Production

Grand masters of malt

Gordon & MacPhail brought malt whisky to the people. Ken Hyder salutes the legendary pioneers who have always done it their way
By Ken Hyder
The next time you raise a glass or quaich, you might like to consider the case of Mrs Crowe and the magistrates of Elgin. If Mrs Crowe had won, your choice of malts, and perhaps their quality would be much reduced. A small grocer’s shop in Elgin would have been denied a licence to sell alcohol and Gordon & MacPhail’s would have had to stick to bannocks (oat cakes) and jam. Instead, the bench threw out the British Temperance Movement’s stern objections and the Elgin grocer’s became one of the most influential forces in the whisky business, mainly by simply bottling the stuff.In 1895 when Gordon & MacPhail opened its Elgin shop, whisky drinking was less of the connoisseur’s art that it is now. Sure, there was a whisky boom, but it was the blended version that was making all the running in the Scottish cities and over the border in England. The Highland distilleries were pumping out malt whiskies mainly for the blenders and the idea of letting it mature for a few years longer was still to come. It was Gordon & MacPhail which led the way.Elgin is a quiet, small town in Morayshire, surrounded by good fertile land, and some of the most famous distilleries in Scotland. When James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail set up their family grocer’s shop in South Street the countryside around was bustling with activity from a wide range of small distilleries. Some, like Corn Cairn, Cairnarget, Caul and Lesmurdie, eventually went out of business. But Miltonduff and Linkwood went from strength to strength. The shop opened with three employees and a local paper announcement that declared (sic), “Stock being personally selected, the groceries, wines and spirits are all high-class Goods, and Customers favouring them with their Patronage may depend on getting a superior article at a popular price. All Departments under Personal Supervision. G& M trust to be favoured with a share of the support of the public, who may feel assured that it will be their endeavour to give the utmost satisfaction.” At the time, it is doubtful if G&M could have fully envisaged that whisky drinkers all over the world would eventually secure utmost satisfaction from a wide range of exquisite malts personally bottled by the firm.James Gordon’s experience in the grocery trade brought in a lot of customers eager for the bacon, tea and coffee he personally selected. But he also had another gift, a nose for malt whisky. In the Lowland cities, blended whiskies were selling in volume, but in the north the people closer to the land were also closer to Highland malts. And James Gordon knew his way around the local Speyside distilleries.A 15-year-old lad joined the firm, and he too began to learn about malt, how it was made, how it was kept, and how each one developed its own individual character. John Urquhart went on to take over the firm and today it’s the third generation of the Urquhart family who runs Gordon & MacPhail.Now, Ian Urquhart is the managing director, Michael Urquhart , the export and finance director, David Urquhart, the UK sales director and Mrs Rosemary Rankin, the non-executive director. Ian Urquhart describes the the way the firm is now regarded, “Consumers have come to know us as a company with reliable traditional quality values. We have extensive knowledge of malt whiskies distilled at over 70 different distilleries and offer a full range of whiskies from throughout Scotland, an unrivalled range. Due to the extensive stock of casks we hold we can ensure continuity in availability and supply of our range. We also bottle many single malts from distilleries which are now closed. “Our whiskies are matured in the finest casks available which, complimented with the whisky, produce a superb end result. This is what customers expect from us.”In the very early years of the firm’s existence, more and more distilleries were built in and around Elgin to cope with the burgeoning demand for the fin-de-siècle drink. And one of the big buyers straight from the distilleries was Gordon & MacPhail. The company filled its own casks. Significantly, most of them had been used before, carrying sherry to Scotland.But the whisky madness went out of control and in 1899 the collapse of an Edinburgh blending company sent the whisky business reeling. The Scottish Klondike of liquid gold just could not sustain the rapid expansion of distilleries and many closed abruptly.It could have meant ruin for the Elgin grocer, but the firm stuck with its taste for quality and continued to offer superlative local malts straight from the cask. Malt whiskies sold at the shop included Miltonduff, Longmorn, Mortlach, Glen Grant and Glenlivet. It also sold its own blended whiskies. In 1915 John MacPhail retired, and John Urquhart became a partner. But within weeks James Gordon died suddenly, and John Urquhart became the driving force, with James Gordon’s widow as the other partner.By now some distilleries, like The Glenlivet, Glen Grant, Mortlach, Macallan, Strathisla, Linkwood and Longmorn, had become recognised as being in a class of their own. The new head of the firm formed close links with them, building up large stocks which allowed him to let them mature longer than normal. In the Highlands, malts were usually drunk much younger than today, perhaps at five years. Although the grocery business continued to thrive, whisky became more and more important throughout the 1920s and 1930s. G&M never quite got around to acquiring a distillery at this time. That was a dream which came much later. But by placing well-timed orders the company probably saved a few distilleries from going to the wall. It was as if the Speyside distillers were in one large family, and they looked to Gordon & MacPhailas a well-placed relative able to help them out when things got tough. But helping out distilleries was also helping the firm and immediately after World War Two the Elgin bottlers were well-stocked with celebratory whisky for a world toasting a lasting peace.It started bottling top quality malts in a Connoisseurs Choice range giving whisky drinkers something else to think about other than the blended product. In fact the move introduced aged single malts to thousands of people outside the distilleries’ local markets, making malts so much easier to get hold of. Indeed a Gordon & MacPhail’s bottling was often the only way you could taste some single malts as the rest of the distillery’s product went straight to the blenders in the Lowlands. The Elgin operation now exports top malts all over the world.The firm has over 80 single malts in 5000 casks in its Elgin cask warehouses. Around 120 employees process orders for over 350 items bottled by Gordon & MacPhail. The process begins at the distilleries, where whisky is filled into Gordon & MacPhail selected casks, and the firm makes regular checks on the whisky as it matures. When it is ready for bottling, at the firm’s Elgin bottling hall, casks are selected and neutral local water is added to the whisky to reduce it to the alcohol strength required. The source is Glenlatterach in the hills just south of Elgin. Quality control is carried out by a nosing panel and the blending is done according to the firm’s recipes established a century ago. As for the future, the firm acknowledges the moves by some distilleries to attract women malt drinkers, like Glen Moray - finishing its malts in Chenin Blanc casks. But you suspect that while flavours-of-the-month come and go, Gordon & MacPhail will continue to select and bottle the best of Scottish malts, making them available to those who know exactly what they want.Controlling quality
After securing a computing degree at St Andrew’s university, Ewen Mackintosh found himself back in Elgin where he had summer work with Gordon & MacPhail. And for the past eight years he’s been in what many would consider a dream job - quality control manager.The training involved a course in sensory analysis beginning with sniffs of aroma pots containing material like linseed oil. “You have to see if you have any blind spots. Some people can’t detect smokiness for example, “ Ewen explained. If you guess ‘putty’ with the linseed oil, you’re on the right track. One of the first jobs in the process is testing new make malts before they are filled into G & M casks. “It’s really a question of looking for the core attributes which will then develop,” said Ewen.“A lot of these new make samples will smell similar at this stage, but the grassy, fruity and floral notes will come through.” With the new make samples Ewen is looking to see that the whisky character is what is expected of the particular distillery. But the work actually turns out to be less of a dream job than you might expect , because Ewen and the nosing panel only actually taste the whiskies once they’ve been bottled.He admitted, “You don’t taste, because you would be tasting too many.” If you taste, well you’ve got to swallow. It would be a shameful waste not to. And whisky testing is too important to risk the effects of too much enjoyment of the product. They sniff malts which have been put into small casks for quick maturing at five years. More of the whisky is in contact with the wood, so you get a more flavoursome product more quickly. These younger malts go towards the blending where G&M uses old recipes. Its recipes use far fewer malts than other blends, but in blending, more does not mean better. The things Ewen looks out for when nosing are more to do with things which can potentially go wrong.“We’re looking for defects, like when you have a whisky in a cask which has been used too many times. Then you would get a 10-year- old malt , for example, tasting like a three-year-old. It just won’t have matured properly. And you will be looking out for off-notes, with stale, musty aromas.” The chance to experiment with their own distillery has clearly excited the staff.
Up till now, they may have bottled the best, but they have never had control over what they put in their casks. What they are looking for in Benromach is a full-bodied spirit capable of aging up to 50 years. The water may account for only 10 per cent of the final character. So the rest is up to the distiller’s skill and judgement.“We’re looking at the amount of peating, and we will be using more than you might expect. We’re looking at longer fermentation and different yeasts,” explained Ewen. By 2003 the first of the new Benromach malts will be selected for blends, and at that stage they will have more of an idea how the more mature product might work out. Unlike a lot of whisky experts Ewen is no snob over blends, or indeed mixers. “I have no objection to people putting Coca Cola or Irn Bru in their whisky,” he declared. “It can be a good way of introducing people to whisky. And the whisky can still come through. Then they might go on to try some malts.” Ewen’s favourite malts include Ardbeg, and Linkwood from just around the corner, along with a Lowland one from Linlithgow’s St Magdalene distillery which is now closed.