Glenmorangie A Tale of the Forest is a fascinating new whisky made by kilning barley with
botanicals combustible materials like juniper berries and birchwood which shows how even Scotch whisky giants are focusing more on what happens before the barrel.
Recently we were stood in the Green bar in Hotel Café Royal admiring a tree. We weren’t distracted by a squirrel outside, this tree was in the middle of the bar and was laden with bottles of Glenmorangie Tale of the Forest. You see, Hotel Café Royal has teamed up with the Highland distillery to showcase its new limited edition single malt Scotch whisky through a series of cocktails designed to highlight different flavours foraged from the forest.
A tale of the forest
The theme is inspired by the whisky’s character, which in turn was inspired by the woodlands near Glenmorangie’s director of whisky creation Dr. Bill Lumsden’s home. At the launch event at the Green bar, he invites us to picture him frolicking through the woods looking for that eureka moment. But this is no gimmick or a concept a marketing department handed to a team of distillers to work back from.
There’s a rich but slightly forgotten history of experimentation in kilning, which is the process of drying barley. When you’re making whisky, you need to trick the barley into growing just enough that it will germinate and activate enzymes that will help convert starch into sugar later on. This green malt then goes to the kiln for drying to halt the germination at a heat kept below 70°C to ensure the enzymes aren’t destroyed. In this process, you can add flavour. Peat is the most obvious example. When you use peat as your fuel source for the fire, it adds aromas from the peat itself, such as grassy smoke or coastal influences.
But there’s evidence of more than just peat being used here. Master blender and head of whisky creation at Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, Gillian Macdonald, tell me that she and Dr. Bill looked at the history of the process and that their research with the company archivist revealed interesting information dating back to references from the 1880s and Alfred Barnard. “There were references to heather flowers and juniper being used alongside peat and other combustible materials in the process of drying malt, alongside descriptions of peat not fully decomposed with visible plants being present during kilning,” Macdonald explains.
No botanicals, but plenty of primary production
Other references found from a similar era mentioned the use of birchwood being used as an alternative to peat to dry malt due to its properties as a strong and steady source of heat. You could call these additions botanicals, but it would appear that the Scotch Whisky Association got a little concerned with that phrasing so Glenmorangie is now saying ‘combustible materials. Perhaps there was a fear people would conflate this whisky with gin. That seems unlikely to me and ruins the alliterative fun of ‘botanical barley’, but hey-ho. The important thing is that the alternative kilning fuels were selected to create Tale of the Forest and that’s what makes it really interesting.
It speaks to a trend in whisky where creators are focusing more on primary production, which is to say what occurs pre-maturation. In malting, mashing, and fermentation there’s infinite possibilities to create flavour and define distillery character. The Kristy Sherry, formerly of this parish, was only recently on this blog focusing on the trend of ‘beer-first’ liquid, where drinkable wash, grains, and yeast are the goal. Dr Bill Lumsden’s Ph.D. from Heriot Watt University was in microbial physiology and fermentation science, so it’s no surprise he loves a bit of experimentation here, and he tells us that has toyed with other aspects of kilning.
Macdonald similarly is interested every stage and element of the whisky-making process, saying it is integral to her role at Glenmorangie. “We are in the luxury position of being able to ‘play’ and trial things out for a certain number of weeks throughout the year at both Ardbeg and Glenmorangie and since joining over 10 years ago I have taken full advantage of this each year and seen these products be released,” she explains. “Obviously, any changes we make to the process at these early stages are being laid down for future releases but whisky is all about long-term planning. Consistency is king for our core products – ensuring the quality of our spirit is superb for each of our core releases but our inquisitive nature can be satisfied with our thirst for wanting to know what ‘this change’ and ‘that change’ to the process or raw materials will do”.
Before and after the cask
I asked Macdonald if that old adage you hear on whisky distillery tours, that “60/70% of flavour comes from the cask” holds up. ”I have always gone with 60% myself,” she says adding that the remaining 40% is the front end up to the point of entry into the cask. “Starting with the raw ingredients, what they are, how they are grown and produced, and the stages they go through before arriving at the distillery. This is anything and everything from barley variety, the roasting levels, and the kilning process to the yeast strain used in fermentation. Then there are all the processes within the distillery to consider, the mash bill, the mill grind, the mashing temperatures, clarity of worts, resting stages, fermentation times, and spirit cut points… – the list goes on – all extremely important as the basis of what will trickle over our stills at the distillery and into the spirit safe”.
Take water, for example. “The water quality is key at your distillery also and will influence flavour formation in fermentation, which is where much of the final distillery character is formed,” Macdonald explains. “Glenmorangie’s water source is mineral rich due to the local geology and these trace metals will influence not only the mashing process but the yeast metabolism, which directly impacts the sensory profile of the wash – giving a high fruity estery character”.
The effect of distillation is demonstrated effectively at Glenmorangie, with Macdonald saying that by far the biggest influence on whisky is the height of the necks on its stills. They’re the tallest in the Scotch whisky industry at a whopping 5.14m in height – the same size as an adult male giraffe. “This allows a high level of reflux to occur within the stills, which results in an elegant, super fruity, and floral spirit cascading down into the spirit safe,” Macdonald explains. “The signature Glenmorangie orange is present at this stage already alongside orchard fruits like ripe pear, soft fruits like apricot and peach, floral aromas of honeysuckle and rose, subtle spicy notes alongside a mentholic freshness.”
How Glenmorangie whisky tells new tales
This is not to say that the choices beyond the spirit safe aren’t vital, with Macdonald listing imperative factors as being the type and quality of your oak casks, the toasting and charring levels, and previous fills, as well as the management of your spirit through maturation, the know-how as to what cask type give you what aromas and flavours, and how these combine together to complement each other. Even here that’s the case. A critical aspect of Glenmorangie Tale of the Forest is the bourbon casks and high percentage of refill casks (casks that have been used two or three times) that it was aged in. Macdonald says these allowed the spirit and distillery character to be retained throughout maturation and not be overpowered by the influence of the wood.
But what A Tale of the Forest is a prime example of is not just an old-fashioned technique recreated in modern times but of a crucial primary production change. In this case, materials all found in nature that Glenmorangie can demonstrate historical precedent of use were used, including juniper berries, birch bark, and heather flowers, as well as a little peat. The distillery owns about 12,000 acres of forest to protect the purity of its water supply so accessing them wasn’t difficult. Although Dr. Bill did make a joke about the remarkably bad idea of burning wood in a room full of whisky, so there was the odd bump in the road.
The ‘Tales of’ series that Glenmorangie has been pursuing recently (we’re told three more are on the way) has an obvious marketing benefit, you can tell a story each time. But it’s also a platform for the whisky creation team’s inquisitive nature and ‘what if’ attitude. Much like Fettercairn’s Scottish oak program, Tale of the Forest is a good case to demonstrate there’s plenty of room to innovate within Scotch, even if the SWA can get a bit anxious about the language. The never-ending combinations of options available within the raw materials, process, and cask choices are a playground of potential, and I think embracing the importance of the first two more will be defining feature of the industry in the coming years.
Tasting A Tale of the Forest
Of course, all of this is pretty moot if Tale of the Forest is gross, isn’t it? The absolute priority when experimenting when a new process is to not get lost in the novelty of it all and to integrate the flavours to ensure you don’t lose your distillery character. There’s not much point in Glenmorangie doing all of this if the cost is its inherent Glenmorangie-ness. Fortunately, that’s not the case here. Tale of the Forest is what happens when the classic orange character of Glenmorangie has been stuffed with cloves and then set on fire among incense and aromatic woods. It’s fresh, herbaceous, slightly smoky, and aromatic but still Scotch. One that’s frolicked in the woods for a bit.
Glenmorangie A Tale of the Forest Tasting Note:
Nose: Forest floor notes lead the way with oily pine and juniper, nutty malt, and woody spice, with murmurs of smoke in the distance.
Palate: An array of zesty menthol and orange peels, hints of hibiscus, cloves, and vanilla pod with a backdrop of fennel, anise, and smoked toffee.
Finish: Candied citrus fruits finish things off, with more pine and robust barley tangling with delicate oak char and mint chocolate.