Production

The battle for independence

Tom Bruce Gardyne profiles Muray McDavid, the enfant terrible of independent bottlers.
By Tom Bruce-Gardyne
“Independent bottlers have had to exist on the fringes of the industry ... [and are seen as] scavengers, dodgy, unscrupulous and a pain in the arse."So says Murray McDavid on its refreshingly irreverent website. And after a long, lazy lunch in Glasgow with Gordon Wright, director and co-founder of the company, it is a role they clearly relish – that of being an enfant terrible, there to shake things up in an industry that often appears too stuffy and corporate for its own good. That said, the long-running dispute with Laphroaig, more of which anon, has been a source of much mirth to many in the business, if not to those in the boardroom of Allied Domecq. Being part of the Mitchell dynasty of Campbeltown, the family that set up Springbank in 1828, whisky is clearly in Gordon's blood. "My great grandfather married one of the seven Mitchell daughters in the 1800s," he says proudly. Springbank managed to survive the great boom and bust of whiskyopolis in the early 1920s, which saw 19 of the 22 distilleries collapse in just three years. And such was the dire reputation of Campbeltown at the time, Springbank had to be promoted as a West Highland whisky within
the trade."Apart from receiving a bottle of whisky at Christmas I wasn't really aware that the family owned a distillery; I remember first going there with my father aged 10 or 11 but I wasn't aware of our family's involvement in the business," says Gordon who was brought up on the other side of Scotland in Kinross and St Andrews. "It's funny but in those days there wasn't the interest in single malts that there is now, no-one was really talking about Springbank." The distillery's principal role back then was to produce the backbone of a number of big blends including Chivas Regal – "no doubt that was why they were so successful!" By 1984 Gordon was a share-holder in the distillery, and became a director three years later. Then in 1990 he decided to leave his landscape gardening business and start working for Springbank full-time. As for landscaping, "It's all right for a young guy, but the thought of going out in the pouring rain in your forties didn't really appeal."Gordon was put in charge of sales by his uncle, Hedley Wright, the company's chairman and managing director. "It was great. You didn't have to go on about unique selling points. People tasted the whisky, loved it and bought it. There was never enough to go round." In addition Gordon was selling rare bottlings off the Cadenhead list; the independent bottler that was swallowed up by Springbank in the late 1960s. He began to doubt Cadenhead's philosophy of just dealing in cask strength whisky, on the grounds of inconsistency between casks and problems over how to drink it. The argument being that if you are used to drinking standard strength whiskies mixed half and half with water, to dilute certain cask strength malts to the same level risks drowning them. There is no argument over chill-filtering however. Because Springbank could not afford the expensive equipment needed, it chose to bottle at 46 per cent abv – any lower and the whisky can turn cloudy. They subsequently found that by not chill-filtering, the malt retained more of its flavour.While accepting that it is a necessary evil for blended Scotch, Gordon feels the whole issue says something about the trade. "In my view the consumer has been patronised enough by the whisky industry. I mean, if you bought a bottle of vintage port without all that gunk in it, you'd feel cheated." He finds it is all rather symptomatic of an industry that has been known to refer to malts as whisky with a bit of extra margin. As he says you would be hard pushed to find the wine trade saying such things about Château Latour.In 1990 Mark Reynier, who runs the La Reserve wine shops in London and was already a customer of Gordon's, pitched up in Campbeltown and Gordon slipped a bottle of Springbank into his rucksack. The two have been friends ever since. In 1996, having parted company from his uncle, Gordon joined Mark and Simon Coughlin, also of La Reserve, to set up as indy bottlers. With names such as Wright, Coughlin and Reynier they had to clamber round Mark's family tree to find something a little more Scottish. Since then Murray McDavid have added a Scottie Dog motif and company motto; ‘Clachan a Choin’ which as all you Gaelic speakers will know, means 'the dog's bollocks'. One of the first bottlings was of a nine-year-old Laphroaig and that's where the fun began. The following spring a letter arrived from Allied's solicitors telling Murray McDavid to desist from selling it. Soon they were in the courts accused of 'passing off' and 'breaching copyright'. "For all we knew it was going to end up in the European Court of Human Rights," says Gordon. "So we eventually gave in." Undaunted, the next batch of Laphroaig appeared as Leapfrog – a name that Murray McDavid registered last summer. Allied appear somewhat confused as to whether Leapfrog is a term of abuse or one of endearment, but have also since registered the name – the case continues.Murray McDavid tends to buy from a small band of brokers. "This includes Springbank," says Gordon a touch wistfully. "The brokers like to play poker and will always ask 'what are you looking for?' and never tell you what they have. Sometimes they'll supply samples and sometimes you have to buy blind." When Whisky Magazine published its millennium survey, the company was delighted to have bottled seven out of the top 10 malts. Apart from Glenmorangie "of which there has never been an independent bottling, as far as I know," says Gordon, only Talisker and The Balvenie were missing. That other giant of Islay, Lagavulin, was also proving extremely elusive until a private source on the island materialised.Murray McDavid's present bottlings include 16 malts ranging in price from £28 for a 1989 Bowmore to £125 for a 1965 Springbank which scooped two of the top three awards at this year's International Wine & Spirit Competition. This compares with a fabled bottling of the 1919 Springbank which Gordon once sold while still employed there. Two bottles went to the same bar in Tokyo within a month. Not a bad order at £7,500 a bottle. How much is that a nip?
One wonders. New bottlings are often launched in a light-hearted, none too serious way. "But you can only do this if you underwrite the whole thing with superb quality," Gordon insists. And as for Andrew Symington's dig at armchair bottlers (see Issue 10), having their own bottling line is "certainly something we would aspire to." But like Signatory, Murray McDavid is under no illusion that independent bottling will last for ever. They too are in search of a distillery having come second in the race for Ardbeg on Islay. At the time of writing they are perilously close to closing a deal on another distillery, but not wishing to tempt fate Gordon was keeping mum.