Glenmorangie’s Allta was made by Bill “Dr. Bill” Lumsden, the distillery’s director of whisky creation, distilling and whisky stocks, and a pioneer in finishing whisky in oak barrels that once held other spirits. He discovered and developed the wild yeast used in making Allta. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)

Glenmorangie experiments with wild yeast in its scotch

Bill “Dr. Bill” Lumsden, director of whisky creation, distilling and whisky stocks at both Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, is a grand wizard.

Bill “Dr. Bill” Lumsden, director of whisky creation, distilling and whisky stocks at both Glenmorangie and its peaty Islay cousin, Ardbeg, is the grand wizard of leveraging wood to alchemize whisky innovation. He pioneered the art of finishing Scotch whisky in oak barrels that once held other spirits, such as port or sherry, to imbue myriad flavors.

The “doctor” in Dr. Bill, though, refers to his Ph.D. in yeast chemistry. Though most Scotch whisky distilleries have used the same strain of yeast for generations, that changes with the release of Allta, the 10th annual Private Edition expression from Glenmorangie, created using a unique wild yeast discovered and developed by Lumsden.

“This to me is the most exciting experiment that I’ve done for a long time,” Lumsden says.

Yet the effects of the new yeast are subtle, requiring a gentle rethinking of Glenmorangie’s Champagne-clear base.

“There’s no question that if I’d done this very same experiment at Ardbeg, we really wouldn’t have noticed any difference at all; the peat would have just completely overpowered it,” he said.

So Lumsden aged the spirit in mostly third-fill and some second-fill casks, minimizing the overall effects of the wood. Additionally, Allta is bottled at 51.2 percent alcohol, the highest concentration of Glenmorangie’s Private Edition line.

“I just wanted to slightly concentrate up the rather subtle differences in flavor. But it was actually mainly because it was the 10th anniversary release I thought let’s do something a little bit different and give our loyal Glenmorangie whisky geeks a bit more bang for their buck.”

The results are exceptional. Compared to the standard 10-year-old Glenmorangie, Allta has a richer, barley-forward nose, with a little musk, game and vanilla bean, less of the typical citrus. A few drops of water open the nose to biscuits and freshly baked bread, and the mouth-filling flavor carries elements of melon rind, finishing into tart fruit and orange cream. For a high alcohol-by-volume, non-age-statement expression, it’s remarkably palatable.

The decade-long experiment carried other challenges though. Beyond the atypical approach to wood management, Lumsden felt some pressure to release a final product before the competition.

“If you genuinely believe you’re the first to do something, then there’s always the risk with each passing year that someone will do it before you,” he said. “There’s a risk here that we could be gazumped.”

Finally, Lumsden’s ongoing experimentation is challenged by the international demand for Glenmorangie. But he has a plan.

“The demand for our spirit is so high that actually finding a slot in the production schedule to carry out experiments is increasingly difficult. So that’s why I’m building my experimental distillery at Glenmorangie, to give me easier access to things like that.”

Glenmorangie Allta, the first major entry into alternate-yeast Scotch, is available widely at $100 a bottle.

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