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”Know your spirit, know your wood”: An in-depth interview with Juliette Buchan at Gordon & MacPhail

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A few months ago, I had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with Juliette Buchan who works for the world’s biggest indpendent bottler of Scotch whisky as well as being the owners of Benromach distillery, Gordon & MacPhail. I’m most grateful that she took the time to sit down and answer my many, many questions. Here is our long and winding conversation.

Please introduce yourself to our readers. What is your current job and title?

I’m Juliette Buchan and I’ve been working at Gordon & MacPhail for nine years now. I’m now regional export manager for the whole of Europe, India and some countries in Africa. I’m French from birth; I moved to Scotland when I was about twenty-two. I had different jobs before I found the right one. I’ve worked as a teacher; I’ve worked in the perfume industry, and I’ve worked in the wine industry, until I came back to Scotland to work at Gordon & MacPhail.

OK, so in terms of whisky, then, Gordon & MacPhail is your first job?

Yeah. The first and the last, I think. I hope. It’s great, it’s a great family to work for. Great products, genuine product and then there’s all this passion, and to this day, I haven’t found a Gordon & MacPhail that is not to a quality required. Some I like more than others, you know, they’re not all my cup of tea, but there is never compromising in quality, and that’s what I like at Gordon & MacPhail. It’s always quality and also, I feel we don’t abuse on prices. Good product, fair price; I like the vision.

I’m curious about Gordon & MacPhail’s warehouses in Elgin. I’ve read that they hold the greatest variety on casks anywhere. Just about how many casks do you actually have there?

We’ve got roughly 7000 casks on site in Elgin, and then we’ve got about 7000 more casks around Scotland. So, at the different distilleries, you also have warehouses owned by different groups. You spread your casks so you can spread your risks, as well. Fire, flood – especially in Elgin, we had a few floods, so you never put all your casks in the same warehouse or all your eggs in the same basket. So yeah, that’s quite a lot of casks. In terms of variety, we still work with about 60–70 % of distilleries, some closed, some still active; we have every region. We are very strong in Speyside because that’s where we’re based; Highland and Islay, a couple of them on Islay, although it’s maybe not the strongest point of Gordon & MacPhail. And lowland is now, well, there’s hardly anyone left…! So, Highland and then Speyside are the strong points. Good diversity. Closed distilleries, too. If you go and see the warehouse, you can spot some Glen Albyns and Glen Mhor, some Port Ellen… Not as much as we would like to, but there’s still some.

Juliette Buchan nosing a Gordon & MacPhail bottling of 1952 Glen Grant.

Juliette Buchan nosing a 1952 Glen Grant from Gordon & MacPhail. © Gordon & MacPhail.

Do you buy casks with already matured whisky, or do you buy new make from the distilleries and fill your own casks?

We do buy newmake, so everything you have today was purchased ten, fifteen, twenty, fifty or even 75 years ago, as with the Mortlach. 1939, you know, who would care for a cask of single malt? Nobody was actually bottling single malt! So, it’s all about the vision of Gordon & MacPhail who thought that single malt was going to be the drink. Anyway, yes, we do buy the spirit and we use our own casks. That’s what the campaign ”The wood makes the whisky” is all about: matching the right type of spirit with the right type of wood, depending on what you want to do. If you want to age it for eight years or for 75 years, you will not use the same type of cask; if it’s a light spirit or if it’s a meaty spirit, you’re not using the same cask.

So, it’s having the vision of what you want to achieve in 8, 10, 15 years and getting the right cask, the right spirit, and putting it together. I think Gordon & MacPhail is one of the few who does that. Most of the time, independent bottlers buy casks that are on the broker market, which means you don’t have full control of your whisky.

Does Gordon & MacPhail also sell casks of whisky to other independent bottlers?

We don’t, no. It’s too precious. Especially now, it’s too precious. It’s becoming more and more difficult to actually find casks, so all the independent bottlers, the new independent bottlers, they find it very difficult. (With a smile:) They should have done like Gordon & MacPhail, thought about it 120 years ago! I won’t take credit for that, I wasn’t here 120 years ago, but it’s important to see that vision, it was done at a time when blend was the thing to go for. It was mainly John and George Urquhart, George being the second generation of the Urquhart family, owners of Gordon & MacPhail; and it was really him who pushed single malt. And people thought he was crazy!

George Urquhart, 1919–2001.

George Urquhart, 1919–2001.

Why keep a cask a single malt to mature for 20 years when you can double your money and sell it really quickly in three years as a blend? But for him it wasn’t about money, it was about passion. He really loved whisky, he wanted to make something great for the connoisseurs. I think the whisky industry, the single malt industry, owes a lot to George Urquhart. Michael Jackson said something, I can’t remember the exact quote, but something like ”If it wasn’t for George Urquhart, single malt wouldn’t be what it is today.” (Michael Jackson’s quote which Juliette is searching for here is, verbatim, ”I believe that single-malt whisky would simply not be available today were it not for the work of George Urquhart. When others knew nothing of malt whisky, he was one of the handful of people who understood this great Scottish contribution to the pleasures of food and drink.” Source here.)

I mean, who woult have thought about keeping that Mortlach back in 1939? Just think about what happened in 1939! Once you produced back then, you wouldn’t keep it in the corner of your warehouse and think that you wouldn’t bottle it for all those many years.

Given that the overall selling of especially blended whisky has been going down slightly over the past few years, even while distilleries are mass-producing new make spirit, do you think that there may be a risk that the industry is actually in the process of creating a new whisky loch, just as it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s? So that in ten years’ time, there will be way more supply than demand?

Yeah, I did wonder about this. And you know, the sales are decreasing slightly as a whole in Europe, but what we have now that the industry didn’t have in 1980 is India, China, Brazil. And there, sales are really increasing. So, although the older markets are maybe not promising, and decreasing slightly, the rest of the world is actually going to go up. So, I think we’ve got this safety net; the industry is hoping, or basing their forecast, on these new emerging markets. Interestingly enough, I have also read the estimated figures for the decrease in sales in Europe. We at Gordon & MacPhail haven’t felt that. Benromach distillery which is owned by Gordon & MacPhail is really increasing sales, up 20–30% this year. So, we’re not, personally, feeling the decrease, but I know that other, bigger, companies are. So, in general, it is decreasing.

However, there are about 30 new projects in Scotland currently. I mean, some of them are never going to see the light of day, but still, 30 new projects, that’s a lot! Some of them had to stopped this year, some bigger companies pulled out of their investments – plans for doubling the production, some of these things will not happen, but there is a lot of positivity in the indstry at the moment.

I wonder about Gordon & MacPhail’s licensed bottlings, the continuous releases that you do. What would you say is the ”plus side” from the point of view of the distilleries for these continuous bottlings? Would they be allowed to say that you must now stop these bottlings?

We call them distillery labels, or semi-official. Yes, they could. It’s a deal, it’s all about relationships. Relationships have changed over the years, so some of the distilleries or some of the new spirit that we had access to we no longer have access to; Ardbeg is a good example. So, when we started with some of these distilleries, they really weren’t bothered about single malt. That wasn’t their job; it wasn’t what they were wanted to do. Nowadays, some of them have decided to release single malt, promote single malt, and so we have to review some of the long-term relationships that we have.

So, some of the whisky you might see today will not be the ones that you see in a couple of years’ time. We do need to adapt. But what’s interesting, or what I find interesting about distillery labels, is we do complement the existing official bottlings. So you would never do something to actually compromise the relationship. For example, Speymalt Macallan, we would never do a ten-year-old. That’s a given. A non-written contract exits where you just don’t do a ten-year-old. Glen Grant is very interesting, because if you go to the visitor centre at Glen Grant, you have some of our Gordon & MacPhail bottlings of Glen Grant on display. So, you’ve got the Major’s Reserve, you’ve got their 10 YO, but then you’ve got a 25 YO from Gordon & MacPhail, because they don’t have this type of whisky. So, it shows that we do complement them. We’re not competitors, they’re happy with what we do because we can promote what an old Glen Grant is when they don’t have this type of stock.

So you would be free, if you wanted to, to change the ”cask recipe” for a given distillery label bottling?

Yeah, I believe we could. We tend to stick to the same type of cask when it does work, you know, but yeah, we could. We keep a really tight relationship with the distilleries and every time there’s a new bottling, a new single cask or whatever, they are always aware of that and the label is passed on to them.

A Gordon & MacPhail bottling in the Connoisseur's Choice series.

A slightly older version of a Gordon & MacPhail bottling in the Connoisseur’s Choice series.

Once again, you never do anything behind their back, never upset them. It’s all about relationship, a partnership. Some of the labels, the MacPhail collection for example, the size of the name of the distillery is quite tightly regulated.

It’s more a ”MacPhail collection” and then you’ve got the name of the distillery. ”Connoisseur Choice” is the same; our range is Connoisseur Choice and then it’s the name of the distillery, so we’re not trying to say that we are the distillery. It’s still very much Gordon & MacPhail presenting such-and-such. I think in the past, you could pretty much do anything you wanted with regards to labels. I mean, I have seen labels from some customers doing single casks…just, anything and everything, you know? It’s random and you’ve got some weird pictures on there. So that was ten years ago, you could have a flying pig on a label. Now, you have to a bit more careful, and I think everybody, every independent bottler is trying to be a bit more…conventional, and apply a bit more rules, maybe?

Here’s a question in relation to the wide range of distilleries that you have at Gordon & MacPhail. In your estimation, what distilleries are kind of ”flying under the radar”, as it were? Distilleries where you think ”why aren’t people speaking more about these distilleries?”

Well, for me there are a couple of closed distilleries, to start with, and it would be Imperial and Glen Keith. Well, Glen Keith reoponed, and at Imperial they have now built Dalmunach – I wish they could choose easier words! – but you know, the old Imperial and the old Glen Keith before 2000, it’s just fantastic whisky. Spicy, nutty, and that’s my kind of whisky. Among the currently active distilleries, Clynelish, for me, is fantastic, with its waxy character. And Inchgower! Inchgower, nobody knows about Inchgower, you know, because so much of it goes into Bell’s. On its own, Inchgower is really nice. There is some very interesting character in it. Everything is worth trying and everybody has got different taste, but of course, what I like and what others like will not always be exactly the same.

It’s strange, though, I think, that despite the huge interest especially in single malts, it seems to me that everybody is still chasing after roughly the same bottlings from the roughly the same distilleries?

Yes. I think people are a bit scared of what their friends will think. So it’s always easier to stick to a big name, to stick to something that some expert said was good. Well, if that expert said it was good, it has to be good! Or, if you see an award, then people are comforted in their choice. They think ”oh! I did like that, and now he said so, and he’s an expert, well then I can tell my friend I like it.” Some people are a bit worried that they might say ”my favourite whisky is this one” and everybody will be going round saying ”oh, it’s not that great”.

In a way, it’s easier to like very strong whisky, some clearly cut whisky, so for example only Islay whisky. Ardbeg is such a typical taste, you can really relate to it. Deep, sherried whiskies, as well; Dalmore, for instance. It’s much easier to get the context because it’s very clear-cut. It’s all the in-between where it’s maybe a bit more difficult to get the variation in aromas and tastes, where you have to be quite confindent in yourself to actually find it.

I absolutely agree, yeah. Let’s move on to another issue: cask finishes. At Benromach, Gordon & MacPhail has done quite a lot of experimenting with cask finishes, but it seems it is almost never is done with Gordon & MacPhail’s independent bottlings. So, as distillers, you do quite a lot of experimenting, but as independent bottlers, you are very much sticking to tradition. Why this difference?

As concerns Benromach, yeah, we do wood finishes, but we only do two a year at this stage. And it’s going to be constant, kind of the same type of finish, because we now know what works. But we don’t want, unlike some other distilleries, ten different wood finishes coming in the same year.

The Benromach Sassicaia wood finish.

The Benromach Sassicaia wood finish.

That dilutes your message, and the characteristic of your spirit is kind of forgotten. So, some distilleries do that, where it’s just so many expressions in one year you don’t quite understand what the brand is, what the whisky is. So, we don’t do that, we do two wood finishes each year.

As for indendent bottlings from Gordon & MacPhail, we do some wood finishes, but you’re right, very little. Again, a maximum of two each year and we put that in the ”Private collection”. So, we had a Private collection Caol ila Hermitage finish and we had a, if I’m not mistaken, a Linkwood Côte Rôtie finish. They are limited editions and it’s not what Gordon & MacPhail is perhaps best known for, but we do a few, because we do have access to some very interesting wine casks, like Sassicaia.

Yeah, red wine casks…now there’s a really great divide there among the whisky aficionados, concerning red wine casks and what they do to whiskies. For me, I really enjoy them!

I do like it, too. When wine casks are not used to hide a defect but to actually enhance the quality, I think it’s great. You’ve got some red fruit coming through, if it’s pinot noir you’ve got a bit of spiciness coming through… It’s interesting. Variety is interesting, so I think we should experiment a bit more!

This is a question we have touched briefly on already, but in the years that you have worked at Gordon & MacPhail, has it been getting more difficult to get ahold of new make spirit?

I don’t know how much I can say about this, but I think I will just say that…yeah, it’s getting, for everybody it’s getting more difficult to get new access. However, Gordon & MacPhail is still the independent bottler with the strongest relationships, so we’re not drying out! Maybe the offering is going to be different in the next few years. So, we might not be able to offer the same distilleries that we did in the past, but there are new distilleries coming up as well, so you lose some, you gain some. Soon you will see emerging some distilleries that many have never heard of before.

And hey, here’s an interesting thought: if it’s getting more difficult, perhaps in the future we will see Gordon & MacPhail release whiskies which are not Scotch?

Well, it has been discussed and we have been offered new make from different countries. But no, Gordon & MacPhail will remain a Scotch whisky specialist. I think you kind of have to stick to your core strategy, and Gordon & MacPhail’s strategy is Scotch whisky. But it has been considered, a while back.

I read something recently which made me think. Many believe first-fill casks is always better.  Serge Valentin, a big lover of distillate-driven whiskies, instead turned that widespread conception on its head, writing recently something like”first-fill’s the jester, and refill is king”.* What would be your take on that? What is best, first-fill, second-fill or refill casks? Can you ever say that one type of cask is better than the other?

It’s all depending on your new make. Benromach is quite a strong new make that’s quite powerful and fruity; it can take first-fill. But at the moment, it’s still fairly young Benromach that we have, so first-fill, with strong character from the outset, then first-fill works. But now put a Strathmill, which is a light spirit, into a first-fill sherry butt for…fifty years, it’s going to taste like generic sherried whisky. And if you like that sort of thing, great, but then, you could have used any type of light spirit in it, Strathmill or something else, it would taste the same.

A woman who knows her whiskies, no doubt. © Gordon & MacPhail.

Juliette Buchan knows her whiskies. © Gordon & MacPhail.

So, I would say it’s a bit like the food industry. If you’ve got a very light, delicate white fish, you don’t put it with a strong mustard sauce. You can, if you like mustard, but then, what about the fish? You can barely taste it. So, pair that with a light sauce, with a light way of cooking it, and then you get lots of aromas. So, that’s my take on it: know your spirit, know your wood, and match those two to what you want to do. If you want to do a 25-year old or a 50-year old or if you want to do an eight years old, your recipe from the start will be different. And that’s really what Gordon & MacPhail is doing, it’s understanding that and not just putting it in any cask and then bottling it.

It’s what we call wood management – you know what you want to achieve and with what you want to achieve it, you look back to what you need to use. And we at Gordon & MacPhail specify as well; we source our own casks. We have our own sherry casks built in Spain. So again, we know the woods, we know the level of toasting, we know the charring, if it’s an ex-bourbon cask. It’s all done according to Gordon & MacPhail’s specification, it’s not just any cask.

One of the things which kind of annoy me with the whisky industry being what it is today is that there are obstacles to transparency. Why is it that there are all these obstacles to being more open with information? For instance, most distilleries just say ”sherry cask”, but there is a massive difference between Amontillado, oloroso and…

…and the type of wood! Because sherry cask doesn’t have to mean European oak! So, you could have a sherry cask which is American oak or a sherry cask with European oak. And of course, the type of sherry, you’re quite right. Furthermore, is it or isn’t it a transport cask? Well, transport casks are very rare nowadays, but before the 1980s when you were shipping sherry to Scotland, that was your transport cask, so it contained sherry for quite a long time until it was bottled one by one. So, you’re right, everything’s different. Why not more transparency? To be honest, I don’t know. I think it’s a shame. I think giving the consumer as much information as they want is good.

Saying that, sometimes though, the consumer wants too much information – you know, things that are not totally relevant, or things that maybe are not consistent from one bottling to the next, maybe that’s why we don’t always want to say everything. If you say for a bottling, or a batch, but you might not repeat exactly the same thing for the next batch, do you want the story to go out? Maybe not. Because it’s only true for this particular batch but not for the next one. It could be that one batch is a second-fill but the next batch will be a third-fill.

Yeah, but you could have clear batch numbers and then put up the information online.

Sure, yeah.

To the best of your knowledge, has Gordon & MacPhail ever released a NAS whisky?

A what?

A NAS, a Non-age statement whisky.

(Thoughtfully:) No. No. No…we…no, not at Gordon & MacPhail. No. Not in the last nine years, and I can’t see them having ever done that. Benromach, we’re the same, we do want to specify and give the consumer information. The only exception for Benromach is our traveller’s edition. But in almost every instance, we give the details. But then again, we do work differently from big distilleries. We’re quite happy to do small batches and if we don’t have any more of one vintage, we go on to the next vintage. So, we are flexible in that way, while bigger distilleries are not. That is also why they need to do non-age whiskies; they can do the same type of whisky from one batch to the next with maybe slightly different ages. So, it’s a question of flexibility I would say, but yeah, we do put the age on the bottle.

One final question. When Gordon & MacPhail acquired Benromach, a lot of old stock from the previous owners were included in the purchase. However, the distillery had to have more or less completely new equipment, not least a new wash still and spirit still. Do you think you have managed to build a bridge, as it were, between the style of whisky Benromach produced on different stills by the previous owners and the style which is now being produced at Benromach?

Well, we looked back, but we didn’t just look back at Benromach, we looked back at older, or pre-1960 Speysiders. And what we found – because we’ve got the Liquid library** at Gordon & MacPhail’s, so it’s easy for us actually look back at for example Glen Grant 10 YO distilled before the 1960s – Mortlach was the same, Linkwood, too, and so on – so we’ve got a lot of references there. What came out of that was that the Speyside distilleries at the time were producing slightly smoky whisky, even in Speyside. They were malting on-site, and distilleries were using a small proportion of local peat.

If ever there was such a thing as bottle porn, this is it: a wee example of the liquid library.

If ever there was such a thing as bottle porn, this is it: a wee look from inside the liquid library. Oh, the dream of being let in there…! © Gordon & MacPhail.

You’ve got a hint of peatiness, and you’ve got a richness in the whiskies. So, Speysiders before the 1960s were really rich, partly due to the worm tubs, which today are almost extinct. We wanted to replicate that, to replicate an old Speyside whisky with a touch of smoke – something rich, something fruity, with a touch of chocolate, so that’s what we achieved. When you look back at the old Benromach, it’s not totally that, but you can still sense a similarity in the fruitiness of it, I found. You’ve got this kind of pear aroma in both of them, the older Benromach and the new Benromach. But the old Benromach would be a bit less peaty than the current one. When Gordon & MacPhail bought Benromach, there was no equipment except for the wasbacks. So, the only similarity in terms of production is the wood from the washbacks and the water source. The rest has changed.

*

So, there you have it, 98% of the extensive interview I did with the wonderfully forthcoming Juliette Buchan of Gordon & MacPhail. (The last two percent were off the record, so I know a thing or two which I won’t divulge.) Thank you, again, Juliette, and a big congratulations on becoming a Keeper of the Quaich just very recently! What an amazing achievement!

* I actually misquoted Valentin slightly here; the correct qoute is ”Refill’s the king, first fill’s the jester.” Serge Valentin, ”Laphroaig, six of them”, whiskyfun 19 November 2015: http://www.whiskyfun.com/2015/Laphroaig-six-of-them.html.

** Gordon & MacPhail’s Liquid library is their massive collection of historical cask samples, which enables them to try whiskies that were drawn from casks several decades ago. It’s as close to an archive of whisky history as you can possibly come.


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