GORDON & MacPhail, the family-owned Scotch whisky company, has made one of the most momentous decisions in its 128-year history.

The Elgin-based company began life as a greengrocer in 1895 and as the decades passed it became known as an expert bottler of Scotch whisky, sending casks to distilleries from them to be filled with new-make spirit which was then matured.

Its whiskies include the famous Connoisseurs Choice single malt range made from distilleries across Scotland, which was launched by George Urquhart, second generation of the family owners, in the late 1960s.

However, more recently Gordon & MacPhail became a distiller in its own right. In 1993, it acquired the Benromach Distillery in Forres – 12 miles from its shop in Elgin – and followed that with the construction of The Cairn, a second distillery in the Cairngorm National Park which opened in 2022.

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With the company having effectively secured a pipeline of its own single malt thanks to its two distilleries, it announced today that from 2024 it will no longer fill casks with spirit from distilleries it does not own.

But while the decision ultimately signals the end of its days as an independent bottler, the change will not occur overnight. For the next several decades whiskies carrying the Gordon & MacPhail name will continue to be released from the company’s portfolio of rare and sought-after malts.

Managing director Ewen Mackintosh told The Herald that the move had been under discussion within the company for some years.

“It is a big decision to cease the third-party fillings, but I think it is part of that natural evolution that happens,” he said, describing the construction of The Cairn as a “real milestone” for Gordon & MacPhail. “But the impact of that is some way down the line.

“This decision will not have an impact for at least 10 to 15 years, because that is the youngest whisky that we currently bottle under the Gordon & MacPhail range.

"It allows us to really focus on the story of Gordon & MacPhail, on that exclusive rarity and exclusive mantra which has been a real aspect of Gordon & MacPhail whiskies for a number of years now, with some of these very exclusive bottlings we have offered such as the 80-year-old.

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“It ties that story together to say, there are no more casks of whisky going into the Gordon & MacPhail portfolio, so every time we release one and bottle one, that is one less from the inventory.”

Building on the theme of evolution, which has seen Gordon & MacPhail go from greengrocer to whisky bottler and then ultimately a distiller over the decades, Mr Mackintosh said: “We have handed the baton on from one generation to the next, and our baton to the next generation is being a distiller and a brand owner where we control all that destiny.

"Because that is the difficulty with being a licensed bottler, an independent bottler: you are always bottling someone else’s whisky, either on their behalf or under your own labels. I just think for a business with our long-term philosophy, for future generations having that control in our own hands is paramount.”

Mr Mackintosh said it has always been the company’s ethos to “complement and not compete” with the distilleries  it has bought spirit from. But he said that as interest in Scotch whisky has exploded over the years, it has become more difficult to be complementary, as distillers have released an increasing number of expressions of their single malts. The company is also not guaranteed to get the fillings it needs, he noted.

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“So, the space for us to have a Gordon & MacPhail bottling which doesn’t compete with one of those, it’s just a little bit more difficult,” Mr Mackintosh said.

“As the popularity of single malt grows, that is always going to be the challenge – finding your own space. We do see it as a bit of a partnership between ourselves and the distillery owner, and it was always offering something different to what they do.”

He added: “The benefit of doing things with Benromach and The Cairn is we have free rein – we are not cautious about stepping on toes.”

Gordon & MacPhail began distilling at The Cairn a year ago. Unlike the owners of other new distilleries which are releasing very young single malts, the company is holding off until its 12-year-old is ready.

Mr Mackintosh said that by the time spirit becomes available it will start to replace the older Gordon & MacPhail stock as that inventory depletes.

"You can see how one brand gets replaced by another," he said.

The new strategy announced by Gordon & MacPhail comes after it announced in May that Mr Mackintosh will be stepping down as managing director in spring 2024. He has spent his entire career – 33 years – with the firm. The search for his successor is ongoing.