Imagine Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory was built in Scotland, on the banks of the Dornoch Firth. Encased in oak and glass, it would be a coastal workshop devoted to the exploration of flavour, a place where even the most outlandish and seemingly impossible creations were brought to life. Now, replace chocolate with whisky and you have Glenmorangie’s new Lighthouse distillery, a modern facility with its very own Wonka at the helm.
Situated within the historic grounds of the 180-year-old distillery, the Lighthouse is a gleaming tower of innovation – literally and figuratively – masterminded by Dr Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie’s director of whisky creation.
The Lighthouse is an extension of Lumsden’s psyche. The scientist has been pushing the boundaries of Scotch for almost four decades, exploring the spirit’s flavour potential through the entire production process. He was a pioneer of cask finishing, lobbied for the use of wine casks to mature Scotch, and was the first to utilise heavily roasted chocolate malt in whisky with the groundbreaking Glenmorangie Signet. Lumsden was also the first to cultivate local wild yeast during the fermentation phase, the result of which was Glenmorangie Allta.
It’s this imaginative, ‘anything’s possible’ attitude that has earned him the reputation of the ‘Willy Wonka of Whisky’, a title he baulks at. ‘The words “Willy Wonka” make me shudder because they come with such a huge level of expectation that you’re going to be a bit of a lunatic or eccentric. Maybe I am a bit eccentric, but I do like to experiment a lot.’
Wonka or not, the Lighthouse is Lumsden’s very own Chocolate Factory – a bespoke distillery designed by Paris-based Barthélémy Griño Architects, where he and his team can explore every facet of flavour creation.
While Glenmorangie’s main distillery produces a light, floral style of spirit, the Lighthouse is fitted with various enhancements that enable the team to produce pretty much any style of spirit they like.
The two copper pot stills are shaped like Glenmorangie’s iconic tall, giraffe-necked stills, but feature modifications like water cooling jackets, purifiers and a stainless steel condenser that allow the spirit character to be altered in a multitude of ways. ‘I’m building maximum flexibility into my experimentation,’ says Lumsden, although he’s talking about more than just spirit character, or even cereal.
At the base of the tower is a hammer mill, allowing the distillery to process a variety of cereals such as rye, oats or rice, or anything else he can imagine. ‘There’s nothing off the table here,’ he says. ‘My ultimate dream would not be to produce a gin, rum, baijiu or whatever, but to produce something completely new and unheard of. I’m thinking ridiculous, and this is metaphoric, but making a spirit out of old wellington boots or something. It’s that sort of alternative way of thinking.’
I’m thinking of making a spirit out of old wellington boots or something. It’s that sort of alternative way of thinking
While Lumsden will kick off distilling with a relatively traditional run of malted barley to ‘get a feel for how the still house will work’, he will only hint at what’s next. ‘I’m not going to tell you about the first experiments I’m doing, but I’m answering you with a wry smile on my face.’
At the top of the tower (and yes, there is an elevator although it’s not made of glass), is the Lighthouse laboratory, where the distilling team can organoleptically assess new-make spirit as it comes off the stills. Glenmorangie’s senior shift operators Gary George and Billy McKay will be running the new site, while Lumsden is in the process of hiring his ‘Charlie’ to oversee the Lighthouse’s operation. ‘I’m looking for someone who’s optimistic, full of wide-eyed wonder and not afraid to try things out,’ he says. ‘As well as executing my dreams at the distillery, I’d like them to be inventing their own things there.’
It’s not unheard of for traditional Scotch distillers to get imaginative with their spirits, or even operate a pilot plant purely for experimental purposes (Diageo has Leven distillery, a small set-up at its bottling facility in Fife). However, the breadth of innovation Lumsden is dreaming of aligns Glenmorangie with more forward-thinking distillers like Empirical in Copenhagen, the boundary-pushing flavour company run by ex-Noma staff.
Sadly, just like Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, the Lighthouse will not be open for tours. Instead, whisky lovers will have to admire it from afar while waiting patiently for the first release – whisky or otherwise – to appear.
In the meantime, to mark its launch, the distillery has released the limited Glenmorangie Lighthouse edition (£85), a single malt matured in a combination of ex-oloroso sherry and first-fill bourbon casks, the oak from which has been used to clad the sides of the tower itself.