It was over dinner in Elgin that I really saw the true nature of the Gordon & MacPhail family spirit come alive.
Around the table were MD Michael Urquhart, his daughter Laura, nephew Stephan Rankin and Stuart Urquhart, along with others from the team who, while not blood-related, were certainly part of the ‘family’.
Over a few courses at the Mansion House Hotel, I heard endless tales of family events, adventures and shared histories, all related in an affectionate and warm manner – they brought me in, took me behind the scenes of their whisky-loving family and showed off the welcoming nature, once more, of the whisky industry.
I’d arrived in the region the night before, and headed first thing that morning to the company’s distillery – Benromach, which G&M purchased in 1993 and reopened in 1998. I’ve written about the distillery before on this site, but my visit this time was to give me a full morning grilling the stillman as part of the company’s ‘Honourary Stillman’ (or in my case, Still(wo)man) programme. I also had the chance to catch up with Keith Cruickshank, the distillery manager, about the changes to the distillery since my visit in May 2012.
The distillery has now expanded, but not in the physical sense. It’s still tiny and you can view all the processes (mashing, fermenting, distilling) on one floor. The difference is that in January the company decided to up production simply by expanding the team so the distillery could run for longer hours.
Outside, it was clear that expansion was also taking place. Two new warehouses were being constructed during my visit, to up the current on-site storage capacity of 8,000 casks to around 14-15,000.
But while the production levels and storage capacity are increasing, it is still very much a hands-on process at Benromach and upmost quality is ensured in all parts, from using Scottish barley, peat from Fraserborough in Banffshire and carefully selected casks, 60% of which are first-fill, ex-sherry casks from a bodega they work with directly.
According to Keith: “We wanted to be a classic Speyside from the 1940s/50s and we feel our house style is very much about all parts coming together: cloudy wort, long fermentation, distiller’s and brewer’s yeast. It’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle: you have all the parts but then you have to make a nice picture at the end. We were looking for a medium-heavy style when doing initial experimentation – we wanted a whisky we could bottle at a relatively young age, but which would also have enough backbone to hold through a long maturation and wanted it to be something that wouldn’t put off traditional Speyside whisky drinkers but also wouldn’t rule out those who like peatier Islay malts. We did some analysis of new make spirit from other distilleries and ours comes out between the lightest of the ones using worm tubs, and the heaviest of those using condensers.”
After my time at the distillery, I headed up to the shop to learn more about the family’s history.
The G&M story begins in 1895, when James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail set up shop on South Street in Elgin. They were a grocers, but specialised in tea, wine and spirits, like others such as Berry Bros & Rudd in London would have done.
One of the shop’s earliest employees with John Urquhart, who began working there at the age of 15. He was the one who started focusing specially on single malts and bottling from well-known names of the time. Most importantly, he also started to select and fill his own casks in ex-sherry, European oak casks, leaving them for much longer than many other bottlers of the time would have done.
When John Alexander decided to retire in 1915, John Urquhart was made a partner in the firm. Just two weeks later, James Gordon passed away suddenly, leading John Urquhart to become a senior partner.
He was followed into the business first by his son George and daughter Betty in 1933, and his other son Gordon in 1950, then by his grandchildren Ian, David, Michael (the current MD) and Rosemary from the 1960s-1980s.
Up at the shop in Elgin, I explored the old-fashioned premises with Laura, fascinated by the fact it had been standing there for almost 120 years.
We then wandered to the company’s head office a few streets away, where Stuart showed me around the company’s production, maturation and bottling hall. Most interestingly, I learned the whisky is mixed with water and left to marry for 10 days before bottling, and all bottling is done on site. The family’s special casks and rarities are also stored on-site in warehousing, making it a full end-to-end site.
After my tour around, I caught up with Michael et al over a few drams, learning more about the company’s history of independent bottling and cask selection.
Of note was the fact that because G&M had been working with various malt distilleries for such a long time, they were often asked to use specially designed labels – such as the ones you see on the Connoisseur’s Choice bottling – so that the whisky companies would get a chance to show off their malts which would have normally gone into blends.
And while the company does, of course, pride itself on being an independent bottler, Michael made an interesting comment about how he views this line of work, saying: “I see a distillery’s own bottlings as a way for them to speak in English, say. What we do is take those distillery’s products and just show them off in a different language. I’d be delighted if people enjoy one of our independent bottlings. But I’m equally delighted in people go and buy direct distillery bottlings. And I think that’s one of the unique things about the Scotch whisky industry: when one of us benefits, all of us do.”
We spoke of many other facets of the whisky industry that afternoon and into the evening, and I was lucky enough to try some fantastic examples of just what G&M does, including a gorgeous, 1945 Macallan that was bottled in 2013 but which still had an intense freshness for its age mixed in with the dark chocolate, blackberry, smoke, violet and orange notes. There was also a brilliant example of a 25-year old Linkwood – a continuously favoured distillery for me – which shouted of bubblegum, strawberry foams, apples and pineapples, and a fantastic 8 year old Highland Park, bottled as part of the MacPhail’s Collection, which was all about melons, salt, toffee and smoke on the nose, and which had a savoury, meaty, honeyed kick on the palate.
As the day finished up over dinner, it was clear to me this is a family company of the best kind: open, warm, inviting and skilled. And I was grateful to be let into their world for a little while, to see yet again that Scotland’s whisky industry is a wonderfully friendly place to be.