Whisky in the jar

A tutored tasting of Gordon & MacPhail Scotch, with Michael Urquhart.

The firm of Gordon & MacPhail isn’t a Scotch producer, principally (though they do produce a little), but instead buys unfinished or partially-finished spirits, then ages and bottles them to their own specifications; not unlike some of the old-guard négociants of Burgundy. One trigger for this sort of production model was – as with so many matters alcohol-related – Prohibition, from which many distilleries never recovered. Since then, even more of the famous old names have closed up shop (80 remain), but given the aging profile of single-malt Scotch, just because a distillery shutters doesn’t mean that there’s no whisky to sell. And that’s where Gordon & MacPhail comes in…though they their own versions of still-operating distilleries’ production.

One barrier to the U.S. market remains, and that’s our insistence on the 75 cl bottle; much Scotch comes in 70 cl form, which is illegal in the States for reasons that would only make sense to bureaucrats.

Urquhart prefaces the tasting with a brief rundown the characteristics of two kinds of Scotch barrels, about which much is made in modern Scotch-making circles: bourbon casks bring toffee and caramel characteristics, while Sherry casks enhance fruit.

And then, with few other preliminaries (it’s late in the day, and everyone’s tired from a full weekend of wine tasting) we’re on to the whisky. Prices are approximate.

Rosebank (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 16 Year Old (Lowland) – Refilled Sherry casks, triple-distilled, 46% alcohol, $70-80. Apple flowers, light and fuzzy, with a clean, simple nose. The palate introduces tropical fruit and apricot skin, but remains simple and clean. Just OK. (2/08)

Benromach (Gordon & MacPhail) 21 Year Old (Speyside) – First-refill Sherry casks, $110. Paper and old furniture turned to ash, toffee, espresso dust, and raw wood, with a finish of apple that hints at cider. Long and lingering, with hints of bitter chocolate at the very end. Complex. (2/08)

Glen Grant (Gordon & MacPhail) 21 Year Old (Highland) – Sherry casks, $110. Coconut and rough wood, baking spices (nutmeg and clove), and while it’s harsh without the mellowing effect of a little water, it eventually turns beautiful and rather supple, showing mixed chocolates, hints of fruit, and toffee cream. Very nice. (2/08)

Glen Grant (Gordon & MacPhail) 1965 (Highland) – Sherry casks, $175-200. Sour peat, humid wood, and summer leaves. Then there’s lemongrass, full-bodied spice and chocolate, followed by a finish of smooth apricot and orange. Round and full, with intensity, complexity, and passion. Stunning. (2/08)

Caol Ila (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 1982 (Islay) – Sherry casks, 46% alcohol, $150. Peat smoke, iodine, dried meat and the leather that used to enclose it, with exotic flowers and confiture (mostly Mirabelle plum, but there’s Rainer cherry and peach as well). Unbelievably good, and for me the star of the tasting, though a very strong argument could be made for the Glen Grant 1965 as well. (2/08)

Lochside (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 1991 (Highland) – Refilled bourbon casks, 43% alcohol, $65-70. Pastry with coffee residue, like the last dregs of a morning stop in a Parisian café, then espresso, stale toffee, almonds, hazelnut, and the drying, slightly acrid smell of flor. Flor? Yes, flor. A very dry style. Weird. (2/08)

Benromach (Gordon & MacPhail) “Organic” (Speyside) – One of the first organic whiskies. $55-60, 43% alcohol. Toffee-coated apples dipped in maple syrup, pinapple, banana, and lush milk-chocolate sweetness, with orange-chocolate candies on the finish. This is too simple-minded for me. (2/08)

Leave a Reply