A Tale of Tokyo, Glenmorangie’s last “A Tale of…” limited edition holiday release, celebrates decades of Dr Bill Lumsden’s love affair with Japan and Tokyo in particular. “As somebody who has built a large part of their career on experimenting with different wood and barrel types the legendary Japanese Mizunara oak was always right up at the top of my wish list, but it was almost impossible to get—our friends in Japan didn’t let much of it go. And the reality is it’s absolute rubbish for making barrels—it’s just the wrong type of tree. It’s very gnarly. It doesn’t grow tall and straight. It’s very porous—much more porous than American oak, and even more porous than European oak, so your precious liquid has a horrible tendency to leak,” Lumsden, the brand’s long-serving Head of Distilling and Whisky Creation, says.
This is just one of three complications with Mizunara. The second being that the barrels are significantly more expensive, so having a warehouse full is not feasible at a practical price point. And finally, that Mizunara oak barrels impart funky flavors upon the liquid, which needs to be tamed. Lumsden adds with a laugh, “it’s not the lovely, sweet, creamy vanilla that you get from American oak. It’s not some of the nice spicy and dark chocolate flavors you get from French oak. It’s like furniture polish and aftershave.”
Obsessing over Mizunara and wondering what Glenmorangie would taste like matured in it, Lumsden began a years-long process of speaking with Japanese wood sources and coopers to get the 20 or so Mizunara barrels that he sought. It eventually paid off, with the 250 liter heavily charred hogshead barrels arriving in 2016. A few were filled with new make spirit (aka unaged liquid), and the rest with a range of mature Glenmorangie. They were matured for five or so years, and that liquid became the heart of the recipe for what would become A Tale of Tokyo—though married with classic Glenmorangie in American oak bourbon barrels and French oak Oloroso sherry casks from Spain. Together, it became “very rounded, very balanced and quite harmonious… You do pick up a bit of that funky, hairball, spicy furniture polish note from the Mizunara but the edge has been taken off of it with the classic Glenmorangie,” Lumsden adds.
While the team works hard to deliver their core range year after year, they always experiment too. Sometimes those experiments, typically many years in the making, become limited edition releases, like A Tale of Tokyo or A Tale of the Forest or A Tale of Cake before it. These create opportunities for the team to flex and have a bit of fun on a smaller scale than a core range product, give marketers something new to talk about and fans of the brand new varieties to try; it’s also an opportunity to attract those who may not be familiar with the brand or those who are attracted to a specific wood or finish—a win for everyone.
Gillian Macdonald (the brand’s Master Blender and Head of Whisky Creation) and her team, along with Lumsden, are continuously experimenting with different casks—sometimes the results are strange, sometimes they are good and sometimes they are rather brilliant. Lumsden adds, “The whiskies that we create are maybe 20 to 30% scientifically driven; the rest has more to do with art, craft, a passion and feeling. It’s nice the way the story has come together.”
Checking in on the Mizunara casks over the years, the feel for what would eventually become A Tale of Tokyo started to come together. There were surprises along the way—the wood in one cask was so porous that there was no liquid left in it. At some point last year the previously aged whisky that was put in the Mizunara barrels, while still an outlier, started to find its groove when mixed with whisky from Glenmorangie’s other barrels, and the various teams got to work in creating the latest “A Tale of” release. The “rising sun” colored liquid has an herbal-forward aroma tamed by sweet toffee and resin. It’s peppery bite is quickly softened with Glenmorangie’s fruit-forward orange and cherry notes, and its finish seems to last a bit longer, with a lingering nutty and orange taste.
Like each “A Tale of” release the story is told through the whisky but also through the packaging. For A Tale of Tokyo, Japanese artist Akira Yamaguchi was commissioned to create a fun, vibrant Tokyo cityscape that’s full of surprises—look closely and you may see a rack of barrels, tasting notes, brand iconography including a giraffe and cameos from Lumsden. Orange clouds get their color from the brand’s palette.
“The thing that gives me most pleasure in my job is not just the camaraderie with the teams I work with. It’s not just the awards. It’s actually seeing a look of delight on consumers’ faces when they taste the product. That’s what keeps me going and keeps me motivated. And I think there’s still a lot of things out there that I’d like to do,” says Lumsden, who noted that next year’s “A Tale of” recipe has been finalized and the work is beginning to create the next chapter in the the series.
Glenmorangie’s A Tale of Tokyo is bottled at 46% ABV and is listed with an MSRP of $110.