McGibbon’s whisky.McGibbon was their mother’s maiden name whose family came from Islay and are buried in the churchyard at Bowmore. It was also a company sous-marque, given to Fred and Stewart by their father to cut their teeth on. “It was so that any cock-ups we made, and we did make a few, didn’t accrue to the good name of Douglas Laing & Co,” Stewart explains. “By the mid-1990s things were slowing down in the Pacific. Eventually we acknowledged we had some nice old stocks of whisky, but the market for them as 25, 30 and 35-year-old blends in decanters of ceramic and crystal was ... not to be relied on.” The net result was the birth of the Old Malt Cask series, launched as a range of six at the Cannes Duty Free Exhibition of 1998. The latest monthly offer has no less than 120 single malts on it, including such gems as Mortlach, Rosebank, Lochside and a limited amount of Ardbeg 25-year-old. They are all individual cask bottlings at 50% abv which was felt to be an appropriate strength and avoids the nightmare for the importers of juggling different duty rates. Last year a series of small batch bottlings of slightly younger and consequently less expensive malts were released under the Provenance label.A common complaint in the trade is that blends are becoming a commodity and surrounding discussion is always about price, so, as you can imagine, Fred is happy with the change. “Being in malts is so nice, it’s a bit like doing business back in the 1960s again – it’s a people business.” With it has come the chance to meet the end consumer face-to-face instead of an endless succession of importers and agents. The downside is what the Laings have dubbed the P.I.B factor – Pain In the Butt. This is evident when handling individual cask bottlings, especially when the company is not yet fully computerised. Some of the fillings bought by their father have yet to be transferred onto a floppy disk from the old school jotters they were recorded in. This has led to one or two unexpected surprises – like finding a “wonderful” 35-year-old North Port and some “fabulous” Port Ellen. The sheer hassle involved has helped protect Laing’s, like any independent bottler, from the big distillery owners
deciding to take over the business as a nice little earner of their own. “If the P.I.B factor is bad enough for us, a small, hands-on operation, then for the big guys it would be kamikaze time.” As it is, the company’s relations with the major distillers are good, thanks to having 50 years experience of the blended trade which still accounts for 85% of the business. For that reason alone, Stewart Laing is dismissive of those who say independent bottling of single malts is on its way out and that in a few decades time the supply of casks will have dried up. It also explains why, unlike a number of other indy bottlers, there is no great aspiration to owning their own distillery. “Bearing in mind the blended background we come from where we require 35 to 38 malts for a decent blend,” says Fred, “having a distillery may help us in credibility, but it doesn’t help us massively in terms of our blending programme. I’d love the prospect of swanning into my own property in the Highlands or Islands somewhere, and being master of all that. I’m sure there’s a great thrill, but I don’t believe we need it having existed for 50 years as we have.” However, Fred admits that Laing’s has “come quite close” to buying a distillery “on one or two occasions.” But if money were no object and all commercial factors could be put to one side, the thought of bringing Port Ellen back to life would be hard to resist.