Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Gordon & MacPhail Tasting

I don’t check my email all that frequently. Work related emails are few and far between and internet access is very limited when I am at work. Consequently, I didn’t see an email that came in at 3:00 in the afternoon a few weeks ago until 11:00 the next morning.

I’m on the mailing lists of several whisky bars, liquor stores, state liquor commissions and a few distilleries, so I often get emails promoting whisky events. These are never really close to home though; only the truly special ones will warrant the time and effort it would take for me to attend them.

I was still lying in bed and only half awake as I scanned through the above mentioned email. It was for a whisky tasting at Gordon’s Fine Wines in Waltham, MA (a suburb just west of Boston). When I got to the part of the message that showed the event lineup and saw a couple of 41 year old whiskies that had been distilled in the early 1970’s, my attention suddenly became undivided. Then I scrolled down further and saw the $200 price tag and quickly lost interest. Then I saw the next line noting that the price included a $200 gift card to the store.

Wait! So it’s a free tasting with rare, expensive whiskies and I just have to buy myself a $200 gift card to a liquor store with an incredible whisky selection? Being the skeptical sort that I am, I read over the email five or six more times to make sure there wasn’t some catch or caveat that I was missing. Next questions; when is this and do I have to take time off from work? It was on Friday evening the next week, and while not exactly convenient, I could slip down there between my Thursday night and Saturday night shifts. It was even close enough to my parents’ house that I could stay there and not have to spring for a hotel.

Of course, I knew an event like this would be limited in size and sell out quickly. If I was going to go, I’d have to get on the ball and sign up without hesitation. It turned out to be a 35 person event and when I reserved my spot just 22 hours after the email went out, there were only eight spaces left.

The main purpose of the tasting was to introduce Gordon’s customers to a new, single cask bottling of 21 year old Miltonduff that was done exclusively for the store by Gordon & MacPhail. Five other single malt offerings from the independent bottler would be tasted as well.

The additional bonus was that the event was hosted by Richard Urquhart, Gordon & MacPhail’s Export Director and part of the 4th generation of the family that owns the company. The business began in 1895 when it was established by James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail as a family grocers, tea, wine and spirits merchant in Elgin. John Urquhart joined the company within its first year and was made a Senior Partner in 1915. By that point the Gordon & MacPhail brand name was well established and it didn’t make sense to amend it by adding Urquhart to the moniker. The same logic applied later when the Urquhart family eventually took full control of the business.

John developed Gordon & MacPhail’s whisky broking business and got them started bottling single malts under license for several distilleries. This soon led to the company having their own casks filled with new make spirit, which were left to age at the distilleries where the whisky was produced; this is the mainstay of the business today.

George Urquhart, John’s son, joined the business in 1933 and became a senior partner upon his father’s death in 1956. In the 1960’s Gorge launched a range of single malts from different distilleries under the “Connoisseur’s Choice” brand and offered them for sale in export markets, which included Italy, France, America and the Netherlands.

Four of George’s children joined the business between 1967 and 1981, and the fourth generation includes at least six of their collective offspring who are now part of the company. Getting to hear Richard’s insights into the history of Gordon & MacPhail and his family really made this a very special event. Richard started his talk, then paused and mentioned the look that he sees on everyone’s faces when he speaks too much before anyone has tasted any whisky.

He suggested we jump in with the first one right away. I’ll alternate between the topics that were discussed and the whiskies which we tasted. Keep in mind that the pours at this type of event are small, about ½ an ounce, and that it’s not the best environment for contemplating detailed tasting notes.

We started with a 10 year Miltonduff which was aged in refill sherry casks, bottled at 43% and selling for $56. It was fresh and elegant, with delicate malt notes, soft tree fruit and a hint of minerality. The overall style was clean and approachable, but it seemed to have minimal sherry influence.

We started off talking about casks types and filtration. Richard explained that it used to be common practice in Scotland to re-cooper Bourbon barrels (200 liters) and Sherry butts (500 liters) into hogsheads (250 liters). The barrels would be shipped as “knock downs” (disassembled) to save on transport costs. They would need to be re-coopered to weed out faulty staves so the labor cost was already accounted for. A full butt weighs around 1000 pounds, so making them smaller made them less difficult to manage. The hogshead was the happy medium size that both types of casks were often reassembled into.

Things are different today. Bourbon barrels are manufactured to a much higher level of quality and don’t need to be re-coopered before they are put into service in Scotland. It’s more cost effective to just ship them whole now. Spain banned the export of bulk Sherry back in the 1980’s; it is all bottled in the country now. The vast majority of the Sherry casks that come to Scotland these days were produced specifically for the whisky companies and seasoned with Sherry in Spain for a few years at most before being sent over to the distilleries.

All of the G&M whiskies bottled at 46% and above are non-chill filtered. Whiskies that the company bottles at 43% are filtered at 5° C (41° F), where the industry standard is much colder, as low as -4° C (25° F). This will keep the whisky from forming a haze in the bottle, but not if ice is added. The process is sort of a compromise that allows more flavor to be retained.

Next we moved on to the Gordon’s exclusive 21 year Miltonduff which was bottled at 53.8% and priced at $150 (I missed the details on the cask type). It had similar aromas to previously tasted 10 year old, but with more oak presence. The palate showed subtle tropical fruit notes, a grain-forward character and warming spice notes. This was the only whisky of the night that I added water to. That allowed the aromas to open up a little and brought out more floral notes. More fruit, vanilla and toasted oak notes came out on the palate.

The company’s business model has evolved over the years and while they do still have a retail store in Elgin, being an independent bottler of single malt Scotch whisky easily represents the largest part of their business today. That is all that they have bottled for at least a few decades, but Gordon & MacPhail did bottle other products in the past, including Sherry, wine, rum, vodka and even Coca-Cola for a short time during WWII.  They have been approached by whisky producers from other countries more recently, but declined the offers.

Gordon & MacPhail is also unique among independent bottlers in that they only lay down newly filled casks from the distilleries that they work with. All of the other bottlers buy most, if not all, of their whisky from brokers who sell casks that already have a good bit of age on them.

All of the casks that they use are first-fill or second-fill, and the Sherry casks they use are manufactured to their specification before being seasoned with the fortified wine in Spain. Richard noted that they use staves on these casks that are a little thicker than the industry standard. Since Gordon & MacPhail tend to age many of their whiskies for an extended period of time, the extra stave thickness gives the casks more longevity and slows down evaporation rates.

Tastings normally end with the most heavily peated whiskies, but we sampled those in the middle to save the rare and special offerings for the end. First up was the 10 year Caol Ila which was aged in first-fill Bourbon barrels, bottled at 46% and priced at $64. The nose showed unadulterated peat smoke with sea spray and coastal minerality. The palate was full of weighty, meaty peat smoke with a touch of mint and engaging spice notes. This is classic Caol Ila, where the peat character takes center stage with minimal distraction. Most, if not all of the official bottlings of Caol Ila are chill filtered, so it’s nice to have non-filtered options from independent bottlers.

Richard also emphasized the relationships that G&M has built with the many companies they have worked with over the decades and the importance of maintaining those relationships, even if they don’t currently do business together. He mentioned that the Sherry producer who seasons casks for them is the same one that they used to work with as a bottler back in the 1970’s.

While G&M does have a bonded warehouse in Elgin capable of holding up to 8000 casks, they prefer to have the whisky that they buy age in the warehouses of the distilleries where it was produced, as that contributes to the unique character of each whisky. I believe that they could legally use the names of the distilleries where the whisky is distilled on their labels without permission, but they choose to work out licensing agreements with the companies instead. I’m sure that goes a long way to ensure they are able to fill casks in the future and age them on site.

G&M have filled casks from 103 different distilleries over the years. They now fill casks from about 70 distilleries, but are still laying down more whisky than any time in the past. Caol Ila is one of their biggest filling partners, currently supplying about 100 casks per year.

Next we moved on the Caol Ila 2003 Sassicaia Finish. This Caol Ila was aged for a total of a few months less than 13 years. It started off in first-fill Bourbon barrels, where it spent roughly 10 years. It was then transferred to Sassicaia (red wine from Tuscany) casks for another 33 months. It was bottled at 45% and priced at $86. The dark, brooding peat smoke aromatics were layered with dark red berry fruit notes. On the palate it was meaty and smoky with notes of chocolate and mulled red fruits adding complexity. There was a bit of sweetness up front, but it turned more dry and tannic as it moved into the finish.

Richard also took a little time to talk to us about the company’s biggest development in the modern era; their purchase of the Benromach distillery in 1993. The distillery had been closed since 1983 and was in a state of disrepair. After five years of refurbishment it went back online in 1998. The ambition to own and operate a distillery of their own had actually gone back to the first generation of the Urquhart family that was involved with Gordon & MacPhail. John Urquhart had tried to buy the Strathisla distillery in 1950 after its owner was jailed for tax evasion and the court ordered an auction of his assets. Urquhart was outbid by Chivas Brothers, who paid £71,000 for the distillery. According to the story Richard was told as a child by his grandfather, George, they had been outbid by a mere £5 (he conceded that may have been an exaggeration, though).

After the Caol Ila samples we took a moment to drink some water, let our palates refresh and prepare to taste offerings from Gordon & MacPhail’s “Old & Rare” and “Speymalt” ranges.

First up was the 41 year Coleburn, which was distilled in 1972, aged in refill, remade American hogsheads, bottled at 46% and priced at $725. The aromas were fascinating, showing classic notes of the old school distilling methods, with an oily character and paraffin wax coming through. On the palate caramel and shoe polish showed over a subtle floral backdrop.

At this point the conversation drifted to the older bottlings released by Gordon & MacPhail. In 2015 they bottled a 75 year old Mortlach, which is the oldest single malt bottled by anyone to date. Richard talked about the connection to his great-grandfather, who he never met. This first-fill Sherry but was laid down by John Urquhart in November of 1939, and 75 years later the fourth generation of the family running the business took part in its bottling and release.

As questions came up about their older casks, Richard cryptically revealed that the oldest cask they have in their possession now dates to 1940. It will be interesting to see how long they let that one go before it is bottled. Talk of a 1950 Talisker that was bottled at 60 years of age brought up the topic of how whisky can morph as it ages. The phenols that contribute the smoky character break down over time, and that 60 year Talisker had no discernable peat smoke flavors. Then Richard mentioned the company’s “liquid library”; a collection of samples taken from many of their casks at various points through time. He was able to go back and taste the very same Talisker cask as it was with just 10 years of age, from a sample pulled in 1960. And of course it had the signature peat smoke that Talisker is well-known for.

Finally, we moved on to the 41 year Macallan, which was distilled in 1973, aged in European Oak first-fill Sherry casks, bottled at 43% and priced at $1260. The aromatics had layers of complexity, with saddle leather, raisins and dark, oxidized sherry fruit being the most obvious notes. On the palate there was a lovely evolution of flavors. It was big and masculine with dark, sinewy sherry fruits along with hints of unsweetened chocolate and coffee beans. Baking spice notes took the spotlight on the finish.

Someone questions the price difference between the last two, given that Coleburn is a silent distillery which hasn’t produced whisky since 1985 and is unlikely to ever again. Richard indicated that it mostly came down to the cost of the licensing agreements to use the distillery names.

We talked a little more about the company’s past and the fact that G&M continued to fill many casks during the 1930’s and 40’s when the industry was seeing some of its worst times. This probably seemed risky at the time, but it helped to ensure Gordon & MacPhail’s future success. Richard mentioned that back in those dark days Macallan had actually requested that G&M fill their casks ahead of schedule to give the distillery a much needed infusion of cash. Times have changed though, and Macallan has been unable to supply whisky to Gordon & MacPhail for some years. I believe Richard said 2006 was the last time that happened.

As I mentioned above, maintaining good relationships with their distilling partners, both past and present, is of great importance to the company. Gordon & MacPhail still hosts an annual dinner with representative of all of the distilleries in Scotland. Macallan is on the cusp of opening a new, much larger distillery; if the industry takes another downturn I’m sure the Urquharts will be ready to buy whisky from them again.

Overall, this was really a great tasting event. As for my opinions of the whiskies, I was a little indifferent toward the Miltonduffs. The 21 year was more interesting than the 10 year, but I think the subtleties of the house style might be lost on me. The Coleburn was intriguing, but I found it more appealing on the nose than on the palate. I have a feeling that Coleburn is a whisky I really wouldn’t care for at a much younger age, and that is probably down to my personal preferences. I really enjoyed the 10 year Caol Ila, but for me the two standouts were the Macallan and the Caol Ila Sassicaia Finish, even though they were very different from each other stylistically.

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