In the world of independent bottlers there are many names, but few are more recognizable or reliable than Gordon & MacPhail. Founded in 1895 in Elgin, Scotland as a combination grocer, wine, and spirit merchant, the company has managed to remain family owned to this day while amassing a truly astonishing collection of rare casks, unique whiskies, and its own distillery.
What makes Gordon & MacPhail so special? I chatted with Michael Urquhart, Joint Managing Director, to find out.
First off, let's have a look at the role of the independent bottler in the whisky world and what they provide to the market as a whole. The immediate answer is access to closed distilleries that are no longer producing, such as Rosebank. In fact, if it were not for independent bottlers, many of the names like Littlemill, Glen Albyn, St. Magdalene, and the like would be consigned to memories and archives. Thankfully though, there are a few casks still out there and from time to time we whisky lovers have the chance to procure one of these long lost whiskies as a result of the efforts of such companies.
Then there are the releases of existing distilleries that happen to see most of their stock go into blends, such as Ben Nevis or Clynelish, that independent bottlers make available with perhaps a different ageing period or cask finish. As Michael puts it "If you take a whisky from a particular distillery as a phrase, and their bottling is saying that phrase in English, we're
just saying that phrase in another language. It's just another interpretation." Often these interpretations provide an amazing whisky that would otherwise have never seen the light of day, lost to the world, its charm used sparingly to develop a blend.
So how does the independent bottler obtain their whisky? Naturally they purchase it from the distillery, many buying casks in the younger years and then ageing them to the point that they feel comfortable releasing it. This is where the separation begins for the team from Elgin.
Likely the most defining characteristic of Gordon & MacPhail's operations is the fact that they begin before others, starting with the new make spirit itself. As a rule, they are almost always looking to buy at new make and cask it themselves. From there it becomes a delicate balancing act that requires years of patience and check-ups to find out how successful they have been. Michael explains: "We're looking to make sure that we balance the type of the cask with the style of the whisky ... with when we think we're going to go and bottle it. Then using the appropriate type of cask to get the right maturation over that period of time, so that the style of the whisky can compliment the style of the cask and you don't get one overpowering the other." To put it another way, they are only one step removed from the distilling process. Or at least they were.
In 1993 Gordon & MacPhail purchased a decommissioned and dilapidated distillery in Forres named Benromach, spending the next five years renovating and refurbishing it until 1998 when production began again. The impetus behind the purchase being the fulfillment of a dream that was two generations old: owning a small Speyside distillery close to Elgin. The goal with the restart was to go back to a style of Speyside whiskies not seen since the late 1960's and early 1970's, producing a spirit that was light and fruity, yet still retaining a light smoky note. How could they be certain that this was the style they wanted? Well, when a company has over 18,000 casks of various whiskies from multiple distilleries, going back over the decades, comparison of styles becomes much more academic.
Think about that for a moment: 18,000 casks.
Some are sherry, others ex-bourbon, some port, and on and on and on. Since the company is also a successful wine merchant, they have consistent access to top quality casks. Of course they go beyond simply buying sherry casks; that would be too simple. Instead they commission a small bodega in Jerez, Spain to build and season their casks for three to four years. But even this is done with a twist. "We tend to use American oak because it's got a tighter grain so that you're not going to get so much of the tannins coming through that you do with European oak" states Michael, and as a result of their cask policies "we do some wood finishes and some full maturations" as well. All the while performing consistent check-ups to ensure that the cask is not beginning to overpower the whisky. After all, the goal is to compliment what the distillery itself bottles rather than alter the true character of it.
To ensure that these carefully selected casks and their precious cargo are perfectly protected, meticulous warehouse management is critical. As such, maturation is carried out both at the distiller's warehouse and then in Elgin, where Mr. Urquhart proudly states that the cool, dry confines help limit the Angels' Share to significantly less than accepted norm of 2% per year. For example, in the case of their 70 (yes, seventy) year old bottling of Glenlivet released last year, the whisky spent its first 40 years at Glenlivet prior to spending the last 30 in Elgin, ultimately coming out of the cask at 45% ABV. This combination warehousing again reiterating a core company value: "We're not looking to go & compete head-on with the distiller. What we're looking to do is compliment what they're doing."
This goal is even carried out to the point that some distilleries that would never see an original bottling make it to market, are afforded the opportunity to do so with the original distillery label. This is the case with Mortlach, Glen Grant,
and Strathisla to name a few. But distillery labelled bottlings are just one of the ranges offered by this pioneering company. Their Connoisseur's Choice range alone features 45 whiskies, some of which will never be seen again, such as their 1994 Caperdonich which is available at the LCBO now. Meanwhile, the Cask Strength line provides whisky lovers with the opportunity to get their hands on the raw goods. Then there is their Rare Vintage line that has afforded people chance to get their hands on bottles such as a 1963 Glen Grant, and several others of such repute. But in the interest of brevity, I recommend setting aside 20 minutes and heading to their site directly for the complete listing of ranges and bottlings.
So what more is there to say really?
From start to finish, through a meticulous approach to methodology, amazing attention to detail, and a clear cut commitment to quality, Gordon & MacPhail is a truly critical component of the Scotch whisky world. Under the steady hand of the Urquhart family the company has attained an unassailable position as an industry leader, innovator, and purveyor of truly exceptional whiskies. Yet, at the end of the day, great whisky is about more than just the name on the bottle. As Michael puts it "It's about enjoyment. It's about adventure. The experience of that is a key thing." Indeed, it is everything.