People

Celebrating a global phenomenon

Raising a glass to 125 years of endeavour
By Gavin D. Smith
Gordon & MacPhail didn’t invent single malt Scotch whisky, but the Elgin-based company can certainly claim a great deal of credit for transforming it from a niche product – even across much of Scotland – into the global phenomenon it is today.

The firm was established in 1895, and is celebrating its 125th birthday by releasing four single cask expressions from ‘lost’ distilleries. As director of prestige Stephen Rankin explains, “These are extremely special releases for us as they are the last casks from these four distilleries that we own.”

The initial releases are a 1972 47 Years Old Coleburn, distilled south of Elgin, and a 1984 35 Years Old Glenury Royal, produced in Stonehaven during the distillery’s last full year of operation. Two further ‘lost’ bottlings will appear before the end of the year.

From the beginning, when James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail announced the opening of their ‘centrical and commodious premises’ on South Street, Elgin, on 24 May 1895, whisky from the heartland of Speyside production was an important part of the business, which also embraced groceries and wine.

When John Urquhart joined the fledgling business as an apprentice it soon became clear that he had a genuine flair for the selection, purchasing and maturation of whisky from local distilleries, and Stephen – a fourth-generation member of the Urquhart family – cites 1915 as a key date in the history of the firm.

In that year, the Urquharts took control of the business and they have held on to it ever since, following the practice of having their own casks filled with new-make spirit at distilleries in order to ensure the highest-quality mature whisky.
According to Stephen, “Our success is down to the philosophy of our forefathers: always take the long-term view, think what’s right for 30 or 40 years ahead, and place huge value on relationships.

“Look after suppliers, colleagues and customers. If you respect your suppliers you will get a good-quality product from them that customers will want to buy. We are here because we’ve produced a product of outstanding quality, and quality never goes out of fashion.

“My grandfather, George Urquhart, wrote that ‘The future is shaped by what we do today, while today reveals what we did in the past.’ We have to keep the business strong for the fifth, sixth and seventh generations of the family, so that they can benefit from what we are doing.”

It was George Urquhart who launched the Connoisseurs Choice range of single malt whiskies in 1968, to the disbelief or amusement of many in the Scotch whisky industry, but he correctly interpreted that there were potential markets of France, USA, Italy and the Netherlands in particular. As Stephen says, “We were at the forefront of driving single malt sales from the 1960s and helped create the demand for single malts that we see now.”

Another milestone for the firm came with the acquisition and refitting of Benromach distillery at Forres, a dozen miles west of Elgin, by members of the third generation of the family. The distillery purchase was made in 1993, with distilling recommencing five years later. Stephen notes that, “They wanted a distillery and this was actually a dream going back to before the First World War when John tried to buy one. Benromach was a case of the right place at the right time, after decades spent looking for the right distillery.

“Buying Benromach was to safeguard supplies of good whisky, and it completed the ‘wheel’ for us. Choosing and filling casks, maturing them, bottling and selling them. Now distilling, too. It has made us more in control of our own destiny.”
And now the fourth generation of the family – comprising chairman Neil Urquhart, twin brothers Stuart and Richard Urquhart, and Stephen Rankin – is adding to the firm’s distilling capabilities, with work well underway on a new distillery project at Carron, near Grantown-on-Spey.

According to Stephen, “In 2015 we started thinking seriously about a new distillery. That was a key moment for Gordon & MacPhail. Even during a pandemic, we are creating a new distillery in the Highlands and providing jobs at a time when the world isn’t necessarily in a great place. We believe in the area and are investing in it and its people. It’s the first distillery within the Cairngorms National Park.

“We’ve got great distilling knowledge from Benromach, but the new distillery will be modern in design and quite unlike Benromach. It will have one wash and two spirit stills and everything we make there will be bottled as single malt. Ideally, it will be in operation by late 2021.”

From new to old, Gordon & MacPhail has been responsible for bottling some of the most venerable whiskies in the world. On 11 March 2010, the company made history by launching Generations Mortlach 70 Years Old – at that time,
the world’s oldest bottled single malt Scotch whisky.

A year later came a 70 Years Old Glenlivet and in 2015 the oldest release to date, a 75 Years Old Mortlach, appeared. “They were a demonstration of confidence,” declares Stephen. “A key to what we do is patience.”

In 2018, Gordon & MacPhail announced a total revamp of its existing whisky ranges, streamlining them and offering enhanced packaging. Stephen explains, “Previously, we were so focused on the quality in the bottle that we didn’t tell people much about the whisky. Now we have great quality and we give customers more information. Since the relaunch, we’ve had great feedback about quality and presentation. The Connoisseurs Choice selection in particular has been incredibly successful.

“The business employs around 160 people, and we do more than 200 releases per year overall, including lots of single casks for various markets. We have stock from more than 100 distilleries represented in our shop, and around 25 per cent of those are from ‘lost’ distilleries.”

Stephen sums up the Gordon & MacPhail philosophy as “Drawing on the experience of the past and planning carefully for the future,” adding that, “We’re very proud of what the company has achieved in its 125 years – it’s always been forward-thinking. Our generation is introducing a new distillery, and it has created new ranges and brought Red Door Gin from Benromach into the stable. Our portfolio is full of very rare and very precious whiskies.”

Who can really doubt that in another 125 years members of the eighth and ninth generations of the Urquhart family will still be at the heart of all that is best about Scotch whisky?