"30-plus years ago, we were bottling whiskies which weren't available from the distillery owner because they were very much used for blending. But 30 years on, every distillery is generally available in whisky retail with multiple expressions, so our space as an independent bottler to complement and not compete is dramatically changed."
– Gordon & MacPhail MD Ewen Mackintosh
For 128 years, Scotch whisky aficionados have turned to Gordon & MacPhail for unique and diverse single malt Scotch expressions. This family-run company from Elgin has left an indelible mark on the whisky landscape, but it seems that the curtain has fallen on independent bottlings from G&M. Beginning in 2024, the company will no longer be filling casks from other distilleries for its G&M label, signaling the end of an era in the independent bottling sector.
The company will shift the focus to its own Scotch distilleries - Benromach Distillery and The Cairn Distillery.
In the Scotch whisky industry, an “independent bottler” traditionally does not distil its own whisky. They are third party companies that purchase whiskies from distilleries, and then sell the whiskies under that third party brand (e.g. Macallan bottled by Gordon & MacPhail).
Gordon & MacPhail is one of the oldest and most renowned independent bottlers of single malt whiskies, bottling a wide range of malts from distilleries, many of which no longer exist.
Established in 1895 by James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail, Gordon & MacPhail initially started as a grocers, tea, wine and spirits merchant. With their central location in Elgin, the heart of the whisky-producing region of Speyside, they naturally became involved in the whisky trade.
Back then, they played a special symbiotic role with distillers. In the early 20th century, single malts were not popular and many distilleries could not successfully bottle and sell their whiskies on their own, mainly selling their stock to blenders like Johnnie Walker. By financial necessity, distilleries also sold their spirit to independent bottlers.
Rather than purchasing casks, Gordon & MacPhail's practice is to fill their own casks. They obtain new make from distilleries and mature the young spirit in their own casks, often for longer periods than the original distilleries, which resulted in some unique and highly sought-after releases.
However, the market dynamics have drastically changed since the early 1900s.
As worldwide demand for single malts exploded and consumers are now drawn to single malts, and distilleries have adapted accordingly. Distilleries are now retaining more of their stock for in-house bottlings of single malt, and are less willing to sell their new make. This made buying casks of mature spirit through brokerages the norm in today's independent bottling market. Gordon & MacPhail's practice of filling its own casks puts it at a disadvantage in sourcing quality spirit.
Gordon & MacPhail's Managing Director Ewen Mackintosh noted that the company's goal was always to "complement and not compete" with other Scotch producers. However, the rise in distilleries opting to release more of their own single malts has made it increasingly challenging to maintain this position.
Speaking to Whisky Magazine, Mackintosh reflects on the shifting dynamics: "When I started in the business 30-plus years ago, we were bottling whiskies which weren't available from the distillery owner because they were very much used for blending. But 30 years on, every distillery is generally available in whisky retail with multiple expressions, so our space as an independent bottler to complement and not compete is dramatically changed. We don't want to be offering things which are directly in competition with official bottlings – that's never been part of our ethos and our relationships with the distillery companies."
Can it still be sustainable for indie blenders like Compass Box to continue purchasing single malts, when their end product may be less sought after than the components?
Indeed, this significant decision comes at a time when the independent bottling industry has been facing much challenge. Just a while back, Dornoch Distillery (run by Phil and Simon Thompson) have commented that independent bottling could be a "dying art" since prices of whisky casks have become increasingly exorbitant. They acknowledged that Scotch independent bottlers have to reinvent themselves to survive in the future, whether by producing their own whisky, or diversifying to other types spirits such as rums or even wines.
But don't fret, whisky lovers. Despite the forthcoming change, Gordon & MacPhail has assured consumers that they'll continue to see the company's bottlings on shelves for the next 10 to 15 years or so. The company will continue to release its existing ageing stock until it is depleted.
In a shift of strategy, Gordon & MacPhail will no longer be releasing their independent bottlings in generic 15, 21, or 30-year-old products. Instead, they plan to celebrate the unique nature of single casks and individual distilleries by focusing on limited-edition single casks and small batch bottlings.
The company has officially announced its shift of focus, but despite their generational experience as bottlers and retailers, always harboured a notion to diversify into running distilleries.
The company's first foray into distilling was in 1993, when it acquired the Benromach Distillery. When the company took over Benromach, it decided that the distillery should make an older style of Speyside malt, installing new equipment that could allow it to distil a spirit that has fruitiness, a touch of smoke and a weightier body.
In 2022, Gordon & MacPhail built a new distillery of its own - The Cairn Distillery. Located in Cairngorms National Park, one of Scotland's most beautiful and nature-rich areas, The Cairn Distillery would benefit from an excellent environment for whisky production with access to high-quality water sources.
According to Mackintosh, the company would only begin to release The Cairn single malt when they are at least 12 years old. This is intended to conveniently fill a gap in Gordon & MacPhail's portfolio of ageing independent bottlings. At that point, The Cairn 12 Year Old will take the place of the younger bottlings of Gordon & MacPhail, and only older Gordon & MacPhail whiskies would be released.
Looking Ahead: Would Pure-Play Blenders Make It?
There's no question that Gordon & MacPhail's decision to halt its independent bottling operations has sent shockwaves through the Scotch industry. Yet, given the state of the market, where the cost of casks is skyrocketing and many distilleries are ceasing the supply of new make and casks, this shift may be seen as a sensible direction.
Gordon & MacPhail isn't the only independent bottler adjusting its sails to match the changing winds of the whisky world. Other independent bottlers with foresight have also pivoted to a greater focus on distillation. Thompson Bros, who operate Dornoch Distillery, Douglas Laing, now proud owners of Strathearn Distillery, and Sukhinder Singh's Elixir Distillers, with the Portintruan Distillery and Tormore Distillery in their portfolio, are all figures in this trend.
The decision to shift focus to distilling their own spirit allows these companies to have greater control over the quality and supply of their whisky, without having to grapple with the challenges presented by overpriced casks and less availability of new make spirit.
However, this emerging trend may pose even more significant challenges for whisky blenders like Compass Box Whisky and the burgeoning Woven Whisky. These pure-lay companies don't own any distilleries; instead, they innovate by purchasing mature whisky from other distilleries and blending them in unique ways.
With single malts perceived as more sought after than blends, it brings up the question: will it still make sense for these companies to continue their current operations? If they continue to purchase single malts, but the end product is less sought after than the components, is this a sustainable path?
This is the big question looming over the industry. With a market that's continuously evolving, whisky blenders and independent bottlers alike will have to think strategically to navigate the shifting tides. But the Scotch industry has gone through trials and recessions through the generations and has always returned stronger than ever, if history has taught us anything. It remains to be seen how these companies will adapt, and what innovative approaches they will bring to the table in response to these new challenges.