Glenmorangie has launched a new Scotch whisky this week. A very fancy one indeed. Glenmorangie Dr Bill Lumsden x Azuma Makoto 23 Years Old. We headed to The Saatchi Gallery to taste it, drink the odd cocktail (it was very hot and hydration is key) and take in an installation inspired by the whisky.

As you might have gleaned from the name, the whisky marks another voyage in the partnership between Glenmorangie’s director of whisky creation Dr Bill Lumsden and the Japanese botanical artist Azuma Makoto.

Azuma Makoto working on his masterpiece Glenmorangie

Say hello to Azuma Makoto and his lovely sculpture

Glenmorangie embraces shinra bansho

Makoto met the good doctor at Glenmorangie to take in the beauty of its surroundings, from the Highland distillery’s water source – the Tarlogie Springs – to the ornamental gardens at Dunrobin Castle. I’ve stayed at Glenmorangie House before and can attest to the area boasting plenty of Scotland’s natural Celtic charm. I don’t know if the Scots have a word for it, but the Japanese sure do. Well, two words. Shinra bansho, an embrace of the majesty of the ground, the sky and everything in between. ‘Shinra’ means countless rows of trees of different varieties. ‘Bansho’ means all forms and things – all natural phenomena. Combined, the phrase means: ‘all the things that exist in the universe without limit’. 

Taking in the shinra bansho of it all, the pair imagined how they might collaborate. Glenmorangie’s single malt has a floral side so Dr Bill could express that. He selected a classic Glenmorangie, distilled in 1998, just three years after Dr Bill first joined the company, long aged in bourbon casks and all heady with aromas of lemon balsam and orchids. But he wanted more. As part of his experiments with wine casks, in 2006 Dr Bill transferred a parcel into French oak casks that previously held Chardonnay white wine from the Meursault appellation in Burgundy. Such casks had never before been used at the distillery and it’s Dr. Bill’s favourite style of white wine. Delighting in its notes of moss dampened by rainfall, burning oak and earthy scents of the forest floor, he married the two together. Of 10 prototype recipes, #6 was selected and that’s what’s in the bottle. 

As for Makoto, he went back to his Tokyo studio and drew on the whisky’s flavours to create the installation we saw. I’m always so impressed with people who are this capable because if you asked me to gather orchids, roses and countless wildflowers and then skilfully wove them through tree bark, roots and moss, the result would be something that would go beautifully in a compost heap. Instead, Makoto created a botanical sculpture, Shinra Bansho, showcased on the gift box and labels of the limited edition whisky. First sketched on paper and an iPad over some months, in its final form it comprises almost 100 different varieties of flowers and plants native to Scotland and around the world. 

Makoto has plenty of floral expertise. He set up a haute-couture flower shop, JARDINS des FLEURS, in 2002. A few years later, he began to explore the world of botanical sculpture and it turned out he was dead good at it. A solo exhibition in New York followed. Then came art museums, galleries and public spaces all over the world. In 2009 he launched the experimental botanical lab Azuma Makoto Kaju Kenkyujo (AMKK). In recent years, he has been pursuing projects that take flowers to locations impossible in the natural world. For instance, he has plunged floral art more than 1,000m deep below the sea and launched it high into the atmosphere. He’s also worked with Glenmorangie before, creating a botanical sculpture reflecting the floral character of Glenmorangie 18 Years Old. A depiction of the sculpture adorned the packaging of a limited gift edition of the award-winning whisky. 

A bottle of Glenmorangie Dr Bill Lumsden x Azuma Makoto 23 Years Old alongside a botanical sculpture

The beautiful Glenmorangie Dr Bill Lumsden x Azuma Makoto 23 Years Old

Glenmorangie Dr Bill Lumsden x Azuma Makoto 23 Years Old review

Dr Bill sees this type of creative as a kindred spirit. He has five key ingredients – wood, water, barley, yeast and time. The rest is up to imagination. “I don’t just think the spirit when I’m making whisky. I think about the colour, the feeling, the emotions, and the texture,” he says. “This was quite a challenge. I’m kind of used to making whisky, but this is the first time I’ve truly ever done an experiment like this, taking ideas from Makoto and turning it into a whisky”. He adds that he looks forward to seeing what they do together next, all but confirming further collaboration. 

Glenmorangie Dr Bill Lumsden x Azuma Makoto 23 Years Old is packaged in a cylindrical gift box which displays the different facets of Azuma Makoto’s work. Opened by the removal of two copper-coloured pins, it reveals a wooden plinth that reflects the flowing lines of the sculpture, on which the bottle is showcased. It will set you back a pretty penny and there aren’t many bottles. It is a lovely whisky, however. You would think the more tannic French oak might overwhelm Glenmorangie’s more gentle nature, but I think it added a good balance to the syrupy sweetness those typical orchard and citrus fruits you get from Glenmo had developed with age. 

Nose: Honeycomb, chewy pineapple cubes, apricot yoghurt, and kesar mango initially before more vanilla, nutty notes emerge. The aromas develop into these complex notes of Chartreuse, coconut water, spent match, summer flowers, and white wine. There’s a smell here that reminds me of soda bread with marmalade.

Palate: Initially sweet and rich, with an almost syrupy texture. The French oak tannins then prickle through and settle into a warming, toasted oak quality that provides a nice backdrop to flavours of orange citrus and Rosey Apples. Drier, darker fruits emerge – cherry, damson, blood orange, quince… then cassis and mint chocolate.

Finish: Mellows into American oak sweetness and herbaceous notes with a final hint of lemon. 

Glenmorangie Dr Bill Lumsden x Azuma Makoto 23 Years Old is now available from Master of Malt. Click the link to purchase.