UK Sales Director
A Keeper of the Quaich and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Distillers & part of the fourth generation of the Urquhart family and a gentleman.
How would you describe yourself?
Motivated passion, competitive and very energetic, in both life and business, I’m very loyal and family orientated.
How much did growing up in a family business shape your childhood?
It had an effect, I was different from my cousins who lived in Elgin. I lived in Inverness, with my father who was made a senior partner as a quantity surveyor, he then married my mother, who followed my grandmother Peggy (who was a senior nurse) into the nursing profession, my mother also wanted to go into the medical world as a physio, however during that she hurt her back and, as not being very tall, moving patients didn’t help.
She found it a real struggle. My mother then became a medical secretary at a hospital in Aberdeen, which is how my parents met, and after I came along we moved to Inverness.
I would spend a lot of time visiting my grandparents, for Christmas and holidays during summer as well. Dad would occasionally use the summer house there as a base for work. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and my uncles, and my cousins.
My cousins and I would go to the offices, the shops, and we could spend time in the cellars too. There was a red sign at the cellar doors and if it was red you couldn’t’ go in you had to buzz to see if it turned green, if it did then we could then go in.
We would get deliveries of groceries for the shop whilst I was there, as we were very much a grocer in the 70’s’ and 80’s. They were delivered by green vans which I still remember well. I didn’t spend as much time there as my cousins, as I went to work with my dad.
Times really changed in the north of Scotland when Fine Fare came along, the Cooperative was very strong also. That really brought the end of the smaller businesses, the smaller stores then had to carry a much reduced range, whilst still keeping prices competitive.
This changed the landscape, and purchasing decisions were no longer made at store level, but at head office, so you couldn’t tailor your business to your local market as well as you could when the decisions were made at store level.
These challenges are still here today, and as the landscape changes again, we need our products available online for convenience, and we also need to remain competitive.
Many people are buying their products from larger stores for cost or convenience, however the independents can provide a specialist service, offer advice and really help you find the whisky you are looking for and help introduce you to new distilleries that you otherwise may not ever have tried, independent shops can make the difference between just shopping, or having an enjoyable experience.
We need to be able to ensure the customer has a memorable experience, and create something that they want to come back to time and time again. You can see this change in the pub trade as well.
These day’s people have great entertainment in their own homes, most people have access to movies, music and sports so they don’t want to leave the house as much, the benefit to this to us and to the whisky industry as a whole is that people can afford to buy and drink better malts, the £50 they may have spent down the pub in one night, they can spend on a bottle of whisky, and with online shopping being easier than ever, they can order them from the comfort of their own home.
Had you always planned to work in the family business?
I always knew where my strengths lay, and I knew what I enjoyed doing, I was interested in making things even as a child, and I was always good at Lego, Meccano etc. I loved to see how things were made, and constructed. When I was still a child a lot of building works were undertaken, and my friends and I would see our landscape changing, we’d see more and more building sites spring up.
We’d liberate materials from the building sites, and make fairly complex dens and the like. I was also incredibly intrigued in the buildings that started springing up.
I actually started to study construction, I changed from a degree to an honours degree, and I graduated second in my year. In the early to mid-90s, where the world of construction really struggled and here in UK had gone into recession, there were still good opportunities abroad.
I’d started going for jobs before I graduated, I had an interview on a Thursday, and said that I would start after graduation, but they wanted me on the Monday instead, I worked in construction in Edinburgh for 7 years, as a chartered surveyor and worked in project management.
The family then approached me and asked what I thought about the family business, they wanted to remain a wholly independent business. I spoke to my mum and dad, and my uncles. In our business there needed to be a role open for us, it’s not a case of just walking in because you are a family member. We all complete at least 18 months of training before we enter the family business.
I agreed to come and start working for the family, I finished up some major projects that I was leading in my QS work, and then was on site Monday morning at Benromach. We moved up and stayed with my mum and dad initially.
On completing my course, I applied for the Sales Executive role, and was successful. I covered the Highland areas. Oban, Dornach, the Western Isles etc. As a member of the family I really felt that I had to keep proving myself. I worked all hours and improved sales by 40%, we used to send a lorry of goods every two weeks to Skye, and by the time I moved on to another role within the company we sent a lorry every week.
My wife Janice is extremely talented, she was working in recruitment, and is fantastic at Curling (among other things). Janice was selected for the Winter Olympics in 2002 and won gold. After Janice won her Olympic gold medal, I played for a team, and we won the Scottish Curling Championships and the Europeans and competed for the World Championship, however I had a nasty injury and wasn’t able to compete. The ranking points were really important, so knowing I wasn’t fit enough I had to step out, as I didn’t want to let my team down.
As a result of my needing to play a lesser role in Curling and therefore having more time to invest, my uncle David (who was my direct line manager), said he needed some support in the office, so I worked in the commercial side, and I was also heavily involved in buying wines and spirits.
I took a number of courses in order to further my knowledge and I also took the WSET (Wines & Spirits Education Trust) awards course, I was in the top five for the Advanced Wine and Spirits during my course.
From there I moved into the category buying, however I was looking at this very much from a customer view point, and then became an Associate Director of the business, and in 2010 I became UK Sales Director and after David retired, my uncle Mike was sole MD, and I took care of the UK. Derek was an associate director who was in charge of exports.
What does being UK Sales Director entail?
At the moment it 4,500 products, over 2,500 customers, looking after the whole on the UK. As brand owners we have to look at the marketing side of things, and distributing products in the UK.
We distribute a number of Scottish Whiskies, Paul John from Indian, we look after the Ballantynes and Garrisons Brothers for America among others, and various gins one of which being Gordon castle gin, who produce their gin with ingredients from their garden.
All of these businesses are family ran business, which really works with our ethos. We also look after Jean Fillioux Cognac, which is also a family run business, all of these business can run together, and they all support each other and has its own uniqueness. Our portfolio is strong, with a great deal of provenance.
Which parts of your role do you enjoy the most?
I’ve always really enjoyed building relationships with customers and hosting tastings where I have the benefit of telling our family story, I love to show my passion for the products, and I enjoy passing on our family story. We have been market leaders for so long, and as Michael Jackson said, of my Grandfather “I believe that single-malt whisky would simply not be available today were it not for the work of George Urquhart”. There are many stories I can tell.
I know a huge amount about a lot of distilleries, I know their stories and I can pass them on. I have stories of Port Ellen, Ledaig and many others. When I taste the whiskies it is done with real joy and excitement and this something that I have never lost, nor will I ever lose. I have a real passion for what I do.
The G&M products are outstanding examples from the specific distillery, so we are complimenting what the distilleries do, and it gives people an outstanding example of what is available from that distillery. The G&M range is a classy offering that can show the distillery in a different light to how people have known them before, they are not in competition with the distilleries own ranges.
We have a great relationship with these distilleries, we never claim to be them, and we are very much our own company and are immensely proud of that. We just showcase them with different maturations, different casks etc.
Without the distilleries we wouldn’t exist as a company and they could say the same about us, some distilleries have really had their profile raised by us and in harder times for the whisky industry we kept on investing.
We have a loyalty to the distilleries, one of the stories handed down from generation to generation was the day that a lady, Margaret, from The Macallan, came to my grandfather George and asked if he would like to buy some casks, he said that he would and Margaret (I forget her surname) said that they would do an even better deal if we took a couple of extra casks as well, but it needed to be a cash deal done that day.
When my Grandfather asked why, she replied that they needed to sell some stock that day as she was short of wages for the staff. So a deal was done in cash that day.
We were, and have been integral in helping some distilleries to continue. We too have had support from distilleries when we have needed it. The opening of Benromach really proved that, as a lot of our parts for the distillery came from other distilleries.
How important to you is your family connection with G&M?
The family connection is very important and as we move through the generations it does make the business different, our family has moved to all corners of the world and with that the family has spread its over 120 years of knowledge far and wide.
It passed from father to son, uncle to nephew, we learnt so much from our Grandfather, he said that, in order for us to continue in business someone needs to buy our products, and to do that we have to make a great product. He always said that it must be superior product for a popular price.
This has and will always be of great importance. This superior product is very important to us, and we have the suppliers to enable us to do this. You must look after your customers and suppliers or you simply won’t have a business to run.
Our family connection extends to a connection to all of our staff, and our customers, we deal with customers worldwide that were good friends of the family and now they have watched the next generation of our family coming through into the business. They see my cousins and I running the business now, and they enjoy seeing how the family integrity and business ethos has been passed on.
Do you think being family owned and run makes a difference to your business?
Yes, it’s a really strong selling point, to be a fourth generation business with over 120 years of experience, usually, as you go down a generation (in any business model) the business becomes less successful, however this is not the case for us.
As I mentioned you can’t come in as a family member and just expect a right to work within the family business, you have to earn your place, to prove that you care about the business and you that you have the skills and passion to keep driving the business forward.
The business is so important to us all, that you must be ready for the challenges that can arise and the hard work that helps to garner our success.
We keep our over 120 years of heritage and knowledge alive, we understand the importance of this, and this is passed down and learnt on the job.
We often talk about strategies we may have tried in the past and as we have many staff with decades of employment with us, they often remember them when we tried them initially, they will remember what worked and what did, and if the market has changed enough for us to try these strategies again.
We have a Celebration scheme which recognises and celebrates length of service. We currently have two members of staff who have a combined length of service over 70 years. We have another 8 that have 10 years with us.
Our marketing director has been with us 10 years and Neil 12 years. When we first launched this scheme, when we added up the first 30 employees total length of service it was 547 (approx.) years combined.
What’s your typical day like, if there is such a thing?
There isn’t really such a thing and it’s changing every day, especially as I am taking more of a strategic role as a director. I work more on strategies and long term forecasting.
I support my colleagues and am still involved in marketing and where our future is, and in constantly reviewing the markets. I support all our departments whilst still contributing to the general running of the business among many other things.
With such a long history there must have been many highlights from Gordon & Macphail, which one stands out most to you?
There really are so many and every year there is something to celebrate, we had so much to celebrate last year, we released many new ranges. The launch of the first 70 year old Generations Mortlach from Edinburgh castle, in March 2010, was a highlight.
The opening of our Benromach Distillery was really special. This was a project, that as a company as well as an individual, we had spent so long working towards, it had been a goal for so long, and so to see it finally come to fruition was really amazing.
Do you think good management has been key to the success of Gordon & Macphail?
Absolutely, vision, knowledge and good management has really grown the business, also remembering how important the strength of our relationships with customers, suppliers and staff is, along with the years of business experience that we have built up, and the strength and drive of the family.
It was great business foresight to continue to fill casks during the war and throughout all of the ups and downs of the whisky cycle, how much do you think this shaped the success of Gordon & Macphail?
It was great foresight to carry on buying stock. So many distilleries stopped distilling, and it was then we realised just how hard times in whisky had become. We saw the distilleries, which had either stopped producing or who closed altogether and although we still had a lot of whisky stock we realised that we still needed to keep buying.
We knew that we wanted to keep a broad style of whisky within our portfolio and that in order to achieve those aims we needed to keep filling to help keep those distilleries alive or else, like so many other distilleries at he time, they would close down and be lost to history. It’s been rewarding to see that management strategy play out and benefit not only ourselves, but also many distilleries.
You purchased Benromach Distillery in 1993, why, when you were already so successful did Gordon & Macphail decide to own a distillery?
It was good strategy, as you start to look at the long term, we saw more and more brands bringing out their own whiskies, which could maybe, be in the same market as Connoisseurs Choice, making the market too diluted or competitive.
We could look into the future, and see that we needed to keep our place in that market field and to further the business with our own distillery. We knew that we could create an unique whisky and use our experience to create the exact style of whisky we wanted to produce.
We were fortunate enough to know the traditional style of whisky and wanted to bring that back. We knew that the tradition style of whisky was smoky, even in Speyside or Lowland whisky. We wanted to bring a wonderful product at a great price.
What’s on the horizon for Benromach?
We’ve enjoyed growth in the UK of 30% in terms of volume, the 10 year old is growing in popularity and that, along with the 15 is the core style. It’s based on the traditional whisky style, which was smoked and we peat the barely to 12 ppm.
The barley comes from about 6 miles away, all our ingredients are so close to the distillery and the whiskies are so balanced. It’s not overpowering, there’s smokiness, but a gentle, sweetness as well as the smoke, unlike the big peat hit of a Laphroaig, this gives the Benromach range a wide spread appeal, people that may not like smoky whisky find they like this, and for people that are really into their peat, they detect that smoke on the whisky and can and do really enjoy it.
The 5 year old is the same recipe, although you could argue we haven’t put much into the younger expressions, as we really are showcasing the 10 year old at the moment, which we think this is a great example of a fantastic product at a great price and this is really our backbone currently.
The 5 year old however is so moreish, so although the finish is relatively short it just cries out to be sipped time and time again. The support of our customers has been fantastic, and the fact that so many industry leaders, bloggers and whisky fans have given such great feedback is really special.
We’ve been able to use our over 120 years of experience and our knowledge of the past, and of how whisky tasted over 120 years ago to bring out our range. The new 10 year old 100° proof is being highly commended and seems to be a favourite among the expressions.
There is a new expression coming soon, so keep your eyes peeled! Essentially it will exist to replace the 30 year old, I can’t say much more than that just now, but trust me this whisky is delicious and pretty special.
Back in January 2014 we increased production at Benromach, we only started at 125,000-130,000 litres of alcohol, it wasn’t about size, it was what we thought was a good amount of liquid. We took into account sales, our market predictions and ambition and we soon realised we would need to produce a greater amount of spirit to lay down.
We now produce circa 250,000 litres, and although that may not sound a lot it’s all for our Benromach expressions. We do intend to age some whisky for quite a while, and that’s why we are carefully choosing our casks at the moment, we have the experience to really understand what a good cask can do, that’s why we produced the wood makes the whisky range.
In relative terms we are quite modest, however we have seen distilleries start out at with very high production who then need to scale down, we are relatively small and have plans for growth and we are very ambitious, so we need to have that spirit laid down, whilst still keeping a close eye on the market place and ensuring that we aren’t producing too much too fast.
We always want to keep our prices somewhere all our customers can afford. The feedback acts as a real endorsement, we don’t want to price our customers out of buying our whiskies. That value for money has always been a large part of G&M, from day one, and we always consider this.
We could have bottled the Mortlach 75 year old for far more than we could, in fact people in the industry were asking why we sold this at the price we did, but quite simply we thought it a fair price for an exceptional whisky and that hopefully (at that price point) people would not only buy the whisky as a show piece of an investment piece, but to drink it, as that is essentially the point of whisky, drinking it and enjoying it, be it a 5 year old or a 75 year old.
Have there been many challenges in running a distillery and still bottling under Gordon & Macphail?
The answer is not really, the biggest challenge is for ourselves as we have two points of focus, G&M and Benromach and they all need to have their own individual focus.
They are both linked by the strong bond and desire to create whisky with a relentless passion that is of the highest quality we can deliver, with the tools we have, and doing it long term, and that’s why we invest so much in the casks for both.
We are applying all our knowledge of maturation, casks, our business ethos to Benromach, and to our G&M Connoisseurs Choice range. There is a challenge in the market as we need to grow our portfolio of G&M, whilst still growing Benromach.
What major changes have yourself and your family seen throughout the years?
The biggest change for G&M is that whisky has been increasing over the years, we know that last year’s (2015) total malt growth of 8% in the UK and growth in the on-trade of 6%. The whisky industry has grown and grown and we’ve been a part of this, hopefully.
There is room for everyone, but it’s especially great for malt whisky. The reason, I think, that malt whisky is still growing is because the world is more affluent all over and people are better educated now. Some people are almost jumping the blends and heading straight to single malt.
People are very interested in the provenance of things, and whisky is prefect for that, the difference for G&M is the continuation of our 125 years and it has a story to tell. Benromach also has a great story.
Another big change for us, was moving the focus purely to whisky, we were grocers till the 80’s, and as we saw the end of days for the independent retailers, and a shift to large supermarkets, we knew it was time to change the focus of our business.
There have been some recent rumblings of the possibility of the whisky bubble bursting resulting in a possible whisky lake, what do you think about this?
Yes, however you could argue that whisky has always been boom bust, boom bust. However this was due to the fact a lot of companies didn’t’ have enough stock after hitting a period of bust. If you can’t afford to keep laying down stock, then you will run into problems when the market picks back up again, which thankfully it always does.
I think the current biggest risk is that alcohol starts to follow the same road as tobacco and becomes seen as a large health risk. This could see a demise in people buying and drinking whisky, and as such we are big supporters of enjoying whisky, but drinking responsibly.
I don’t think that there will be any big whisky lakes as I think the industry is much more attuned to what is required and how to modify consumption, and that, coupled with the fact there is still amazing scope for consumption worldwide to grow should prevent any whisky lakes. I hope that as an industry we are all managing our stocks better.
Gordon & Macphail made history in releasing a 75yo Mortlach, the world’s oldest whisky, when did the company make the decision to mature this for 75 years?
We had been monitoring these casks for so long, both at Mortlach and then once we had them brought here we could monitor them on a much more regular basis.
We knew that it had the potential to become a very old whisky, as it was aging particularly well. However we would never have kept the whisky for the 75 years if the quality had started to dip.
As luck would have it, it kept aging really well and we knew that at 75 years old it was just perfect. We’ve probably had our eye on this cask for well over 40 years.
How has the whisky been received by the industry?
Really well received, it’s been viewed as a benefit to the whole industry and it help lifts the bar that little bit higher.
It shows what can be achieved with good whisky, everybody has benefited by this, also it’s been really well received by customers as well. It’s a wonderful exclusive product, with great presentation and the price tag is justified.
We invited our peers to a tasting pre-launch and it received fantastic feedback, we knew then that we had got it just right.
Is this your proudest whisky memory to date?
It’s definitely one of several, the launch of the first 70 was so memorable, on a personal note, though the launch of the Benromach ten year old was so special. Having worked at the distillery with my grandfather from the very beginning, right from the ground up.
I remember prepping the site, during my university holidays. It has really special memories for me. The Private Collection was a really proud moment for the family and for the business. Whisky evokes such memories, just like songs do and calls up really special times with really special people.
The latest campaign is “The Wood Makes the Whisky”, can you tell me more about this?
In one respect it’s a rare insight into what our philosophy is, we have a broad portfolio of products, and The Wood Makes the Whisky helps people understand what will be delivered and why we can be relatively certain of the results each type of cask will deliver.
We start off with our new make and learn about the wood that we are using and explain that you can almost anticipate, with knowledge at which point that whisky will be ready.
For us a good cask and good spirit is everything you require to produce great whisky. That knowledge combined with our history and our liquid library, which has been handed down through the generations, contains all the information we need.
I did a tasting for Whisky of Soho and we had some really fantastic products. Some of the whiskies aren’t the strongest or best well known, and out of all the whiskies we showcased the Strathmill really shone.
People kept coming back and saying how good the Strathmill was, and this gave them the chance to see a distillery that they may not have tried before. They were blown away by how great it was and they bought bottles throughout the tasting to ensure it didn’t sell out.
I then held another tasting with a Linkwood and a Glenspey 2004 (among others) and we did a straw poll at the end of the night to see which whisky was enjoyed the most, and it was the Glenspey that came out on top, as it was a great whisky, and with that the product really shone through.
We explain the difference between European oak, and American oak, initial fill, second fill etc and the relationships between the different liquids for a second fill cask. We talk about where we source our casks and how they shape our whisky.
We don’t go t0o scientific but scientific enough for people to understand why we char casks, or choose sherry over bourbon, the timeline between the different sizes of casks and maturation, and of course cask management.
It’s great to get this message to our customers but we also educate our suppliers and give them samples to enable them to hold a vertical tasting. I enjoyed a bottle recently with a representative of Peter Lehmann wines, (we’ve been stocking their wines for years), and David knew them really well.
We started drinking one of these whiskies one night, and he had such skill and he really appreciated the whisky, he just understood it, and how the flavours worked and the interplay between them and the cask.
So what next for Gordon & Macphail?
For the next 18 months we will be really extending The Wood Makes the Whisky range, there are some wonderful distilleries which are relatively unknown and yet they produce wonderful whisky, and we really want to bring this to life.
The Bunnahabain old style (unpeated) is just one example and they really fit with our ethos, of superior products and a popular price. We will continue trying to educate people, and the more they are educated the more products they will try. It will keep raising the profile of whisky.
What do you think of the glut of NAS releases?
Our 5 year old is a real example of how we important we think age statements are, we think honesty and transparency is really important. That said I don’t think that NAS is an excuse to sell poor whisky, however many distilleries are forced to use younger stock these days and due to SWA restrictions they are not allowed to use an average age statement.
The distillers and master blenders producing some of the new NAS products are still the same people that make the age statement whisky. With this in mind, there is no sense in writing all NAS whisky as poorly crafted or of a poor quality.
I think the biggest problem with NAS whisky is that prices can still be relatively high and then you are asking consumers to take a leap of faith. The communication of products is really important.
Our honest and openness is really important to us. On our Organic you can easily work out the age for yourself, even though we haven’t stated it, it’s important to us that nothing is hidden.
What’s your favourite whisky?
That’s like asking to pick a favourite child, however I am a mood man, location, company and weather can all influence it.
I love Highland Park and Clynliesh, but if I were stuck on a desert island then I would want a lot from my whisky, something like the Benromach 10 year old for example.
I also really enjoy the Talisker 18yo, as it delivers it so much, it has the profile of the younger Talisker but in a more sophisticated way, with that extra depth.
My top three whiskies are:
Benromach 1949 – 55 year old.
Mortlach 70 year old. The 63 year old and the 70 year old were both fantastic.
The Glenlivet 1963. The 1974 year old was also fantastic.
I presented a dinner with the 1963 and it had a wonderful orange milk chocolate note, through the whole range. It has the character from whisky gone by.
Do you have any advice for any one of the number of new distilleries opening or for anyone thinking of getting into the business?
I would suggest you need deep pockets to get started and you need even deeper pockets to keep going, and you have to look at this as a long term project, you most definitely are not going to get rich quick.
You’re a Keeper of the Quaich, what does that mean to you and what does it entail?
It’s a great honour, you get it for having actively promoted the growth and sale of whisky for at least five years, the company put me forward. but I had been in the industry for at least 8 years and demonstrated my worth through sales.
I have a malt whisky approach to selling, you can be self-proclaiming and promote your own whisky but also helping to spread the word about good Scotch whisky in general.
Your responsibility is to keep on promoting our national drink and helping to continue that throughout the world. We can put people forward who we feel are driving Scotch whisky, G&M promote a wide range of Scotch whisky and that’s what we strive to do. You must also stay within the industry for at least another five years after being initiated into the Keeper of the Quaich.
When you aren’t busy working what do you do to relax?
Sleep, as work takes up so much time, we do lots of shows and tastings during the year and the weekend, we also, as a company, support and sponsor our local rugby team and we’ve been invited to various matches and we find this a valuable way to help give back to the community.
We are very community orientated as a business and as a family. Having four children can take up a lot of time, and our family unit is really important to me, especially as I spend so much time away.
I coach the children in the sports they love, and they really love sports, they love music and just spending time together is great. My oldest two children are now starting to get into Curling, and there are a lot of golf courses and the junior membership isn’t expensive at all. There is always something for us to do.
Thanks so much for your time Stephen, here’s looking forward to visiting you at the distillery and sharing a dram together. I’ll keep trying to get my hands on one of Gordon & Macphail’s St Magdalene’s 1981. That’s the great thing about age statements, there’s always a special year that will mean something to somebody, a special birthday etc.
Keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming The Wood Makes the Whisky reviews and our review of the Mortlach 75 year old.
Kirsty Clarke (@kirstyclarke29)