Gordon & MacPhail’s view for the future

28th June, 2018 by Amy Hopkins

Change is sweeping through revered Scotch whisky bottler Gordon & MacPhail. The family-owned group’s managing director, Ewen Mackintosh, tells The Spirits Business why the time is ripe for modernisation.

Ewen Mackintosh is managing director of Gordon & MacPhail

*This feature was first published in the May 2018 edition of The Spirits Business magazine

For Scotch whisky aficionados, Gordon & MacPhail is one of the biggest names in the business – so it’s difficult to believe this famous bottler started life as a humble grocer’s in Elgin.

More than 100 years ago, founders James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail hired John Urquhart as an apprentice at their shop, which is still in business today. Urquhart later became a partner, having established the company’s reputation as a whisky broker, maturation specialist and blender. In the process, he gathered an extensive selection of maturing stock, and paved the way for the Urquharts to become one of Scotch whisky’s most respected family dynasties.

Gordon & MacPhail remains under the ownership of the Urquhart family, with members still playing an active role in the business – namely Stephen Rankin, Stuart, Richard and Neil Urquhart and Suzy Bearne. The company employs 155 people and, as well as its core bottling business, runs a UK wholesale whisky unit, and owns and operates the Benromach distillery. In particular, it is known for its ultra-rare expressions, including the oldest single malt ever bottled – a 75-year-old Mortlach, distilled in 1939.

Like many independent spirits groups, non-familial influence has also been key to Gordon & MacPhail’s success. After a lengthy tenure at the company, Ewen Mackintosh was appointed managing director in 2017. He describes the Urquhart family’s cask custodianship as a “very strong, emotive story to tell”.

“The fact that we can go through the ledger books and see the handwriting of the first or second generation of the family outlining where the empty cask came from, when it was sent to the particular distillery to be filled and how much it cost to be filled in 1938, 1939 and 1940 is unique,” he says.

“We can show that a cask of 70 or 75 years has stayed in our ownership for the duration – we have looked after it over that period and there’s a total continuity. It hasn’t moved from warehouse to warehouse or owner to owner; it’s been within the family for four generations, and some will be for five or six.”

Gordon & MacPhail’s shop then…

Longevity at Gordon & MacPhail is something Mackintosh knows well. He has spent his entire whisky career at the company, joining from university in 1991 to set up its IT-management systems. Before this, he worked at Gordon & MacPhail’s cask-warehousing site during the summer. Mackintosh recalls: “Very quickly I got involved in the whisky industry and very quickly I started to understand that it was an industry I was interested in being a part of.”

His role evolved into product quality control, under the stewardship of the then managing director Ian Urquhart. Then, as the company grew and some family members retired, Mackintosh was appointed to the board, becoming chief operating officer in 2014 and MD in 2017. Now, he is overseeing one of the biggest set of changes at Gordon & MacPhail in its modern history.

In April, the firm announced plans to rationalise its extensive collection of independently bottled whiskies as part of a modern rebrand. Gordon & MacPhail will streamline its 14 ranges to five: Discovery, Distillery Labels, Connoisseurs Choice, Private Collection and Generations. According to Mackintosh, the move will allow the company to have a “more succinct offering” and offer a clear ladder of products for consumers. “There were valid reasons why we had a number of ranges in years gone by, but as consumer requirements have changed, we saw that it was time for us to make the propositions clearer,” he explains. “One of the challenges with the old set of ranges was that it wasn’t always clear why a whisky was in one range and not another.”

At the base of the new-look pyramid portfolio will be Discovery, a new line that targets consumers “with some whisky knowledge”. Flavour will be a key driver for this range, which is segmented into three profiles: Smoky, Sherry and Bourbon.

Following is Distillery Labels, which targets the “whisky historian”, and harks back to Gordon & MacPhail’s roots. Whiskies available in the first two ranges will have “much more of a consistent offering so people can get the same whisky time and time again,” says Mackintosh. Discovery launched this spring, while Distillery Labels will be available from this autumn.

… and now

Connoisseurs Choice, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, was the first range to relaunch, featuring a distinctive new packaging design. Expressions in the line will be bottled as small-batch, non-chill-filtered vintages, and will be colour co-ordinated to donate certain characteristics.

Private Collection, launching in the autumn, is “for the whisky collector” and offers products with more premium cues. At the very top of the ladder is where Gordon & MacPhail’s most exclusive bottlings will reside: Generations, a relaunch date for which has not yet been confirmed.

As a result of the rationalisation, some whiskies in Gordon & MacPhail’s price list – which previously consisted of almost 300 bottlings – will disappear. Others will be absorbed in the more exclusive ranges as “batch releases” in a particular year. “We’re not looking to have a price list with a vast number of whiskies in it,” explains Mackintosh. “It will be more like an ever-changing list of whiskies from now on.”

At the same time as providing clarity for consumers, the overhaul will offer greater exclusivity and allow Gordon & MacPhail to hold some stocks back for extra ageing. “A Glen Grant distilled in 1948 has been available from the business every year since I started work at the company,” says Mackintosh. “In some ways, that’s fantastic, but it implies that it’s almost always available. So we are now looking to make these types of releases much more unique.”

The move also acts as an important brand-building exercise for Gordon & MacPhail, whose new logo will feature more prominently across its portfolio. In addition, communication around firm’s expertise in maturation will be ramped up.

Mackintosh says: “For new whisky consumers, we want to build a confidence that they are buying a Gordon & MacPhail whisky, and not so much looking at the distillery name below. It’s important for some consumers, but for people just getting into single malts, having confidence in the Gordon & MacPhail name is really essential to us.”

The executive adds that while Gordon & MacPhail’s history is well known among whisky connoisseurs, newer Scotch whisky drinkers “don’t always fully understand” its position as an independent bottler and maturation specialist. “Independent bottlers do different things, so we want to tell our story to allow people to get the technical aspects behind it,” Mackintosh claims.

Connoisseur’s Choice was the first of Gordon & MacPhail’s range to relaunch

He also stresses that the rationalisation is not a move to combat stock shortages – “the average age of the whiskies in this portfolio will go up”. But he notes that it can sometimes be a challenge for Gordon & MacPhail to secure liquid as companies increasingly “want to protect and develop their own brands”. As such, the firm endeavours to have “clear and open relationships with our partners, and make sure what we do complements and doesn’t compete in the marketplace”.

Gordon & MacPhail owns a warehousing facility in Elgin, but its casks stay with the distillery that filled them until closer to bottling. As such, the company’s skill in maturation is pairing distillery liquid and wood type, then forecasting the optimal ageing time. “If we sent the wrong quality of wood out for filling, then it’s an expensive process to find out 15 years later that the whisky hasn’t matured to the quality we were expecting,” Mackintosh says.

Gordon & MacPhail recently purchased land for additional warehouses at Benromach, which is the firm’s only distillery, purchased in 1993. While Benromach remains a key focus, Gordon & MacPhail is keen for it to be viewed as a separate entity to its line of bottled whiskies – something further enabled by the rebrand.

Last year, the group increased production at Benromach and “would probably look to increase capacity again over the next two to three years”, says Mackintosh, who also talks about the possibility of a second distillery purchase in the future [after this interview was first published, Gordon & MacPhail’s parent company, Speymalt Whisky Distributors, announced plans to build a distillery in Cairngorms National Park]. “Owning a distillery allows you to control a brand from start to finish, you can really put your fingerprint on it – that’s what we’ve taken away from Benromach,” he says.

It’s an exciting time at Gordon & MacPhail, but Mackintosh stresses that the company will not turn away from its core principles. When asked if the business might one day leave family ownership, he says: “Simply, no – the family has always been very staunch on the view that it should be a family business, and they very much look to secure the business for future generations.”

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