Raising the bar (Gordon & McPhail)

Raising the bar (Gordon & McPhail)

Gordon & McPhail is something of a ‘one stop shop'f or whisky enthusiasts. As it celebrates 10 years as\ra distillery owner our man looks at why it continues to surprise and delight

Production | 01 Mar 2007 | Issue 62

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The old saying about familiarity breeding contempt has a resonance in the world of whisky.While some iconic names enjoy adulation at every turn, others such as Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie are dismissed airily no matter how well they shine with releases such as the Solera or Ancient Reserve in the case of the former and the exquisite recent wood finish releases from the latter.You can add to that list Gordon & MacPhail, the family run company based in Elgin.Perhaps it’s because the business doesn’t blow its own trumpet loudly enough, but while others are getting the plaudits Gordon & MacPhail has just been getting on with the business of selling quality whisky, occasionally reminding us it is there by turning up in the oddest of places – such as on BBC Television’s Football Focus, and a feature on the appalling run of form of Elgin City, whose ground backs on to the company’s warehouses.But it seems that in the last 12 months the company has raised the bar when it comes to an all round whisky offering, and it’s offering up some delights that demand attention.The first inkling of this was during the first Independent Bottlers’ Challenge last year,and was reinforced this year.The Independent Bottlers’ Challenge is a blind judging and each category is judged by a whisky writer, a retailer and a whisky club. Of course the winners get the trophies and accolades. But while on balance the system is a fair one, it can lead to one glaring but unavoidable iniquity. What if you’re something of a jack of all trades and a master of none? What if you consistently do well across the board, but are often pipped to the top spots?So while some companies topped the poll in one or two categories but failed to appear anywhere in others, some companies such as Douglas Laing and Gordon & MacPhail featured prominently in almost all categories but didn’t pick up as many top places as their consistent form might have warranted.But that consistency led me to investigate Gordon & MacPhail bottles from categories I hadn’t judged. And there were some true gems there.Then a Sunday newspaper journalist called up wanting a comment about a bottle of whisky which he had identified as the ultimate in luxury. He was writing, he said, a feature on the best of everything. His whisky choice wasn’t a fine and rare Macallan, ancient Glenlivet or single cask Ardbeg. It was a bottle of old Benromach – from the distillery owned by Gordon & MacPhail.Time, it would seem, for some further investigation.Gordon & MacPhail has been trading from Elgin for 112 years, and in that time it has established itself as something of a ‘one stop shop’ for whisky. It was founded as a shop in 1895 by John MacPhail and James Gordon, with John Urquhart starting there as an apprentice in the same year. From 1915, when John became the company’s senior partner, the Urquharts have played an integral role in the direction of the company.Ahundred and twelve years is a long time to be trading from one small town in Speyside, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that the family-run business is a sleepy and complacent throwback to a gentler and less competitive time.On the contrary, the dedicated team behind the operation has probably had to work harder to survive as bigger companies bought up neighbouring distilleries and formed whisky empires.This has long been the case. From the earliest days the company faced two ways, providing whisky for blends to export abroad while serving a local demand for Highland single malt. It is one of the few companies that can claim to be a whisky bottler and retailer, owner of a major general stores (with a great whisky selection, obviously), and a distillery owner. Not many can claim to have put so much investment in to quality control.Ewen Mackintosh is the company’s Quality Assurance Manager and responsible for maintaining the huge stock of casks stored in the company’s warehouse. He is rightly proud of the stock.“We hear a lot now about distilleries that are putting a lot of effort in to their wood policy,” he says. “And it’s right that they are praised for doing so because the customer will benefit.“But that has long been the case here.Gordon & MacPhail has always recognised the high degree the wood influences the taste of whisky. There has always been pressure to cut corners in this area but this company has always resisted them. It means that we not only have one of the biggest collections of whisky but some of the best quality. And because the best wood plays its role in allowing some of the very oldest whisky to stay palatable it means we have some of the rarest whisky too.” All very impressive, all very traditional. But Gordon & MacPhail isn’t looking to its past, it’s looking to the future too. You only have to see its wonderful shops with one of the best bourbon selections you’ll see in Britain to realise that G&M hasn’t got its head buried in Scottish sand. But it is the company’s distillery which is the real delight. As we all know, malt whisky is on the move across the board right now. But arguably the most exciting two distilleries in Speyside at the moment both begin with the letter B – BenRiach and Benromach.Benromach isn’t much to look at – a dinky distillery nestling in the Northern part of Speyside not far from Forres, it is this year celebrating the 10th anniversary of its reopening. It is one of those cottage distilleries that is small but perfectly formed, pretty much a one room operation which was all but stripped bare and re-equipped when it was brought out of retirement.While the older expressions have been held in high regard, not least by national Sunday newspaper writers, it’s the newer whiskies that are making waves.Have you tried Benromach Traditional lately? Go and get a bottle. It is a young and clean whisky and on revisiting it I came to the conclusion that it is improving by the year.With an underlay of clippered and ordered peat smoke it has a delightful oak, vanilla, barley and smoke balance.Try also the Benromach Organic whisky, which has been matured in oaks specifically made for the purpose. The new oak has given it an orange liqueur like quality, a big chewy sweet taste and taking it down the Compass Box route in to unchartered whisky territory.These are fine times for Gordon & MacPhail. If you’ve neglected the company through over-familiarity now’s the time to revisit. The company’s kicking up a storm.
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