Smoke and oil

SMWS member Tyler Lunceford shares his passion for Ducati motorbikes with whiskies at the more robust end of the Society’s spectrum of flavour profiles. Tom Bruce-Gardyne paid a visit to Tyler’s Leith workshop to find out more


“Bikes are hot right now,” says Tyler Lunceford in his Ducati workshop in Leith.

With garages allowed to stay open, he carried on working throughout the pandemic and reckons last year was one of his best. “It was quieter, but you got a lot of people coming in to kick the tyres and tell you about every bike they’d ever had.

“My job is keeping everyone else on the road,” he continues, before adding, ruefully, “they say cobbler’s kids have no shoes, well, a lot of my bikes don’t run and I hardly have time for myself.”

Not entirely true – for he could be spotted last summer in the Borders riding off into the sunset while his kids were sound asleep.

“First it’s the looks. Then, when you get to know it, the sound and performance,” he says of a love affair that began in his home state of Oregon the day he bought his first Ducati, a 900 Supersport, in 1994. “I rode it home for four hours, and just couldn’t believe what I was on. How exotic it was. That you’re allowed to have something so enjoyable, so amazing.”

Like any dedicated Ducatista, Tyler speaks fluent desmodromics. For the uninitiated, “it’s a way of controlling the valve, forcing it open and shut without the use of springs. It allows a V-twin to rev up to 15,000 rpm, which is unheard of,” he explains. “I guess you get more bang for your buck with Japanese bikes. But Italian design – there’s so much passion behind it, so much engineering, not just for performance but for beauty.”

Tyler says his whisky preference is “towards the weird stuff, the small companies”

No looking back: from Brooklyn to Leith

From Oregon, he moved to a Ducati workshop in Brooklyn where “I was working on roughly 2,500 bikes a year.” It was in New York that he met his future wife, the jewellery designer Maeve Gillies who lured him across the pond and back to her homeland. “Scotland’s a good place to raise kids, healthcare’s good, I’m happy here,” he says. “I had to make a progressive step in my career. Starting over, starting with a clean slate, is actually nice because you get to decide: where am I going to take this?”

Swapping Brooklyn for Leith aroused plenty of scepticism from those around him –

“Mmm, a Ducati specialist? … in Edinburgh? Maybe somewhere in Italy, somewhere warmer?” But by year two he was “doing just fine” and now has around 1,000 clients across Scotland and as far south as Newcastle.

Ducati, like all manufacturers, nudges its customers into using its dealerships, which is an obvious issue for independent operators, but Tyler reckons there are enough bikes for everyone.

“Dealers don’t really want to work on stuff that’s more than 10 years old, and I’m really happy to.”

And a great deal older than that. He is currently working on a 1942 Harley Davidson that once belonged to the Canadian army and hasn’t been fired up for 50 years. “Here, smell that,” he says, handing me a bag of bolts stripped off the Harley’s giant engine of almost two litres. “You gettin’ smoke? You gettin’ oil?” It seems a good moment to ask about whisky.

“I was a mild whisky drinker before I met my wife, I was more into bourbon,” he says. “For my 25th birthday my wife got me a 25-year-old Brora which, back then, was affordable.”

With his father-in-law, Willie Gillies, being a founder member of the Society, Tyler was soon a paid-up member himself and loving the unique, bespoke world of single cask bottlings.

Tyler is also working on a 1942 Harley Davidson that once belonged to the Canadian army

As to any connection to bikes and Ducatis – “I feel they’re twin passions,” he says. “You can go down the same path and you can find a deep interest in both. With whisky it’s a bonus it has alcohol in it. It’s a really nice, social thing, and I like the weird stuff, the small companies.” If true to type, you would imagine Tyler being into those heavily peated, high-octane malts that can set off a smoke alarm.

With this in mind, the team behind Smokehead, the Islay vatted malt from Ian Macleod Distillers, commissioned him to build a customised bike called the ‘Smoker’ in 2018. “I built a Ducati in a way I hadn’t seen done before – more of a ‘bobber’,” he says.

“A ‘bobber’ is a motorbike that’s stripped down to only the essentials. It’s not a race bike. It’s comfortable, minimal and tough-looking.”

Tyler admits to being fond of Islay malts, but then to confound the biker stereotype, says: “I really like Port Dundas. You can’t get it anymore, and I love the rarity of that. My brother-in-law knows a great deal more about the making of whisky than I do, but I really like grain whiskies. Some people are super pure about it, and don’t think they’re real whiskies.” Well, for anyone into the Society’s delicious trickle of aged grains – that’s their loss.

Spend time talking whisky and bikes with Tyler and a theme starts to emerge about power that is subtle and understated. “What I really like about twins,” he says of two-cylinder bikes like Ducatis, “is that they make most of their power at very low rpm. They’re torque-y, the throttle response is immediate and what’s cool is you can enjoy it without sounding like a jerk.”

Instead of an ear-splitting roar, there’s a deep, satisfying rumble which, you could almost say about a supple, well-aged, cask-strength single malt.