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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.