Shining a light on the Lighthouse

Gillian Macdonald of Glenmorangie talks experimenting with whisky

GILLIAN Macdonald is master blender and head of whisky creation at The Glenmorangie Company.

Here, she talks about her role at the company as well as her experiences working at Glenmorangie’s new Lighthouse distillery – an experimental facility opened late last year.

What is your role at Glenmorangie and what does it entail, day-to-day?

As master blender and head of whisky creation at Glenmorangie, no two days are the same. One day I might be working closely with the distillery team on a front-end trial or nosing our new make spirit quality, the next I could be working up new food and whisky pairings with the head chef at Glenmorangie House – our boutique hotel near the distillery.
I can also be found working in the sensory lab on new longer-term whisky creation concepts and finalising product recipes for release over the coming years.
I’m constantly looking for opportunities to create new and delicious whiskies.

What was the thinking behind opening the Lighthouse at Glenmorangie?

The Lighthouse is Glenmorangie’s ground-breaking innovation distillery in Tain, which opened in late 2021. This dedicated space for experimentation was created to bring a kaleidoscope of new flavours and possibilities to our award-winning expressions for the enjoyment of whisky drinkers, new and old.

Glenmorangie lighthouse

Named for its landmark approach to whisky-making as well as its prominent coastal location, the Lighthouse is a 20m-high glass structure on site at Glenmorangie Distillery that offers panoramic views over the Dornoch Firth and can be seen for miles around.

Within this purpose-built distillery, the team and I work on experiments with our raw ingredients (barley, water and yeast), and investigate the changes, big and small, in the key processes such as mashing, fermentation and distillation, allowing us to tap into new flavour opportunities. In the whisky creation team, we have been pushing the boundaries of single malt for decades, but the Lighthouse distillery takes our imaginative approach to the next level – it really is the first of its kind when it comes to distilling.

How much liquid has the facility produced in the past year?

The innovation distillery has been created for experimentation rather than yield, allowing for flexibility which would never be possible in the main distillery. Modelled on the 12 giraffe-high stills in Glenmorangie’s main still house, the two new copper stills within the Lighthouse have been custom-designed by the team. Their many additional modifications will enable us to alter Glenmorangie’s spirit’s character in ways previously unimagined.
For instance, by being made able to act as if they are shorter, they can create a heavier spirit.

By contrast, the stills can also be made to act as if they are even taller, to create a spirit even that is even lighter than that which Glenmorangie already creates.

Will the Lighthouse be releasing its own bottlings? If so, when can we expect to see Glenmorangie Lighthouse expressions appearing?

In terms of new expressions, as it’s well known, whisky making takes time! So the exact release timings of new products created within the Lighthouse remain to be seen, but we have been running lots of experiments and have lots of exciting developments in the pipeline.

What has the facility allowed you to do, that wouldn’t have been possible in the main distillery?

On the top floor, above the stills, is a sensory laboratory, where I work with our director of whisky creation, Dr Bill Lumsden, to control and oversee every aspect of the spirit produced. We also decide which wood to mature it in for the best results, whilst continuously looking for our next innovation opportunity for the future.

Next door, in a more traditional, warehouse-style building, the crucial whisky-making steps of mashing and fermentation take place. These stand-alone facilities mean that the Lighthouse can operate entirely of its own accord. This allows its experimental work to continue unhindered, while the main distillery remains dedicated to satisfying the demand for Glenmorangie’s delicious signature single malt.

Under Dr Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie has built a reputation for experimentation – particularly in cask finishing. How important is it to Glenmorangie that the name continues to associate with innovation in Scotch whisky?

Glenmorangie rangeIt’s hugely important and entirely our vision, as evidenced by the investment in our new Lighthouse distillery. Glenmorangie is committed to continuing to create ever more delicious whiskies, to encourage more people around the world to discover our amazing single malts.

What has been your favourite project/aspect of working in the Lighthouse so far?

My favourite aspect of the Lighthouse is our “What if…?” approach – the flexibility of the kit gives us the opportunity to redefine traditional notions of whisky-making.

It’s been a game-changer for us and will keep us at the forefront of innovation.

What is your favourite whisky overall and why?

It has to be Glenmorangie Original: maturation in ex-bourbon casks allows the elegant spirit from those giraffe-high stills to shine at its best, with mandarin orange, apricot and peach fruits combined with toasted caramel, creamy coconut vanilla and ginger – it is just such a delicious dram.