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We Rediscover (& Tasted) Some Legendary Ghost Malts With Gordon & MacPhail

Editorial Note: This Gordon & MacPhail Whisky Masterclass took place at Whisky Live Singapore 2023. Whisky Live Singapore would be returning in 2024 and will be happening on the 23rd and 24th November, once again at the Singapore Flyer!

 

 

Independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail stands out from the crowd as one of the most respected companies in the Scotch industry for a multitude of reasons.

The family-owned business has an exceptionally valuable inventory of the oldest and most revered Scotch whiskies that have been amassed over several generations, making them a treasure trove for whisky enthusiasts. Much of its successes and current renown is owed to George Urquhart, the second-generation owner, often hailed by critics as the father of Scotch single malt whiskies. 

 

Established in 1895, Gordon & MacPhail initially began as a grocer based in Elgin, the heart of the whisky-producing region of Speyside. The business eventually became involved in the whisky trade.

 

George's approach to the whisky business was revolutionary for his time. In the 1950s, when blended whiskies were the norm (and in fact G&M was focused on blended whiskies), George saw the untapped potential in single malts. Under George's stewardship, G&M began to champion the unique qualities of single malts and started working with distilleries throughout Scotland. His foresight led to an expansion of Gordon & MacPhail's range, allowing them to stock and showcase a wide variety of expressions from different distilleries.

 

George Urquhart was said to be instrumental to the modern day popularity of single malt Scotch, promoting it at a time when the Scotch industry was only interested in blends (Source: Gordon & MacPhail)

 

His foresight also led G&M to mature whiskies for a much longer period of time, introducing to the market whiskies that were aged for up to - 15, 20, or even 30 years. This was highly unusual during the 1950s, when the common belief was that whisky quality peaked at 10 to 12 years of aging. Yet George was convicted that longer aging periods would help to unveil new depths of flavour and complexity in his Scotch whiskies – provided that they have been matured in the right conditions.

For this reason, G&M began building its inventory of whisky very early on, and over the decades developed its own expertise in maturing whiskies. They didn't just buy and resell aged stock like many independent bottlers do; they purchased casks of new make directly from distilleries and were hands-on in taking care of their casks as the spirit matured.

 

 

At Whisky Live Singapore 2023, I had the chance to join a Gordon & MacPhail masterclass, led by their Global Sales Director, David King. The session was a rare opportunity to sample whiskies from 5 ‘ghost distilleries’ in Scotland, showcasing the impressive range of Gordon & MacPhail's rare spirits.

Imperial Distillery 1998 (24 YO), Cask #1225, Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseur’s Choice, 52.9% ABV

We kicked off with a 24-year-old Imperial Distillery 1998, from Cask #1225 – a refill sherry hogshead. The Imperial Distillery, named to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, had a history of intermittent operation until its closure in 1998.

 

 

Nose: Mellow yet elegantly unfolding. It starts with the scent of poached pears and caramel apples, intermingled with the warm, spicy aromas of gingerbread. Baking spices are evident too, particularly cinnamon, complemented by a hint of raisins.

Palate: The influence of the sherry cask becomes more pronounced here. The taste is rich and complex, leading with stewed red berries and a drizzle of maple syrup. This sweetness is balanced by the earthy tones of black tea. The richness continues with notes of dark chocolate and a subtle, almost elusive solvent note, adding depth to the palate.

Finish: Quite complex, marked by very subtle notes of Chinese herbal jelly. This is accompanied by a light pepperiness, the gentle note of toasted nuts along with a mild note of orange peel.

 

 

My Thoughts:

This is rich and round, but also a study in subtlety at the same time. I love how it reveals its character gradually, seamlessly in a way that you’d only ever see with older whiskies. The profile is really elegant and well-integrated with sweet, spicy and earthy notes all at once.

My Rating: 8/10

Inverleven Distillery 1985 (38 YO), Cask #563, Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseur’s Choice, 57.9% ABV

Next up was the Inverleven Distillery 1985, a distinguished 38-year-old whisky from Cask #563 – a refill ex-Bourbon barrel. Also under the Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseur’s Choice label, it had a higher ABV of 57.9%.

 

(Illustration only.)

 

Inverleven Distillery might not ring a bell for many, and that’s understandable. Operating from 1938 till its closure in 1991, this Lowlands malt distillery had a relatively short lifespan. It was established by the Canadian whisky maker Hiram Walker, primarily to produce malt spirit for their Ballantine's brand of blended whisky.

One of the standout features of Inverleven was its use of Lomond Stills, a rather unique choice in the whisky industry. These stills are noted for their special metal contraption at the top, designed to increase reflux during distillation. This resulted in a spirit that was both sweeter and oilier in texture, setting Inverleven apart from many of its contemporaries.

Now, let's talk about the ABV. This Inverleven expression is quite an outlier with its 57.9% ABV, especially considering its age. Typically, you'd expect whiskies of this age to have an ABV in the lower 40s percentage. The reason for this higher-than-usual ABV, as explained by David King, is Gordon & MacPhail's practice of racking their whiskies very close together. This method is aimed at minimizing evaporation and the angel's share, a term used to describe the quantity of whisky lost to evaporation during the aging process.

Nose: The aroma is dominated by a sour, zesty citric note, instantly noticeable and quite invigorating. There’s a hint of coastal freshness mixed with a pleasant waxiness. Sweetness comes through with notes of papaya, vanilla, cream and honey. Despite its high ABV, it’s very smooth and accessible.

Palate: Bright and fresh. You're first greeted with sweet grapefruit and pomelo flavours, followed by a drizzle of honey and an undertone of crisp apple. As it sits on the palate, it evolves, turning slightly sweeter and a bit sour, reminiscent of ripe pineapples.

Finish: Quite long, with pineapple notes slowly fading into a background of gentle oak woodiness. A light sprinkle of black pepper adds a subtle spiciness, giving the whisky a well-rounded end.

 

 

My Thoughts:

This Inverleven is quite pleasant, with a nice level of complexity, though it doesn't quite push the boundaries or leave a strikingly memorable impression.

It's not the kind of whisky to overwhelm you with intense flavours or complexity. And that's perfectly fine, especially considering it's a Lowland whisky. It’s more about being friendly and approachable, something that can be appreciated by a wide range of whisky enthusiasts. And at 38 years, it’s incredible how it remains so fresh and bright.

I'd give it a 7 out of 10 – it's a good, solid dram that does its job well without trying to be something it's not.

My Rating: 7/10

St Magdalene Distillery 1982 (40 YO), Cask #2100, Gordon & MacPhail Private Collection, 54.5% ABV

Next in our tasting journey was a rare find from St Magdalene Distillery, a 1982 vintage that had been aged in an American oak hogshead. This particular distillery has a small cult following among those in the know. Also known by its other name, Linlithgow, the distillery actually started off as a beer brewery in the Lowlands before transitioning to whisky production in the late 1700s.

 

 

The distillery came under the ownership of spirits conglomerate Distillers Company Limited (the precursor of Diageo) in 1912. However, St Magdalene couldn't escape the downturn in the whisky industry known as the 'whisky loch' crisis, leading to its closure in 1983.

Years after closure, St Magdalene’s whiskies became sought-after collectibles, cherished for their historical value and unique profile.

Nose: Rich and vibrant, striking a delightful balance between spicy and fruity. It's an interesting mix with aniseseed and rosemary creating a spicy foundation, complemented by the citrusy zing of blood orange. Joined by the sweetness of red fruits; cherries and raspberries. Rounded off with toffee and a chocolatey oakiness, alongside subtle notes of butterscotch and a whisper of cocoa powder and mature oak.

Palate: It greets you with the sweetness of red apple and the citrusy brightness of pomelo. Grilled pineapple adds a touch of warm sweetness and tartness, complimented by toasted almonds.

Finish: Long and lingering, it leaves a trail of honey, cream, a dash of black pepper and the dry, earthy tones of peanut skins.

 

 

My Thoughts:

This St Magdalene is impressively fresh and lively. The aroma is particularly stunning, a beautiful bouquet that sets the stage for what's to come. It's complex yet wonderfully integrated, with each dimension balanced harmoniously against the others.

I'd rate it a solid 8 out of 10.

My Rating: 8/10

Glen Mhor Distillery 1973 (49 YO), Cask #85026801, Gordon & MacPhail Private Collection, 47.2% ABV

The next whisky we delved into was a 49-year-old single malt from Glen Mhor Distillery (pronounced "Glen Vawr,"), specifically from Cask #85026801. David highlighted the significance of the cask number: When you see cask numbers that are so long, this industry practice indicates that the whisky had been re-racked. Originally aged in an ex-bourbon cask, it was later transferred to a second-fill sherry cask, a decision made by the blender who felt the whisky wasn't maturing as desired in its first cask.

 

 

Glen Mhor, established in the Highlands in 1892 by John Birnie and James Mackinlay, had a production life of nearly a century. During its operational years, it primarily produced malt whisky for blends. Unfortunately, like several other distilleries, Glen Mhor ceased operations in 1983 during the ‘Whisky Loch’ industry crisis.

Let’s give this a taste.

Nose: Rich and full of depth, this is filled with the scents of stewed cherries and raisins, reminiscent of a dense, moist fruit cake. There's a sweetness here too, like caramel, blended with a soft, understated aroma of wood polish. Now, wood polish is said to be a hallmark of a well-matured, Sherry-aged whisky.

Palate: Equally rich and layered with sweetness. It starts with a burst of orange oil and progresses to a jam-like blueberry preserve with dried apricots and caramel adding layers of depth. As the flavours develop, they take a turn towards something minty and herbal, with undercurrents of black tea, Chinese herbal jelly, and a hint of menthol.

Finish: Long and fulfilling, it’s dominated by dark chocolate and aromatic oak. Hints of wood polish are present here too, along with the spiced warmth of a chai latte.

 

 

My Thoughts:

This is a beautiful one. It’s incredibly flavourful with a delightful sherried profile that’s deep and engaging, the kind you can only find with pre 1990 whiskies. Despite its age, it also maintains a clean and relatively fresh sweetness, steering clear of excessive tannins or overpowering dry oak notes.

It’s a whisky that manages to balance richness with refinement, making it a real treat. I’d rate this an 8 out of 10.

My Rating: 8/10

Port Ellen Distillery 1981 (42 YO), Cask #290, Gordon & MacPhail Private Collection, 52.5% ABV

 

 

The last one almost needs no introduction. We tasted a 42-year-old Port Ellen Distillery 1981, from Cask #290 – a refill sherry butt. Closed since 1983, Port Ellen is perhaps one of the most iconic ghost distillery of Scotland, and a fine exemplar of the quality that Islay malts could achieve.

Nose: Rch and sweet, opening with notes of dark chocolate that blend effortlessly into dried fruits like raisins, dates, and prunes. There’s a hint of lemon zestiness adding a bit of brightness. The nose also carries a mild coastal vibe, accompanied by a slight note of fusel oil or diesel, somewhat reminiscent of a Springbank.

Palate: Fresh, round, and syrupy. Butter cookies and fruit cake, loaded with a variety of dried fruits such as apricots, figs, and sultanas. There’s a hint of hazelnut praline too. Perhaps because of the thick sweetness, the smokiness is quite subtle, more akin to the aroma of aromatic tobacco – like sniffing a box of unlit cigars. The flavours are smoothly and seamlessly integrated.

Finish: The finish is long and full, continuing the theme of dried fruits. As it fades, it leaves behind a very elegant ashy note, adding another layer to the taste.

 

 

My Thoughts:

This is beautifully sweet, complex and flavourful. It’s a dram that sherry-influenced whisky lovers would adore. However, the dominant sherry notes almost overshadow the classic brininess and ashy qualities typically associated with Port Ellen. Die hard Port Ellen junkies might be a little disappointed to find these austere notes, which are commonly associated with Port Ellen, are somewhat muted here.

But all in all, this is a fantastic whisky in its own right, and earns solid 9 out of 10

My Rating: 9/10

Afterword

Needless to say, all the whiskies sampled at this masterclass were great. Despite being staggeringly old they've demonstrated very remarkable freshness, balance and complexity, underscoring G&M's skill in nurturing spirits to their peak potential.

But you might already be aware, G&M has announced its plan to cease its independent bottling activities starting in 2024.

This decision marks a pivotal moment for the 128-year-old family-owned company, known for buying new make spirit from various distilleries and maturing it in their own casks. However, it is important to remember that this transition will not be abrupt. The company still sits on a vast inventory amassed over several generations, so the shift will be a gradual process extending over decades. This means whisky enthusiasts and loyal customers of Gordon & MacPhail will continue to enjoy their remarkable bottlings for many more years as the company works through its extensive stock.

We'll raise a toast to many more phenomenal bottlings from G&M in the decades to come!

@CharsiuCharlie