Glenmorangie’s maverick Director of Whisky Creation, Dr. Bill Lumsden has long had a love affair with Japan so it was only a matter of time before he bottled a limited-edition Scottish whisky with Japanese sensibilities – enter, Glenmorangie Tale of Tokyo. It might more aptly be called ‘Tale of Mizunara’ because the chief flavor component in this silky and exotic expression is in indeed Japanese mizunara oak. Lumsden is quick to point out that mizunara oak is, in his words, “Quite weird, difficult to obtain and a challenge to work with,” but, he adds, “Japanese mizunara oak has this kind of cult status, which is quite intriguing because if you look at in the cold light of day you would never use it for making oak barrels.” The Japanese oaks grow in a gnarly, ungainly fashion – nothing like the stately and linear American oaks. The wood itself imparts strange flavors and is notoriously porous (not ideal if you are aging a spirit for a long time) and, adds Lumsden, “the taste profile is just strange.” Undeterred by these challenges, the scientist in Lumsden was determined to get a hold of some mizunara.
Lumsden’s first visit to Japan was in 1999 and he returned absolutely besotted with the country and the culture. “It was like nothing I’ve seen before in my life and I absolutely loved it.” Decades of consecutive visits gave birth to Lumsden’s idea of creating a whisky specifically for Japan. “I just couldn’t get my hands on any mizunara oak as our friends in Japan dearly guarded it,” he says. Turns out, Lumsden’s reputation for experimentation (which often gets him in trouble with the Scotch Whisky Association) opened the right door in Japan. After years of searching, he was put in contact with a man who owned a mizunara cooperage. “The owner knew Glenmorangie and he knew about the experimental things we’d done and so he agreed to craft some barrels for me,” says Lumsden.
Making the barrels was merely the beginning of a long and winding road to the final blend. “Obviously to make a product specifically for our friends in Japan we had to consider that they have a more savory type of diet,” notes Lumsden. Working with his Master Blender & Head of Whisky Creation, Gillian Macdonald, the two decided to heavily toast the mizunara. “Gillian and I partly matured a proportion of Glenmorangie spirit in the rare mizunara oak casks, which I’ve been curious to experiment with for some time. The influence of this wood is incredibly complex and unusual.” The two barrels aged only in mizunara yielded, as expected, weird flavors. There were spicy furniture polish notes, among other things, and it was quite clear they would not be released on their own.
“We played around in the lab for a year or so and eventually ended up with the recipe we are most happy with. The biggest flavor contributor is the mizunara, but the flavor profile is classic Glenmorangie, with first-fill American oak bourbon barrels to lend creaminess and softness and take the edge off the mizunara and a bit sweetness from Glenmorangie finished in oloroso sherry casks.” The final blend balance and softens the mizunara and the result is, “a dram as full of delicious sensory contrasts as a trip to Tokyo,” Says Lumsden,
Witnessing Lumsden’s excitement over wrestling with the challenges of mizunara, it’s clear he is only getting started. I ask Lumsden to share his craziest experimental idea; he gives a hearty laugh but declines to share, “Sorry, I can’t tell you that because it will get me trouble. Suffice to say we often have ideas that are inspired not by flavors or barrels.” Much like years-long inspiration and journey to create Glenmorangie Tale of Tokyo, where orange peel and pepper mingle with sweet spices and a finish of classic Glenmorangie flavors of mandarin, almond and marzipan. Says Lumsden, “This is beautiful, elegant, classic Glenmorangie married with this frankly ridiculous tasting Mizunara oak whisky and it’s Tokyo – it’s absolutely Tokyo.”