the craft.
Lumsden has a Glaswegian drawl that is as dulcet as the nectar he yields. It may also be that the words he chooses to describe his whisky roll off the tongue with ease: fleshy, heady, rich and buttery; notes of cardamom, apricot, sweet chestnut, toffee apple, aniseed and cappuccino.
They’re all packed into his newest and rarest creation: Pride 1978, which he launched last week in New York. At $US5800 ($6200) a bottle it’s hardly a tipple for quaffing (someone joked it translates to $300 a shot). Guests did not throw it back but savoured the generous mouthful they were allowed.
They were also there to sample another piece of art: artist Idris Khan’s Disappearing Casks, a photograph of swirling chalk marks created especially for Pride 1978. Valued at $US90,000, it will live with Glenmorangie, but the artist has produced 700 smaller photographs – a 30cmx30cm detail from Disappearing Casks – which accompany each bottle sold.
It’s an interesting idea: while one element of this collaboration will slowly depreciate (if consumed), the other may actually increase in value.
Art vs science
Bottled at 47.4 per cent alcohol by volume, Pride 1978 began as all Glenmorangie whiskies do: from mineral-rich, soft Scottish water, produced in very tall stills. The spirit was filled into American oak ex-bourbon barrels to produce the soft, creamy flavour prevalent in Glenmorangie brews.
The parcel of whisky he selected was distilled on October 5, 1978. “I basically went through the stock profile and drew a number of samples, and I particularly liked that whisky because it was full-bodied. The kind of metaphorical comparison is that the original in some respects is like sauvignon blanc - it's floral and it’s got a lot of finesse - but this was like a big, fat, fleshy chardonnay,” Lumsden explains.
He then managed to procure a small quantity of wine barrels from one of the three Grand Cru Classé vineyards in Bordeaux to store his whisky in (he’s unable to reveal which one). “I thought this will do well to stand up to the long ageing I was going to give it. Normally I would finish our extra-mature for two or three years, but this was a little experiment and I just wanted to see how far I could push it. The answer to that was, finally I could push it, in my view, no further than 2012.”
Certainly as whisky ages in barrels, it loses a certain amount of worth in “angel’s share” – the amount of alcohol that evaporates from casks during maturation. This is roughly 2 per cent of the total quantity of alcohol per annum, but left too long the whisky will evaporate entirely, leaving a not-so-appetising residue of woody alcohol.
Lumsden says his work involves a great deal of experimentation: whisky is 10 per cent science and 90 per cent art. It therefore made sense to him to pair this particular whisky with a great work of art.
British artist Khan is represented by five galleries worldwide. A work of his sold at auction in 2012 for $US290,547. For Disappearing Casks, the artist took 2500 photographs of chalk markings he made, based on the traces left by barrels on the floor of Glenmorangie distillery in Tain.
Lumsden believes there may even be people out there who are interested in buying the whisky to get the artwork. “It’s all very well people having the original Pride and drinking it, and having the nice Baccarat crystal flacon, but an empty bottle is an empty bottle at the end of the day. To have something like this is a fabulous piece of legacy. I think it will appeal not just to whisky drinkers, but to art collectors as well.”