Legacy is one of those words which should really mean something. After all, it speaks of one's mark on the world (or lack thereof).
Similarly, ‘legendary’ should really be used sparingly. Alas, legendary status is now seemingly bestowed on anything and anyone who may or may not be vaguely agreeable.
Curiously, the whisky world is especially guilty of this. As the market for single malts continues to explode and investors increasingly turn to ultra-premium Scotch whisky as a novel safe haven for their capital, distillers have found themselves in a bit of an arms race.
Who can release the oldest spirit? In the most ostentatious bottle? For the highest price? There are only so many things they can do differently each time to justify charging thousands upon thousands for what is just a drink. And it is just a drink, albeit a rather special one.
Frustratingly, in their quest for originality, marketeers found the ‘L’ word. They then proceeded to abuse and misuse it to within an inch of its life. All of a sudden, everyone became an industry ‘legend.’
Who can release the oldest spirit? In the most ostentatious bottle? For the highest price?
The most frustrating thing about such a flippant use of the term is that the Scotch whisky trade does indeed count among its ranks some truly remarkable people.
Some have spent decades learning their craft and working away at it - quietly, humbly, and without fuss.
Many of them would cringe at their investiture with such a title. Such status should be awarded only through the unspoken respect and deference of their old hand contemporaries, not doled out by a creative agency scraping the proverbial barrel for packaging gimmicks.
So, when yours truly received the brief to review yet another greatly aged malt (it’s honestly exhausting, this job) and saw the offending word in the subject line, you can almost hear the sigh which followed. But then he did a double take, swiftly removed said email from trash and read on.
It was a note from Gordon & MacPhail, the family-owned spirits merchant now in its fourth generation of ownership. From a grocers shop in Elgin, the Urquhart family began buying casks from nearby distilleries which they’d blend together to order for their clientele.
Second generation member George - known by those close to him as Mr George - followed his father into the business in 1933 and took things one step further.
He commissioned individual distillers to fill oak casks which he had hand selected which he deemed to be the choice match for each distillery’s house style of spirit. Then, instead of blending them together, he’d release each distillery’s whisky on its own.
In an industry where the vast majority of spirit was destined for the blending into the likes of Johnnie Walker, Buchanan’s and Dewar’s amongst countless others, Mr George’s practice made little sense.
Indeed, his stubborn approach of aging whiskies for much longer than was common meant that he amassed stocks which were impossible to sell onto the blending houses - they were simply too expensive and not what the blenders were after.
In other words, Mr George was taking an almighty risky punt that blends would give way to single malts. And he was right.
He foresaw that drinkers would increasingly seek out whiskies with a story - those which were naturally inconsistent but far more flavourful than the beige and tired blends which tasted the same year in, year out.
Moreover, Mr George realised early on that the success of single malts required winning over the international markets which were otherwise loyal to household blends.
So, he loaded his Lancia Gamma with cases of Scotch and headed for Europe to trade shows, pitches and more than the odd ‘sampling session’ with distributors.
Sizable orders followed and with every case of single malt shipped from the family’s base in rural Elgin, the market edged that bit further to accepting single malts as the rawest, and most flavourful expression of whisky.
But if it was that foresight and graft which earned Mr George the reputation of being the very father of single malt whisky, then it was his genteel demeanor, manners and loyalty to those who worked with him which made him a true gentleman.
Indeed, one would scarcely find someone in the trade who ever had a bad word to say about him.
So, back to that email. It announced a new release by Mr George’s grandchildren in his memory - a staggeringly old single malt from Glen Grant, a distillery local to the family shop in Elgin. Remarkably, it is drawn from a single cask which Mr George himself laid down 67 years ago on Christmas Eve 1953.
In the early 1950s, post-war rationing meant that scarce barley was left for distilling, rendering cask 4,209 one of the very few Glen Grant’s left from this time. Moreover, it was filled when the distillery had just four copper stills which were all fired not by modern electric but by traditional, direct fired gas which produces a weightier, fuller bodied spirit.
Likewise, this was in the days when Glen Grant still had its own malting floors where barley was turned by hand, not machine.
In those days, distillers aged their whiskies in whatever they could get their hands on. As local grocers often imported wines by the barrel, the empty casks were passed on to distilleries.
Cask 4209 was one of them; it was used to transport sherry from Southern Spain for the British market. Made from European oak (more tannic and richer than its American relative) and soaked with dry and nutty oloroso sherry, it was hand picked by Mr George for filling at a distillery he had a particular fondness for.
The first thing one notices about the bottled result is its unusually high strength. Oak casks are porous. As whiskies mature on wood, they lose both volume and alcohol content to evaporation - the aptly named Angel’s Share.
A cask filled at 63.5% and left to age for decades will often mean the sacrifice of the bulk of its contents and see the whisky head towards a strength closer to 40%, beyond which it cannot be bottled as Scotch.
Here, this greatly aged Glen Grant has been bottled at 59.4% which tells us two things.
Firstly, Gordon & MacPhail appears to have defied the laws of physics. Exceedingly rare maturation conditions in their traditional, earth floored warehousing has meant that the air surrounding the cask was saturated with alcoholic vapours. As a result, there was nowhere for the cask’s ethanol content to escape, leaving one of the oldest ever single malts to be bottled with most of its original strength.
Secondly, it means that if it was so inclined, Gordon & MacPhail could have held onto this cask for much longer. Indeed, it could have waited even longer and aimed to bottle it at a headline grabbing eighty, ninety or even a hundred years old.
But doing so could have ruined it; gratuitously overaged whiskies become woody and unpleasant. It is in resisting such self indulgence and commercial greed that the family do right by Mr George and what he built the business on - substance over form.
So, did they make the right call on this one? We think so.
On the nose, polished hardwoods dominate. Musky but only ever so slightly, almost like those mahogany paneled hotel elevators - those with the charming scissor gate doors and muffled intercom.
On the palate, this is a much livelier dram. Spices and treacle burst through and the texture has a certain weight to it; a viscosity only really found in drams of this age.
In short, this is a truly beautiful whisky. The family has bottled it as the first in a new annual series of rare releases which will carry Mr George’s name.
They will pay tribute to his memory and thank him for playing his part in bringing single malt whisky to the world; the hard yards, the grit, the sheer bloodymindedness.
The family has named the series “Legacy”. Well, if anyone in the trade was ever befitting of such a tribute, it was Mr George.
The Gordon & MacPhail Mr George Legacy Series, Glen Grant 1953 is available for £5,390 from gpbrands.co.uk