As Gordon & MacPhail releases a £50,000 1949 Milton (aka Strathisla), its oldest ever single malt from the distillery, we talk to sales director David King on trying to get an old family firm to change, that £16m Ardbeg, and how you set a price for incredibly rare whiskies.
David King has spent a lifetime in the drinks industry with stints at IDV (a forerunner of Diageo), Edrington, and then from 1998 to 2016 with Berry Bros & Rudd, the venerable family-owned wine and spirit merchant. After this, he joined another great family firm, one that will need no introduction to Master of Malt readers, Gordon & MacPhail of Elgin as sales director.
A £50,000 single malt
The firm has just released its oldest ever single malt from Milton, a 1949 vintage. This is the former name for the distillery that is now known as Strathisla (see photo in header courtesy of Chivas Bros.) which I was fortunate enough to try at an event in London. Aged in a first-fill sherry puncheon and bottled at an impressive 48.6% ABV, this 72-year-old is yours for a cool £50,000.
Single malts, from the everyday to the once in a lifetime, are what Gordon & MacPhail is famous for. But like other great names in whisky such as Chivas Bros. and Johnnie Walker, it actually started life as a general grocer’s shop, founded by James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail in 1895.
Had it gone down the blending route, then it would probably have been eventually swallowed up like all those other famous brands. But by sticking to single malts, the Urquhart family, who have been involved in the business since 1915, carved out a unique niche for themselves. Until quite recently, if you wanted a single malt Scotch, then Gordon & MacPhail was your only option.
According to King, the firm’s Connoisseurs Choice range which was launched by George Urquhart “kept the single malt alive in the 1960s and ‘70s when people didn’t do single malts.” It “offered really good value for money,” he continued, “arguably too cheap.” He recounted a story of a row he had with the company when he was still at Berry Bros. when Gordon & MacPhail launched an 8-year-old Glenrothes at a “ludicrously low price point” when he was trying to take the single malt, then owned by Berry Bros., upmarket.
Yet King was impressed with the firm’s knowledge and depth of stock. “We can’t deny the foresight of John and George Urqhart for laying down these stocks which enable us to do what we do.” He described the firm’s “unmatched understanding of different woods and different distilleries. Even Diageo doesn’t have access to as many distilleries as we do.”
That strength in stock was apparent at the tasting where I met King. Not only did we try the 1949 Milton but also a Strathisla 2006 single cask, a 1937 bottled in 1979, another 1949 bottled in 1969, and, most bizarrely of all, a vatting of 1961 and 1948 Strathisla bottled for the 1981 marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. The older ones all had an aromatic spiciness and a sort of wild character you don’t really see in more recent whiskies, something like an old wine with the final 72-year-old 1949 having a finish that could be measured in hours. If you want to try something similar, Master of Malt has a 65 year old Strathisla from Gordon & MacPhail for a very reasonable £12,500.
Name your price
Part of his job as sales director is to set the prices for such rarities which he described as a bit of “a black art. There’s no machine to do it. What is the capacity of that market?” For King, the key is to get the quality and rarity to price ratio right. There are 180 bottles of the 1949 Milton available at £50,000 each. “At under 50 bottles you can name your price, but over 200 it’s harder,”.
He used the example of the £16m Ardbeg cask that sold earlier this month or “two £8m casks,” as he put it. “They’re not that rare. 420 bottles. 420 bottles is not rare. It’s rare compared with Johnnie Walker but it’s not that rare.” He added: “That worries me a wee bit” and then changed tack saying: “We don’t directly criticise competitors. We are always respectful. They’ve done something very successful. So good luck to them”.
As a veteran, he has a long memory of a time when the whisky industry got greedy. Some producers were “very naughty in Japan in the ‘80s. There was a gifting culture and we sold them whisky saying it was super, super special and it wasn’t,” he said. He also thinks it’s important that they keep the unparalleled stock that is Gordon & MacPhail’s strongest asset rather than selling off “the cream.” It’s important to the King to sell whisky when it’s at its peak.
Largely a domestic business
Despite these incredible stocks, Gordon & MacPhail was largely a domestic business with little international presence when King joined in 2016. “It was for experts and people in the know”, he said. Something that he is in the process of changing. “Everyone used to have to work in Elgin but now I can now work with someone based in Hong Kong or other parts of Scotland,” he said.
The firm was also still in the general grocery business supplying Scottish businesses like Edinburgh Woollen Mills and National Trust Scotland with beer, wine, and soft drinks. While its flagship Elgin shop contained a delicatessen. During Covid, G&M shut the delicatessen and stopped the non-whisky wholesale side of the business. The plan is to reopen South Street shop as a “visitor experience with some retailer rather than a retailer with a story to tell that’s not really told properly.” The new visitor centre will open next spring with a whisky academy, tasting rooms, and products that “you can’t buy or taste anywhere else.” Part of the aim is to “help Elgin, help the town centre, bring people in.”
The new Cairn distillery
As well as selling single malts, Gordon & MacPhail is in the distilling business owning Benromach which it took over in 1993 and brought back from the dead. King thinks that the firm wasn’t always doing justice to the distillery though: “Benromach used to sell as a 5-year-old which means you don’t have stock for 10 or 15-year-olds”. There’s also a state-of-the-art new distillery in the Cairngorms called Cairn which we reported on back in 2019. This is going to be a major tourist attraction with a huge visitor centre. “Building the Cairn new distillery, really important to leave for future generations,” he said.
I asked him how hard it was getting a traditional family business to change, there are fourth-generation Urquharts in the company, and he replied. “It was all about earning trust and the family understanding what was going on. You can’t walk into a family business and get them to change everything overnight. It was successful, it was profitable, everyone was pretty happy.” The recruitment process was long and it involved him and his wife meeting with everyone before being offered the job. It’s clearly not that easy when there’s so many family members involved but, he said, “The results count for a lot, say something, do it and it works. That’s credit in the bank.”
With the taste of that 1949 Milton still lingering, I asked King about the long-term health of the prestige whisky market. He thinks it will continue “as long as everyone is looking for long-term interests of the industry and not taking advantage of the consumer.” But beyond that, “you need Mystic Meg,” he added.