Family business is still in good spirits

Gordon & MacPhail continues to put the quality of its product first, director tells SLTN

Stephen Rankin sampling whisky in one of Gordon & MacPhail’s warehouses

WHEN Gordon & MacPhail, the independent whisky bottler, distiller and wholesaler, marked its 125th anniversary this year the celebrations were a little different to what was originally planned.

With various events for the anniversary – on May 24 – kiboshed due to the coronavirus lockdown, the company had to improvise.

In the end, the business’s 160-strong workforce were sent a bottle of Benromach (the Speyside distillery acquired by Gordon & MacPhail in 1993) and they shared a dram together over Zoom.

It was an understated way for a company to mark such a major milestone, but perhaps a fitting one.

Gordon & MacPhail has long been a company that lets its whisky do the talking.

The business was founded by James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail in 1895 and later taken over by their former apprentice, John Urquhart. It remains owned by the Urquharts today, with five members of the family working for the business in 2020.

However, the scale of the operation has grown considerably in the past 125 years.

The company’s most recent financial results, published last year, reported pre-tax profits of over £15 million.

Speaking to SLTN, Stephen Rankin, director of prestige at the company – and fourth-generation member of the family – said he credits the third generation of Urquharts  for the health Gordon & MacPhail is in today.

The first release in the ‘last cask’ series

“I have to take my hat off to the third generation, my three uncles and my mother, because they really took on the professionalisation of the business,” said Rankin.

“We thought about what succession looked like; how do we migrate the company from a successful third-generation business into a fourth and fifth and sixth generation. Because there’s that old adage that the first generation starts it, the second generation makes it and the third generation crashes it. Or words to that effect.”

One of the key strategies for the company moving forward, said Rankin, was ensuring non-family members had the opportunity to thrive within the business – something that was illustrated in 2014 when Ewen Mackintosh was appointed managing director, becoming the first non-family member to lead the business.

“We’ve got such a fantastic group of people working for the company,” said Rankin.

“The reason we’ve made it 125 years is sound leadership by family members but also those who have come into leadership positions from outwith the family and done a sterling job.

“The board at the moment, through COVID, has done a remarkable job, and they’re predominantly non-family.

“There’s only two family out of the six key executive positions.”

One of the major projects currently being undertaken by the company is the construction of a new distillery near Grantown-on-Spey.

Gordon & MacPhail hopes the facility, which is still to be officially named, will be up and running by spring 2022.

“It brings a lot of challenges,” said Rankin.

“Who’s going to be the person drinking [the whisky]? That person might not even be in double figures yet because that whisky’s not going to be out for another ten, 12, 15 years so when you’re aiming for the long-term like that it’s trying to predict what character, what style, is going to be popular in the future.

“It’s quite challenging but it’s a lot of fun.”

While the company is clearly looking to the future, much of its philosophy is drawn from the past.

The late George Urquhart, in particular, continues to have an influence on how the business conducts itself.

It was George, Rankin’s grandfather, who launched Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseurs Choice brand in the 1960s.

At the time comparatively few distilleries released their spirit as single malt, with the vast majority producing liquid purely for blending.

However, having spent decades acquiring and maturing spirit from distilleries across Scotland Gordon & MacPhail was in the position to release single malt bottlings from many of these producers.

The Connoisseurs Choice range survives to this day, as does George’s philosophy on whisky.

Rankin said: “My grandfather wrote us a very poignant letter saying that for us to survive somebody somewhere has to be buying our whisky so it’s important that we’re respectful of our suppliers and our customers in equal measure.

“Because if you try and put too much pressure on your suppliers to do it cheaper all the time you’ll just end up with a cheaper product.

“Likewise make sure that you’re being respectful to your customer. Make sure that you’re exceeding their expectations and offering value.

“Yes we sell £30,000 products, but they’re the rarest and most unique products in the world of whisky and therefore far exceed people’s expectations.”

That rarity and uniqueness – as well as the company’s expertise in maturation – are personified in four new bottlings from the company.

Issued to mark the 125th anniversary all four bottles in the ‘last cask’ series contain liquid from stills that no longer produce spirit. Each represents the last cask of that spirit owned by Gordon & MacPhail.

The first release was a 47 year old whisky distilled at Coleburn Distillery in Speyside. It sold out immediately.

The second issue, this month, will be from Glenury Royal distillery in Stonehaven, which closed in the ’80s.

Further bottlings will follow in November and December.

Rankin described them as “just really remarkable whiskies with a rarity and sense of history and time passing”.

The industry has changed quite considerably even in the time that’s passed since Rankin joined the company.

Having qualified and worked as a chartered surveyor, he joined Gordon & MacPhail in 2000 on the company’s management training programme, working his way up to sales director and then, in 2017, director of prestige, where his role includes promoting the company’s rarest and oldest whiskies.

“Malt whisky was nowhere near as popular even when I started,” said Rankin.

“Only 2% of total whisky sales around the world was malt whisky. Now it’s well in excess of 18% in volume and 30% in value terms.”

On-trade attitudes towards whisky have also changed.

“Scotch whisky has become much more important to bars and whisky bars have become icons in their own right,” he said. “I genuinely believe Scotch whisky is becoming a must-do part of anybody’s visit to Scotland, mixed into this incredible offering that Scotland has.

“The way whisky is portrayed is now light-years even from when I came in. “It’s amazing to see.”