Some of our finest whisky distilleries have been run by the same families for generations, their spirits as unique as their history writes 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 ageing 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.
Thus, ‘single malts’ were born. While they had previously existed, distilleries rarely sold their wares this way, such was the demand for their stocks from the leading blended brands of the day. According to grandson Stephen Rankin, George was known as being “eccentric to the point of mad” for allowing his stocks to sit and age for years longer than any others. “He just knew that some whiskies couldn’t be rushed. They needed time and he was willing to wait.”
Laying down plentiful stocks for the long term has paid off; Gordon & MacPhail has been able to release some of the oldest whiskies ever distilled. In September, the company revealed an 80-year-old cask of Glenlivet – the world’s oldest Scotch whisky – filled by the first generation of the family and bottled by the fourth.
Sampling those stocks and hand-selecting barrels for bottling is now entrusted to fellow fourth-generation family member Stuart Urquhart. Casks are sampled and graded weekly, their progress recorded. Each is bottled only when he believes it has reached its peak, the point at which the spirit it holds has extracted all the aromas and character from the wood. Whiskies bottled prematurely will be lacking in complexity. Those left to age too long will be overpowered by the oak and their nuanced flavours lost.
Handily, Stuart is the custodian of quite possibly the most diverse stocks of Scotch whisky anywhere in the world. Gordon & MacPhail holds casks from nearly 100 Scottish distilleries, many of which closed decades ago, with only a handful of remaining casks in existence. For that, he thanks his forebears: “After all, whisky is generational. The stocks we are fortunate to have have been laid down over four generations. The decisions made by those previously working in the business remain evident. And with that comes the duty for us to make equally good decisions with the stocks we fill today.”
However, one thing that always seemed to escape the family’s grasp was a distillery to call its own. “As you can imagine, distilleries don’t come onto the market often and we knocked on a few doors but never got anywhere,” explained Stephen Rankin. After all, distillation was the only part of the whisky-making process in which the family wasn’t involved, despite John and George Urquhart’s long-held ambition to be able to distil their own whisky.
Then, in 1993, the Urquharts acquired the ailing Benromach Distillery in Forres, close to their base in Elgin. They gave it a complete refit and reopened its doors five years later. George Urquhart, then aged 79, was there to witness this. As the new-make spirit ran from Benromach’s copper stills for the first time under new proprietorship, a nearly century-old dream was realised.
Now, they’re breaking ground on another: The Cairn, a new distillery in the heart of Speyside, is set to provide a fresh take on an old spirit. It is due to produce its first spirit this spring before opening to the public in the summer. Not a bad legacy for the family grocers from Elgin.
Ian Macleod Distillers
The Russells have been in the whisky trade since 1936; Leonard Russell Senior brokered spirit before expanding into blending and then exporting. In the mid-1960s, the firm acquired blending house Ian Macleod & Co, the first of many shrewd acquisitions, which would see this industry intermediary transform into one of the most influential merchants.
Leonard Russell Senior’s grandson, also called Leonard, cut his teeth working for other, much larger drinks brands before returning home. “I wanted to bring something new to the business by learning elsewhere first,” he said. “Taking a bit of time out also meant that when I came home to join the business, I felt that I had something to add; things I wanted to do.”
At that time, the family were very much blenders, brokers and bottlers; spirit merchants supplying whiskies for other brands. That was soon to change. In 2003, the Russells bought Glengoyne, a Highland Single Malt distillery, which was then followed by Tamdhu, a little-known distillery that sits alongside the River Spey, in Scotland’s whisky heartlands. “When we looked at Tamdhu, we saw an under-loved and undersold distillery, which had healthy stocks of beautiful, sherry-matured whisky nearly ready for release – we just couldn’t pass up the chance to take it on,” Leonard Russell explains.
Indeed, Tamdhu is a bit of a rarity in the Scotch world, in that it matures its spirit exclusively in casks that previously held Spanish sherries. The result is usually a much spicier and more wintry whisky than most of the distillery’s Speyside neighbours. Their style of Scotch is sought-after in many Asian markets, where the thirst for single malts has exploded. Leonard’s son, Tom Russell, heads up the marketing effort for China and Taiwan. The market in the latter is nothing short of “outstanding”, according to him. “For a small island, a few miles off the coast of mainland China, with just 24 million people, it has managed to evolve into one of the most important markets in the world.” In fact, Taiwan may be the only place where sales of whisky outstrip those of wine.
And while he feels the pressure of being a fourth-generation Russell in the trade, Tom has been well prepared; he grew up watching his grandfather, Peter, and father build Ian Macleod into one of the most respected names in whisky. The lessons and tales they pass on do no harm, either. “Regardless of the story, it always comes back to honesty, which I think says a lot,” notes Tom. Any favourites from his grandfather? “Always leave a shilling for the other man.”
One of the oldest surviving distilleries on Speyside, Glenfarclas, has been in the Grant family since 1865, when it was bought for £511.19 (the equivalent of about £315,000 today). Chairman John Grant is the fifth generation of his family to run it and still lives on the estate. Since he joined his father in the business, a great deal has changed.
Glenfarclas was one of the first to open up to visitors in the early 1970s, putting the family in the tourism business as well as in the whisky trade. Then, they partnered with the Russells of Ian Macleod to open a joint bottling operation, giving both families greater access to market. However, the one thing they have held onto tightly is the style of spirit that they distil.
Seasoned drinkers will know Glenfarclas as one of those robust, almost meatier styles of whisky, usually matured in rich and nutty refill sherry casks. Fireside drams, so to speak. The Grants once experimented with adapting their traditional, direct-fired copper stills – those heated directly by flame – by fitting one of them with steam coils, thereby reducing fuel consumption and cost. Direct-fired stills heat the whisky-to-be to a much higher, more intense temperature than their modern equivalents. Doing so causes barley husks and sugar compounds in the liquid to stick to the copper sides of the still.
That caramelisation-like process – almost the equivalent of the Maillard reaction that takes place when browning meats – may explain Glenfarclas’ weightier, full-bodied character. Moving away from direct firing risked losing it, says John Grant: “It removed the body and guts of the spirit – it was a totally different whisky. That experiment didn’t last long.” Just as distinctive is Glenfarclas’ red, italic script logo, which matches the colour of the doors of the firm’s traditional stone warehousing. Despite many a marketeer suggesting an update, this is something else the family doesn’t intend to change. “The script has been around for at least 70 years and people seem to recognise it,” says Grant. “It’s not going anywhere.”