A liquid legacy

A liquid legacy

Gordon & MacPhail may be the guardians of whisky’s history, but they’re safeguarding its future too

Interview | 20 Oct 2017 | Issue 147 | By Christopher Coates

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Ask a resident of Elgin, ‘who are Gordon & MacPhail?’ and they’ll likely tell you of the grocers, deli, and whisky shop on South Street central to town life for more than 120 years. They may speak highly of one of Moray’s key employers and how a family member or a neighbour works in the company’s offices, warehouses or bottling line.

In the whisky bars you’ll hear a different story. They’ll tell you of an independent bottler doing more than buying casks and selling contents. You’ll hear about a team that has relationships with Scotch distillers spanning generations; of warehouses with casks filled with distillate from more than 100 distilleries, of which more than 25 are closed; and a company that counts among its releases the oldest Scotch whisky ever sold to the public.

Founded in 1895 by James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail, the business began as a grocer, importer of fortified wines and broker of Scotch famed for providing a ‘superior product at a popular price’. Many Speyside distillery companies would come to have their offices in the building above the South Street store, an arrangement that solidified relationships. The partners were joined by a young apprentice, John Urquhart, who demonstrated flair for whisky stock management. He became senior partner and, when the founders passed on, the company he helped to build became his alone. It was John who implemented the company’s strict wood policy, the legacy of which can be enjoyed today.

During the following decades Gordon & MacPhail was to begin business ventures well ahead of their time. First came the famous ‘distillery label’ bottlings, whereby the company would obtain the rights to bottle single malts using proprietary distillery branding (with the small addition of the G&M logo at the bottom) or, for those distilleries that lacked a brand identity, to create an entirely new label.

Another milestone was the release of Connoisseurs Choice in the late 1960s. The brainchild of George Urquhart, John’s son, the range introduced customers to a host of single malts at a time when only a handful of distillery-owned brands were available. This project proved popular and March 2018 will mark 50 years on the shelves.

The deciding factor influencing recruitment into the Gordon & MacPhail ranks is commitment to ‘leaving the company in a better position than when they started', and a focus on safeguarding the liquid legacy in its warehouse.

Perhaps the company’s most notable achievement, however, was the release in 2015 of the Generations Mortlach 75 Years Old. Distilled on 17 November 1939, it grabbed headlines as the oldest Scotch expression ever released.
Today, Gordon & MacPhail is managed by the fourth generation of the Urquhart family, with Ewen Mackintosh (a non-family member who joined the company in 1991) as managing director.

Being a descendant of Urquhart doesn’t guarantee a position. Family members are encouraged to have pursued a career elsewhere and complete a two-year management traineeship before a final decision is taken on their future role. The deciding factor influencing recruitment into the Gordon & MacPhail ranks is commitment to ‘leaving the company in a better position than when they started', and a focus on safeguarding the liquid legacy in its warehouse. Operating on a philosophy of ‘what’s bottled must be replaced’, there’s little heed paid to the temptation of releasing too much, too early.

“When I look at the stock we have, I can see how the previous generations considered what spirit to fill, which casks to release, and when,” explains Stuart Urquhart, director of whisky supply. “When future generations look back at my work, I don’t want to be known as ‘the guy who sold all the stock’ or ‘didn’t plan the fillings properly’. The work I do today will be what I’m remembered for, and the same is true of everyone in the company.”

Although said in jest, Stuart’s words ring true to the company slogan: ‘The future is shaped by what we do today. Today reveals what we did in the past.’ These are not hollow words, but a philosophy pervading the business, especially management of stock.

This is where Gordon & MacPhail differ from many independent bottlers. Longstanding filling agreements with a number of Scotland’s distilleries mean the company has a stock model that can deliver consistency for decades.
That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges. The variety of fillings has decreased slightly as some brands became more protective, but most relationships endure. Many single malt brands on the market today owe part of their popularity to the groundwork laid by G&M’s distillery label bottlings. This long-standing respect for brand owners is a fact that’s not forgotten in an industry that’s well-known for safeguarding its heritage and honouring ‘gentleman’s agreements’.

If a partner ends an agreement? No need for concern. Distillery brand managers come and go, and priorities shift; Gordon & MacPhail endures and is ready to step in again.

Volumes of spirit filled by the company are on the rise, as foundations are laid for future growth. More than ever before the company must secure its supply of quality wood. This is a company known for the adage ‘the wood makes the whisky’. Provenance is a focus and wood is no exception. All sherry casks are traceable as coming from EU-certified producers located in the ‘golden triangle’, which is particularly important as a high proportion of G&M’s annual wood spending is on these premium casks.

The company’s filling and maturation policy is no less stringent. The method, codified in ‘maturation graphs’ for each filled new make, sees spirit style matched to the most appropriate wood. Every cask in the portfolio has a destiny and no cask is filled without a plan.

“We’re laying down stock now that we intend to bottle in 70 years or more. That’s how far ahead we look,” confirms Stephen Rankin, UK sales director.

It’s worth noting that only first-fill and (second) refill casks are used for maturation by G&M. However, don’t expect to hear the term ‘fill’ being used regularly around the office as a measure of cask condition. Casks are assessed on what the team call ‘viable lifespan’, which is roughly said to be 25-30 years for Bourbon barrels, 30-35 years for hogsheads, and 40 or more years for butts. There are exceptions to every rule. Samples are pulled every two to three years and marked on a scale of 1-10, with nothing less than a five being acceptable. Scores are based on colour and nose, with and without water. Casks scoring exceptionally well will perhaps have a ‘change of fate’ and be earmarked for bottling in the future as a single cask release or put on a watch-list for a special expression. Equally, action will be taken to assist low-scoring spirit towards maturity.

Next comes blending. To produce the consistent age statement releases, batches of casks are assessed against samples used for previous batches. Often as few as 12 casks will be vatted per batch, so there’s no room for error and no capacity to blend away product. An archive of cask samples on site stretches back as far as the 1920s, allowing for comparison across decades. A newly established archive of released products has been created to help the company respond to, among other things, requests for authenticity checks from third parties – another way the company is safeguarding its past in order to protect its future.

The bottling line is more than capable of handling anything from large batches of thousands, to special editions that must be filled and labelled by hand. The process varies depending on the expression, but all have one thing in common: natural colour. Whiskies that need to be reduced to a predetermined bottling strength are vatted, have the water added and are married for 10 days prior to bottling. Lower strength expressions are chill filtered at 3°C using ‘old-fashioned’ press filters.

On the horizon, they keep their cards close to their chest. Strolling through the warehouse, on occasion I had to confirm that I was reading a filling date and not cask numbers.

The latest Private Collection release, is a drop of history. Spirit from Glenlivet was filled in to Cask 121, a first-fill sherry hogshead, on 14 January 1943 by John and George Urquhart. More than 70 years later, the cask was chosen by Stephen Rankin, John’s great-grandson. 40 decanters have been filled with liquid, which maintained a 49.1% ABV and is bottled at cask strength.

The cask is known as the ‘Casablanca cask’ referring to the meeting of leaders during WWII known as the Casablanca Conference. The leaders came together to bring about the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the Axis powers.
Miles away in Scotland, few distilleries were in production on account of rationing. Gordon & MacPhail sold large volumes of its mature stock, predominantly to the United States. Revenue was directed toward fillings of new make and this support of the industry kept many distilleries afloat. It ensured the existence of ample stocks come the end of the war. That decision has allowed for the release of this historic bottling. If that does not embody a liquid legacy, then I don’t know what does.
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