Gordon & MacPhail Dream Drams

In the whisky world we have original bottlers (the distilleries, or brands themselves – bottling their own whisky as official product lines) and independent bottlers (often bottling single casks or small batches, and sometimes, not even being able to name where the whisky is from). And then there’s Gordon & MacPhail (G&M).

I’m not just saying that as some tongue in cheek comment, but if you really break it down, you could argue that they’re almost in a category of their own. The reason I say that is because throughout their 120-year history, they’ve certainly fulfilled the independent bottler role, but they’ve also been an official bottler (of sorts) as well.

In the first half of the 20th century, very few distilleries bottled their own whisky as a single malt, with the vast majority being used for blending. Instead, independent bottlers (like Gordon & MacPhail) released it for them and were very much pioneers of the single malt category we take for granted today. G&M’s relationship with various distilleries was valued so much that distilleries would effectively use G&M as their ‘official bottler’. They allowed G&M to create ‘distillery labels’ for their malts, a number of which are still around today (including the likes of Glenlivet and Mortlach). Fast forward to now and G&M’s relationship is still so strong that they’re able to continuing not only sourcing stock, but releasing whisky under these vintage distillery labels. So when I say that they’re in a category of their own, in some ways they really are.

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Given the historic relationship they have with many distilleries, when you see some of these incredibly rare releases from G&M, you can be assured that this is not some new kid on the block trying to flog you a third-rate cask that no-one else wanted. Rather, it’s highly likely that it’s been a cask that has been nurtured by G&M themselves from day one, either in one of their many warehouses, or at the distillery itself.

So with that in mind, get read for a long post, for I have in front of me five whiskies that I’m fairly confident I’ll never try again. They’re not just some new flashy, artificially limited, single cask things either. What we have here are three whiskies from closed distilleries, plus two that have each clocked up more than 50 years in a cask. It’s only early in the year, but it’s going to be very hard to top this tasting in 2018.

Glenury Royal 1984 – Rare Old Collection

Founded in 1825, Glenury Royal was one of only three distilleries King William IV granted permission to use the ‘Royal’ prefix (the others being Royal Brackla and Royal Lochnagar). For much of its life it had its own floor maltings, but these were canned in the late 1960s in favour of more storage space. A few years after, a second pair of stills were added, but this optimistic increase in production would be relatively short-lived with the distillery falling victim to the slump of the 1980s, closing its doors for good on 31 May 1985. This 1984 28-year-old expression is a distillery first for me.

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Nose – Quite closed at first, but once it opens up it’s quit tart with fresh cut pineapple, pine needles, oily citrus pith, cloves and old dusty polishing cloths. There’s some beeswax and a floral hint in there, in an earthy sweetness kind of wax.

Palate – Citrus rind, earthy coal dust (imagine sticking your head out the window of a moving steam train). Some pancake batter, waxy fruit skins, citrus, polished furniture and a hint of a floral lavender note (along the lines of an 80s Bowmore, but far more subtle). It’s a very savoury and dry palate, especially on the finish.

The cask hasn’t been overly active with this one and it definitely tastes like an old world distillate, the kind you don’t really come across in new expressions these days.

Glenesk 1980 – Rare Old Collection

This next one comes from a distillery with a rather interesting history. Highland Esk was born in 1897 when an old flax mill was converted into a distillery during the whisky boom at the turn of the 20th century. After closing during WWI, it was re-opened in the late 1930s, but this time as a grain distillery, operating under the name of ‘Montrose’ distillery. Grain distillation was relatively short-lived though, with the site switching back to malt distillation in 1964, under the name ‘Hillside’ distillery. For some unknown reason it was renamed to Glenesk in 1980, where it enjoyed five final years of production before it was eventually closed for good in 1985.

As a component of the VAT 69 blend, single malts from Glenesk – especially in the five years it was known as Glenesk – are seldom seen, so I’m rather excited to be trying this ~34-year-old example from 1980.

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Nose – Granny Smith apples, custard cream, home-made spiced apple loaf and a hint of furniture polish. After some time in the glass it turns quite grassy and herbal in a way, almost like dried bush leaves.

Palate – Firm stone fruit, tart apples and waxy green apple skins hit me first. There’s some citrus pith in there too and it finishes with an interesting menthol-ish note; a cross between fisherman’s friend mints, liquorice and Mukhwas (those colourful Indian mouth freshener seeds). A rather austere whisky that’s not overly giving; one to take your time with.

Convalmore 1975 – Rare Old Collection

Convalmore, the Speyside neighbour of Glenfiddich and Craigellachie, was founded around 1894, but terrible luck struck just 15 years into production when it was pretty much destroyed by fire. Re-opening in 1916, the owners decided to trial continuous malt distillation (ie using a column still) along side their pair of traditional pot stills. This quirky (innovative?) idea only lasted for six years though before the column still was eventually scrapped. Convalmore enjoyed success as a blenders malt for decades, with production capacity doubling in the 1960s when an additional pair of stills were added. As with the two malts tasted before this, the optimism of the 60s was short-lived, as Convalmore found itself on the 1980s chopping block, closing in 1985 (it’s a bit of a recurring theme, isn’t it?)

The buildings still exist today (and are used by William Grant & Sons for warehousing), but none of the equipment remains. Intended purely as a blenders malt, no official bottles from Convalmore were ever released whilst the distillery was in operation and even independent bottles were seldom seen, making examples of this spirit – like this ~ 40-year-old 1975 vintage – increasingly rare.

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Nose – Right off the bat this is juicy, with an amalgam of integrated tropical fruit notes. Tinned pineapple, lychees and orange flesh. There’s some coconut husk in there too, alongside beeswax sweetness and something green, like fresh palm fronds.

Palate – A nice medium weight to the palate on this, loaded with tropical notes. It tastes older than the nose suggests with papaya, pawpaw and some fuzzy kiwi fruit and pineapple chunks. There’s something slightly sherbety or fizzy going on and it finishes with a bitter orange pith and hop note (like a citrus IPA).

Really engaging, fresh and active on the nose, with more of that old-world tropical funk happening on the palate. There’s a lot to like about this one.

Strathisla 1960 – Rare Vintage Collection

We now move on to what I firmly believe is the most beautiful distillery in Scotland. Don’t believe me? Here’s a photo I personally took of Strathisla on a completely gloomy day in June last year.

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Established more than 100 years earlier than the three distilleries coved thus far, the picturesque Strathisla has been creating whisky since 1786. In more recent times, 1965 saw the installation of two additional steam-heated stills, to work alongside the direct coal fire units they were using at the time. If we pause there for a moment, that in itself makes this 1960 vintage Strathisla quite interesting as it would have been produced at a time when all of their spirit came from direct coal-fired stills.

These days Strathisla is the backbone of the various Chivas blends, with only a handful of ‘official bottlings’ from Strathisla ever released on the market. I’m led to believe that Gordon & MacPhail are the main source of single malt releases from Strathisla and I’ve been lucky enough to taste some incredible casks from their warehouses including a 1953 and 1954 vintage, as well as a couple from the 1970s.

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Nose – Dark, dark and dark. Cherry compote, cherry liqueur chocolates, black forest cake and a hint of orange. It’s so rich and the depth of the nose is immense. A touch of lacquer, juicy raisins, quince paste, raspberry jam and leather. Utterly enjoyable.

Palate – Thinner than I was expecting, but the depth of flavour is incredible. Sweet yet sour (think sour cherries), a hint of tobacco, leather, juicy prunes, orange marmalade, black currants and those red candy liquorice straps. More dense black forest cake, raspberry jam, sour plums and drying oak on the finish.

I’m a sucker for sherried whisky and this was a delight, especially the nose. So characterful and multi-dimensional, with so much fruit and a dialed-down sweetness.

Glen Grant 1957 – Rare Vintage Collection

Glen Grant was founded in 1840 and just like Strathisla they also used to direct coal fire their stills. Interestingly, at this time this whisky was made they were also using ‘water-wheel driven rummagers’ in their coal-fired stills. If you’re scratching your head, a rummager is basically a slow moving device (sometimes a bunch of chains) that sit in the bottom of the still, moving around in a circular motion to prevent solids sticking during distillation. They’re still used today in some distilleries, but they’re not driven by a water-wheel. That quirky fact won’t make a scrap of difference to the way this tastes, but it’s cool to think that was part of the production process back in 1957.

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Nose – Beeswax, honeyed oil and the remnants of a burnt-out fireplace in an old dusty heritage house. It’s sooty, mellow and has undertones of tropical fruit like papaya, overripe mango and pears. Turns savoury with notes of sir-dried meat, earthy soy and black tea and super-ripe plums. I guess ‘rancio’ is a good descriptor here.

Palate – Just as engaging as the nose, if not more. It’s oily, fat , slightly effervescent and deep, with lots of tinned fruits (peach segments, pear and nectarine), soot, honey and a floral, vegetal sweetness. There’s some of that savoury cured-meat note, along with fresh fig and peach skins.

Incredibly balanced and integrated. The oak doesn’t dominate at all and there’s so much going on. You could pour a single glass of this and study it for hours.

All five of these releases are currently available globally through specialty retailers. A very, very special thank you to Gordon & MacPhail for supplying the samples tasted here and for transporting me on an incredible liquid history lesson.

 

 

Glen Grant 1954 Rare Vintage

A tasting and review

It was the year Queen Elizabeth II visited my home country of Australia, the first time a reigning monarch had ever done so. It was also the year an unknown hipster by the name of Elvis recorded his first demo and the year Godzilla premiered in Tokyo. That year was 1954 and it also happens to have been the year this particular whisky was distilled by Glen Grant.

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A lot has changed in the years since this was distilled, including the way whisky is made at Glen Grant. Back in 1954 Glen Grant operated with four coal-fired stills, which you could argue would’ve produced something of a rich, heavy spirit. In 1973 two further stills were added, but this time they were gas heated. Impressed with their performance, the distillery added a further four gas-heated stills in 1977 bringing the total to ten. At some point in the future coal firing ceased altogether.

Aside from this being incredibly old whisky, the bare bones of it – the spirit – are fundamentally quite different to what is being produced at Glen Grant these days, which makes it even more a piece of liquid history in my mind. Thanks to a generous sample from the kind folk at Gordon & MacPhail, I recently had the chance to sit down, relax and a spend some quality time with liquid time capsule.

Glen Grant 1954 Rare Vintage

The first thing that struck me about the nose is how active it still is. It’s slow moving, but there’s a lot in there. Old oak, cedar boxes, melon (cantaloupe) with honey drizzled on it, leather, earthy dried tea with a hint of soft smoke, tobacco, some soft stone fruit notes (fleshy blood plums, peaches, apricots) and raisins. Really quite fruity for something of this age and very well integrated, as you might expect.

On the palate it’s slightly oily but light in weight. I found it had a rum-like sweetness to it with lots of integrated soft oak spice at the front. After a few seconds lots of juicy tropical fruit salad/ oak notes emerge (like green mango, papaya, paw paw). There’s some light acidic sourness to it (grapefruit and orange marmalade) and some menthol or eucalypt notes. Toward the finish sweet rum-soaked dried fruits emerge before the finish turns drying with fragrant wood, light spice and lots of oak tannins.

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The idea of whisky that’s been deep in slumber for more than half a century is always alluring, intriguing and attractive. However from the limited selection of old whisky I’ve tasted, the reality of it is not aways so grand and I’m sure there are plenty of hyper-aged whiskies out there that are simply an over-oaked mess. This is not one of them though.

It has a gorgeous nose, almost ‘Japanese’ in the way it manages to integrate fruit, smoke and a leathery-tobacco in a sophisticated way. It took me right back to the times I sat at The Mash Tun in Tokyo, drinking some incredible Japanese whiskies at the bar.

There are just 610 bottles in existence and this expression is available now globally. What’s more, it has recently been awarded a double gold medal – the highest award – at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, as well as gold at the 2017 International Spirits Challenge. So I guess Im not the only one who thinks this whisky is pretty great? A very special thanks to Gordon & MacPhail for the sample tasted here.

Longmorn 12 year old

Bottled by Gordon & MacPhail

One evening, well over a year ago, I was browsing the online catalogue of a major drinks retailer when I spotted a few whiskies in their ‘Clearance’ section. One of them happened to be this 12 year old Longmorn bottled by Gordon & MacPhail, so I picked it up for around the AU$50 mark and thought I’d give it a go.

Longmorn bottle

Aside from the official 16 year old (which is the only current official bottling), we don’t really see that many Longmorn expressions in Australia, not even indie bottles. The distillery itself has quite a high capacity (around 3.5 million litres per year) with most of it destined for Pernod Ricard blends, like the Chivas range. With a production capacity of that size, there seems to be plenty of whisky going to the independent bottlers out there and some of them are bottling expressions that are well worth trying! (I’ve tried some fantastic Longmorn in the past).

Longmorn 12

Not an awful lot of information on this one apart from the 12 year age statement and 40% ABV. I’m almost certain it’s been chill-filtered and if I had to guess, I’d say it’s more than likely made up of refill bourbon casks with a smattering of refill sherry casks in there. I’d probably consider this to be somewhat of an entry level malt if you will.

Notes

On the nose I got all of those classic soft Speyside notes like green pears and apples, freshly cut grass, some light zesty notes and a mild honey sweetness. There’s also a hint of funky cardboard.

Very thin on the palate, with some mild baking spices up front, followed up green apples, some barley/cereal maltiness and a hint of marmalade. It finishes quite dry with some oaky spice and powdered ginger, whilst that cardboard note from the nose seems to work its way in there too. Overall I found it very mild and mellow with lots of soft pleasant notes, but also a couple of oddities that unbalanced it slightly.

Longmorn box

The bottom line

It’s not the most complex dram (but then again, I wasn’t expecting it to be), but it’s still quite an enjoyable, light, summertime whisky. I’d probably consider it as a pleasant alternative to the likes of the Glenmorangie 10 year old, or Glenfiddich/Glenlivet 12 year olds, perhaps a tad less-refined though. Nice work Gordon & MacPhail, looking forward to trying more from your range in the near future!

Benromach 100° Proof

Tasted alongside its sibling, the Benromach 10 year old

Like many distilleries in Scotland, Benromach has a rather interesting history of ups and downs over the years. It was originally founded way back in 1898, but over the course of the next hundred years or so it was sold, closed and re-opened more times than I care to detail.

That was until independent bottler Gordon & Macphail decided to give it some loving and embarked on a project to refurbish Benromach and put it back into production. It officially came back to life in October 1998 and in 16 short years has managed to conjure up a pretty impressive portfolio of whisky that seems to just get better and better (have you tried their latest ‘peat smoke’!?)

Knowing that they’re making some pretty tasty drams these days, I was very keen to try their new 10 year old, bottled at 100° proof. So you can imagine how chuffed I was when this nicely presented set showed up courtesy of the folks at Alba Whisky.

Benromach 100 proof

Thanks to this generous set, I’d have the chance to be able to taste the new higher proof 10 year old side-by-side with the original. After all, they are supposedly constructed in exactly the same way, with the only difference being chill-filtering and a different alcohol percentage. Time to see what kind of difference this really makes.

Benromach 10 year old 43% ABV

First up was the widely available 10 year old expression. It’s comprised of 80% ex-bourbon cask matured whisky and 20% ex-sherry cask matured whisky. These parcels are then vatted together and left to rest for their final year in an ex-Oloroso sherry cask before being bottled. Talk about labour intensive.

Benromach 10 year old

I found the nose quite heavy (as in, laden with plenty of layers), but at the same time it seemed bright and active. Honey, malty sweetness, crushed biscuits, dried pineapple, tangy and buttery with a whiff of smoke.

The more I came back to it, the more it changed, so take the above with a grain of salt. One thing I can confidently say is that there seemed to be quite a lot going on for your average 10 year old!

A nice lightly oiled mouthfeel for a 43%er. Hints of spice up front, sweetness, apple skins and sultanas with a fair amount of damp vegetal smoke on the finish. Not overly warming, but well balanced with a lot of flavour left behind on the palate.

Benromach 10 year old 100° Proof (57% ABV)

Many of you (especially if you’re reading this from the U.S.) would be wondering how 100° Proof equates to 57% ABV. You’d probably expect it to translate to 50% ABV, right?

The key is in the ° symbol, indicating the old imperial measurement of ‘degrees proof’, whereby 100° equates to 57.15% ABV. There’s actually a neat story linking this back to rum, naval times and the flash point of gunpowder (you can read more here). Anyway, I digress. Back to the whisky.

Benromach 100 proof

It’s not just the photo, but as you’d notice from the first image, the 100° proof bottling is noticeably darker in colour.

It’s immediately richer on the nose. Perhaps not as ‘lively’ as the regular ten, but it’s depth could easily make you think it’s older than it is. Malty caramel sauce, creamy, hints of vanilla, some spice and the red fruits you’d associate with sherry maturation. That little whiff of smoke is hardly evident.

BenromachLegs

Quite hot and prickly up front on the palate, but this transitions into a thick and creamy mouth-feel. Sweet honey, malty biscuits, spice and jammy berries. A dash of water tames the heat and enhances the sweet, creamy richness, but I found it detracted from the lovely nose, so experiment carefully.

The verdict

Both come across to me as very well made whiskies. What do I mean by that exactly? It’s a little had to articulate I suppose. They’re not necessarily in your face or memorable for one particular note, rather they just leave you with a general impression that they’re very well balanced, well thought out and crafted with precision. I like to think that’s a hallmark of something that’s well made.

With all that being said, Benromach still fly under many people’s radars a little bit. A bit of a shame really, as they’re producing some pretty smart whisky indeed.

The new Benromach 10 year old 100° proof is now available in Australia through specialty whisky retailers at around the AU$150-160 mark. Thanks again to Alba Whisky for the generous (and photogenic) samples.