It’s become no small tradition to whisky nerds that each year, Glenmorangie’s Director of Distilling and Whisky Creation, Dr Bill Lumsden, releases a coveted new expression under their lauded Private Edition umbrella. For the ninth year in a row, one of the mad scientist’s (a term of endearment, here) experiments has been bottled, labelled, and has hit the shelves, with the Scots-Gaelic moniker of “Spios”.
Like most of Bill’s special releases, it started out as a bit of a gamble.
“There’s no question, this started out as an experiment without me really particularly targeting a product, and that’s the way I work a lot of the time. Occasionally I’ll bow to marketing pressure and produce something for a particular channel, but I don’t like to work that way.
“This was just an experiment, and it was back to when I was distillery manager at Glenmorangie, and a couple of times I had a visit by the late great Michael Jackson”.
Bill’s referring, of course, to the now deceased whisky writer, not the also-deceased wan moonwalker of Billie Jean fame.
“Michael, one of these visits, this was ’97, brought me a sample of American rye whiskey. I’d never tasted rye before and I was intrigued by the taste. I was reasonably familiar with bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, but I liked the taste, and I liked Michael’s rather romantic story about the golden age of cocktails and jazz and everything, and how back in the 1920s–it was in fact rye whiskey that people drank–it was the basis of the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, things like that.
“So, there and then I thought, “Hmmm, that’s interesting.” Did a little bit of research as to how it was produced. Not a lot of information available, I have to say. Then I thought, “Right, I’m gonna get some rye barrels.”
“Wrong. Rye was virtually on life support at that time, and you just couldn’t get any. It took me ten years before I actually got enough of the barrels to allow me to fill them.”
Dr Bill Lumsden’s known for more than just his delicious drams, he’s also earned quite the reputation for his stubbornness when it comes to seeing an experiment through. With a background in biochemistry, the scientist in him can’t resist a challenge, especially when it comes to uncharted waters.
“The barrels came from Speyside Cooperage. Basically I went to them, and they said, “Oooh, don’t think I can get that for you, Bill.” But you know I’m nothing if not dogged and determined. I meet with Bayside twice a year to have a very formal meeting, and so I kept reminding them.
“It took them ten years before they were able to get a batch. They didn’t tell me the producer. And to be honest, I didn’t ask. I didn’t think I wanted to know … But it came from Kentucky.
“I got the barrels, and that was in about 2007, and I knew that the difference was going to be subtle, if anything, I have to say. So I put the newmake spirit in it, and it was solely matured in it. I’m quite amazed at the end result, and don’t get me wrong, this is not comparing Original to Signet here.”
Bill’s right in that the differences between Original and Spios are subtle. This Private Edition isn’t reinventing the wheel. But then again, it’s the delicate layers of spice that intoxicate the olfactorial senses right out of the glass that display some of the inherent characteristics of rye whiskey.
“The spice, I said it’s like mint-flavoured toffee, you feel a bit of butterscotch in there. Something that makes me think of cherries or a hint of spice on the palate when you take a sip.”
This whisky has seen oak for just under ten years, a little shorter than previous experiments, but the combination of bottling in time for market and an informed decision by Bill to pull it while there were still subtleties of the rye has resulted in a seriously beautiful drop.
“In an ideal world, I would have kept the Spios going a bit longer, but I was worried I was going to lose the influence of the rye whiskey, and the oak flavour would take over. You know, bear in mind I’ve got about 30 different experiments going on and my strike rate is usually pretty high with them.
“At the end there’s one or two that I’m thinking, “Okay, that couldn’t really give me quite the difference I was looking for”, so I would probably end up blending that away into something else.
“It seldom gets to a stage that I’d actually have to throw anything away.”
This is an incredibly delicate set of flavours, and considering it’s landing on shelves for less than AU$200, an easy addition to any self-respecting drinker’s home bar.
Now that Spios has landed, the last question on everybody’s lips is the one that Dr Bill never answers, about what he’s got planned for us next year.
“I can categorically tell you guys that next year’s private edition will be number ten.”