Stills going strong
The Field|January 2022
Some of our finest whisky distilleries have been run by the same families for generations, their spirits as unique as their history
JACK CROXFORD-SCOTT

A mere 300 years ago, making whisky was a farmer’s pursuit. Scottish and Irish crofters would distil surplus crops into fiery spirits adept at staving off brutal winters. As time moved on, rules were tightened and taxes heightened. Crude production methods and ramshackle stills were replaced by evolving know-how and new apparatus to match. The farmers became distillers and spirit merchants, building shop-ready brands that drove smugglers and underground distilleries into obsolescence. A rough-and-ready ploughman’s drink gave way to a refined, palatable dram worthy of a place in the bars of London’s finest clubs.

Spirits retailers and local blenders became household names, including Walkers, Dewars and Buchanans. Their blending empires grew, however, they remained humble, family affairs. They were generational craftspeople, passing down the quirks and trade secrets behind their brands from son to son. Then, a perfect storm of oversupply, variable quality and economic crashes shook the foundations of the whisky trade. Many family firms folded and a brutal consolidation left two multinationals controlling most of the industry.

Through the resulting turmoil and mass centralisation of, well, almost everything, a few families survived. They refused to sell out and pack up; they laid down new casks and invested in their brands despite the downturns. And, thankfully, they’re still here to tell the tale.

GORDON & MACPHAIL

As with many legacies in the trade, Gordon & MacPhail’s story begins with a grocer’s shop. James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail opened their doors in Elgin, Speyside, in 1895, stocking provisions that included fine teas, coffees and, naturally, whisky. They had placed themselves near the dozens of distilleries that lined the banks of the rivers Spey and Lossie, providing a steady source of matured spirit that was blended to order for their clientele.

A London newspaper advert dated November 1896 sings the praises of one of their very first blends, Moray Brand: Old Highland Liqueur, which one could order for 45 shillings for a dozen bottles, by telegram. The whiskies sold well and Messrs Gordon and MacPhail were joined by an apprentice, John Urquhart, who would soon acquire the entire business. Not content with buying casks of mature whisky for blending, Urquhart directed local distilleries to fill new casks sourced by the family. As the shop already retailed port, sherry and other wines, the Urquharts had ready access to empty casks, which they could send to malt distilleries for filling. Doing so gave the family full control over maturation – the aging of the youthful, immature spirit that turns fresh-off-the-copper stills into complex, flavourful whiskies.

The real contribution made by the Urquharts, however, is how they bottled the results. Although most spirit distilled in the area was shipped to the blending houses when only a few years old, John Urquhart’s son, George, insisted on ageing the family’s stocks for much longer. Then, instead of blending-in spirit from other distilleries, he bottled whisky from each distillery on its own, allowing drinkers to discover the house style, or ‘spirit character’, of each individual one.

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