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Sunday, 4 December 2016

Gordon & MacPhail - The Wood Makes The Whisky!

I was lucky enough to receive four samples recently, direct from independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail in Scotland! Well, after I pried them out of the cold, ruthless hands of Australian customs that is (it was three weeks between them landing in Australia and me being notified of their arrival. Go team). Two of these samples are from slightly obscure distilleries that I've never tried before, one is from a distillery that I've only tried once, and the other is from a favourite Islay giant. So I'm going to give a quick rundown on the distillery details, and since I'm sampling four different whiskies in succession, a 'quickie' review of each.


But before we get into that, let's re-cover the story behind Gordon & MacPhail. G&M, as they're commonly known, is one of Scotland's oldest and most highly regarded independent bottlers, with roots dating back to 1895, and the company has been independently and family owned ever since. They also purchased the excellent Benromach Distillery in 1993, which since it reopened in 1998 has been garnering fans worldwide with their very high quality bottlings. G&M recently launched their 'The Wood Makes The Whisky' campaign (along with a very informative website), selecting a range of their bottlings that they feel highlight the relationship between the whisky and the cask. And since they've been maturing whisky in casks for over 120 years, they have plenty of experience, and a massive library of cask samples, to call on to get the resulting whisky exactly how they want it. To this end, the majority of G&M bottlings do not carry clear official age statements, but they do give the year of distillation, and often the exact date of bottling. They're also behind some of the oldest whiskies ever bottled, including a Mortlach that was a whopping 75 years old. If you have to ask, you can't afford it! So, let's get into the whiskies at hand, shall we?

First cab of the rank is a young bourbon cask-matured malt from G&M's Connoisseurs Choice range, distilled at Glen Spey Distillery, a Diageo-owned distillery which as you can probably guess is in Speyside. The vast majority of Glen Spey's production goes into blended whiskies, mainly J&B, and there have only been a couple of official bottlings, most of which aren't highly regarded. This bottling from Gordon & MacPhail was bottled in 2013 at 46% ABV, having spent approximately 9 years in refill bourbon casks.

This one was very pale gold in appearance, and I didn't pick a lot of cask influence here at all. On the nose I found dusty straw, red apple and acetone. On the palate it was lightly malty, with some wood spices and a little charred oak with some raw spirit on the finish. Overall I found this Glen Spey was pleasant enough and relatively easy drinking, but was rather bland and uninteresting, with very little cask influence.

Next up we have a whisky from G&M's Distillery Labels range, which carry very cool retro-style labels that are recreated from the respective distilleries' historic labelling. This bottling is from Strathisla, a little known Speyside distillery owned by Chivas brothers (and I'm sure you can guess where a big chunk of their production ends up), which is actually Scotland's oldest operating distillery, having been founded in 1786 under the name Milltown Distillery, before being renamed Strathisla in 1950. I have tasted an SMWS bottling of Strathisla before, a young cask strength version that was matured in a refill bourbon cask, which to be honest did not impress me at all. This G&M bottling is a little different though, as it has spent approximately 10 years in first fill sherry casks, and was bottled at 43% ABV in 2015.

This one is pale gold in colour, and is immediately warmer and richer on the nose, with plenty of fruit, malt syrup and is also a little nutty. On the palate it's really quite fruity, with grapes and light tannins, a little dark chocolate, lightly waxed fruit and peppery oak. Very enjoyable with more complexity and more flavour than the Glen Spey, and definitely far superior to the other Strathisla bottling I've tasted. Not a sherry monster by any means, despite the first fill cask, but very enjoyable. This bottling has certainly changed my perception of this distillery, despite the relatively low strength.

Next we have an Inchgower, a Diageo-owned Speyside distillery located nearer to the coast, which is a big contributor to Bell's blended whisky, and is also a component of some Johnnie Walker expressions. This bottling is from G&M's Connoisseurs Choice range, and is approximately 14 years of age, having been bottled in 2016 at 46% ABV, and was matured in refill sherry casks. This will be my first Inchgower, although it seems to be quite a highly regarded distillery in the whisky community and there are quite a few independent bottlings out there.

This one is shining gold in colour, and on the nose is sweet & fruity, with good pinches of spice and pepper, and a little damp grass. On the palate I found stewed fruits in syrup, some gentle warm oak, a little peppery spice. Enjoyable again, with only slightly less cask influence than the Strathisla, so I'd guess this was still quite an active cask despite being a refill.

No surprises here really, but the Islay is my pick of the bunch! This is an (approx) 11 year old Caol Ila from G&M's excellent Cask Strength series, distilled in 2005, and it has spent all of those years in first fill sherry casks! Caol Ila should need no introduction, being Diageo's workhorse Islay distillery, and producing some lovely understated and often overlooked peated malts. I believe this is the first Caol Ila I've tasted that was matured in first fill sherry casks, since the vast majority of bottlings are mostly matured in either refill sherry or refill bourbon casks. As the name suggests, this series is bottled at cask strength (57.3% in this case), and is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. I've previously tasted the 2003 and 2004 versions of the G&M Caol Ila, both of which were matured in refill sherry casks, and they were both very good quality, particularly the 2003.

Straight away this Caol Ila feels more familiar, but with a noticeable difference to most bottlings. Light gold in colour, it's surprisingly sweet on the nose, with boiled sweets, baked ham glazed with honey & balsamic vinegar, a spicy and grassy peat, some blow-torched dried herbs, slightly metallic coal dust, and a little chilli spice. On the palate it's very sweet again, rich thick fruit syrup with a gentle smoky edge to it. There's chunky dry peat, a little chilli spice, and sugar-topped baked fruit. The finish is medium length, and is gently peaty & spicy, with more of that glazed ham and dried herbs. Lovely stuff. Definitely sweeter than your typical Caol Ila, in fact I think it's in a similar vein to the excellent Distiller's Edition official bottling (which is finished in Moscatel sweet fortified wine casks), which is pretty high praise! As such it's also quite different to the other G&M Caol Ilas I've tasted, sweeter of course but also a little less peaty, and perhaps more refined and elegant. Very, very good stuff. These guys certainly know what they're doing!


Overall, all four of these whiskies made for an interesting exploration into cask and wood influence, across a range of quite different 'base' spirits. None had a massively overt cask influence, and none had any one particularly dominant note, which of course is what Gordon & MacPhail aim for: well balanced, subtle, flavourful and drinkable whiskies. They're certainly one of the more consistent independent bottlers out there, and thanks to the brilliant efforts of their Australian importer Alba Whisky, we residents of this great southern land also have access to a good range of their bottlings! And that's not something that can be said as often as I'd like!

Thanks very much to Gordon & MacPhail and Ian McKinlay for the sample pack, and for helping me tick some new distilleries off the list, and thanks for doing such great work!

Cheers!