Scotch whisky company Gordon & MacPhail has revealed its intention to stop purchasing stock for independent bottlings.
The renowned Elgin-based bottler, retailer, and distiller, which was founded in 1895, said it was moving away from bottlings of sourced liquid to focus on whiskies from its own distilleries, Benromach and The Cairn.
But while it will stop filling new casks for independent bottlings in 2024, the company has reassured fans that there will be Gordon & MacPhail bottlings hitting shelves for several more decades as the company works through its ageing stock.
Speaking to Whisky Magazine, Gordon & MacPhail's outgoing managing director Ewen Mackintosh said the change in direction was a "natural evolution" for the company, precipitated in part by a tightening of new-make spirit supply and the increasing availability of bottlings from lesser-known distilleries that, traditionally, did not bottle their own single malts.
"We've always had the philosophy of to complement and not compete," Mackintosh explained. "When I started in the business 30-plus years ago, we were bottling whiskies which weren't available from the distillery owner because they were very much used for blending... But 30 years on, every distillery is generally available in whisky retail with multiple expressions, so our space as an independent bottler to complement and not compete is dramatically changed. And then we don't want to be offering things which are directly in competition with official bottlings – that's never been part of our ethos and our relationships with the distillery companies."
Mackintosh also noted that the company's access to fillings had changed in recent years. To produce its independent bottlings Gordon & MacPhail purchases liquid and fills its own casks, rather than buying casks of mature spirit through brokerages or similar channels. It's an unusual approach in today's independent bottling market, and one that has left the company at something of a disadvantage as distilleries, seeing the ever-increasing popularity of whisky, hold on to more of their new make.
"We're not buying whisky on the mature market and the brokers market, we want new fillings, and so our access to fillings has changed as distillery owners have changed their strategy for their brands. And that's completely understandable, we completely accept that," Mackintosh said. "Looking further down the track for us as a business, our future has to be where we can get that exclusivity and that space to do our own thing, and it has to be with our own brands."
Despite its decades in business as a bottler and retailer, Mackintosh said there was always a "notion" among Gordon & MacPhail's management team that the business would eventually diversify into owning a distillery. "Ultimately, that came to fruition in 1993 with the purchasing of Benromach. But that was about security of supply," he noted. "That was always the challenge that we found, both as a licensed bottler in the early days [and] as an independent bottler in later times, was security of supply. A lot of these agreements [for whisky supply] were gentlemen's agreements. There were very few formal arrangements."
Almost 15 years after Benromach began producing spirit, Gordon & MacPhail secured a second source of supply with the start of production at its new distillery, The Cairn, in 2022. This facility near Grantown-on-Spey is as modern as Benromach is old-school, designed with cutting-edge whisky-making technologies. Gordon & MacPhail does not plan to release any whiskies from The Cairn that are under 12 years old, which Mackintosh says should conveniently fill a gap in its portfolio of ageing stock.
"As the impact comes closer to the point where we might not have the availability to release a 10- or 12-year-old Gordon & MacPhail whisky, because we haven't got the stock coming up through, [it] is the same time as The Cairn 12 Year Old comes online. So, we can really see how The Cairn 12 Year Old will take the place of the younger bottlings of Gordon & MacPhail which are no longer available, and at that point we can be leaving Gordon & MacPhail whiskies to be slightly older," he said.
Gordon & MacPhail has done significant work in the last five to 10 years to streamline its global portfolio of whiskies. Where once its releases ranged from from eight-year-olds to 80-year-olds, Mackintosh said the company had moved away from trying to provide "a whisky for every consumer".
"The way that the market has evolved, we don't really need to be doing eight-year-old whiskies anymore. The availability of single malt at that entry level, at that younger price point, is well catered for by official bottlings and other independent bottlings, so we will just evolve our portfolio to fit the strategy that every cask is finite... we will probably do a lot more things like single casks, small batch bottlings, as opposed to generic 15-year-old or 21-year-old or 30-year-old products. They'll be much more about celebrating the unique nature of single casks and the individual distilleries."
He added that Gordon & MacPhail will continue to purchase sherry casks from the three bodegas it currently works with for use at Benromach (which exclusively uses first-fill sherry casks) and The Cairn, as well as repurposing casks that are emptied for independent bottlings at the distilleries.
As for the company's flagship South Street shop, a multiple Icons of Whisky award winner, Mackintosh said this too will be changing – "from a shop with some experience to an experience with a shop on the side". Extensive renovations are underway both inside and out to transform the space into a visitor experience that will detail the history of Gordon & MacPhail and its part in the promotion of single malt Scotch whisky.
Mackintosh concluded by saying that Gordon & MacPhail whisky drinkers won't see any significant difference in the foreseeable future – and that, in fact, it could be another generation before any real impact was felt.
"We recognise that it is a significant decision which, to the whisky drinking world, comes as a bit of a surprise," he said. "This is a decision that is very much a positive one for the business. It means that we are focused on Benromach and The Cairn, and anything else that we decide to do later down the track where we control our own destiny. But Gordon & MacPhail whiskies will be a part of our business for the next 100 years."