The Big Interview: Stephen Rankin of whisky company Gordon & MacPhail

'In essence, the way whisky is portrayed is changing,' says Stephen Rankin. 'It's becoming more appealing. It's a more stylish product.'
'In essence, the way whisky is portrayed is changing,' says Stephen Rankin. 'It's becoming more appealing. It's a more stylish product.'
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As a member of the fourth generation of the family dynasty linked with whisky firm Gordon & MacPhail, Stephen Rankin seemed destined for a career working with Scotland’s national drink. Yet the great-grandson of John Urquhart – the businessman and industry pioneer who joined the Elgin-based firm within a year of its formation in 1895 – cut his teeth in the more humdrum world of quantity surveying.

Swapping slide-rule for sampling glass at the turn of the millennium, Rankin went on to become UK sales director in 2010 – the post he still holds, overseeing a team dotted throughout the UK as well as several support staff at the firm’s Moray home.

Established as a small retail outlet – now a prominent feature of Elgin town centre – Gordon & MacPhail bottles more than 300 expressions from distilleries across Scotland as well as being a distributor, wholesaler and maturation adviser. The business acquired Benromach Distillery in Forres in 1993, before re-equipping it ready to recommence operations five years later.

The sales boss – one of four members of the fourth generation to be involved in the running of the firm and son of retired director Rosemary Rankin – points to robust growth in the UK despite a “challenging market” and says international expansion has become a “key focus”, with exports destined for more than 60 countries. The business has secured two Queen’s Awards for enterprise for its overseas trade.

“International sales is where we see the growth of our brands in the long term,” says Rankin, speaking just over a week ago, 122 years to the day since the company’s formation by founding partners, James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail. “Scotch is a global advert for Scotland and remains one of the main attractions for visitors to this country.

“One thing is for sure – quality does not go out of fashion. Even in the tough times the business has done well.

“We still attract a lot of tourists here. We do a lot of whisky tastings, have a wonderful deli and a wine and spirits room. It’s a whisky destination and that brings in the majority of the people.”

Recent industry figures revealed that Scotch exports rose by 4 per cent to more than £4 billion last year, marking a return to growth for the sector.

The Scotch Whisky Association’s (SWA) latest export report found that overseas sales rose by £153 million from 2015 to £4,008,927,149 last year. The number of bottles dispatched ncreased by 4.8 per cent between 2015 and 2016 to more than 1.2 billion, which effectively means that 39 bottles were exported per second.

Both the value and volume of Scotch exports returned to annual growth rates for the first time since 2011.

While bottled blended versions of the drink remain the biggest export category, accounting for 69 per cent of value in 2016, the value of single malts topped £1bn for the first time.

That clamour for whiskies with individuality and provenance lies at the heart of the Gordon & MacPhail philosophy, with its price points ranging from heady five-figure sums down to mid-market.

“While we have seen a slight but gradual decline over the years in blended whisky, the single malts have been rising,” observes Aberdeen-born Rankin. “This is on the back of changing tastes and demands. It’s a sophisticated product and the consumer today is looking for real provenance and heritage. And it’s also about individuality.

“We are extremely well placed as a brand. We were focusing on single malts when the industry was turned towards blends.”

One of the biggest challenges facing the sector is drawing in a younger generation of drinker as whisky – frequently perceived as an “old man’s drink” – competes with spirits such as vodka and gin, as well as the craft beer explosion.

Rankin says the latter provides an “interesting” example of people looking to make a step up quality-wise.

“Drinkers are willing to trade up. If they are going to have a whisky, their aspiration is to have a malt whisky. People are becoming more discerning about what they are drinking and what they are drinking it with – there will be a sense of place, a sense of occasion.

“One of the ways to get younger people in is to do the food pairings. Whisky cocktails is also a growing area.

“In essence, the way whisky is portrayed is changing. It’s becoming more appealing. It’s a more stylish product.”

The firm’s most recently published sales figures revealed an overall increase of 2.9 per cent to £25.5 million. Export sales lifted 3.3 per cent while sales in the UK were up by 2.8 per cent.

Rankin – an avid sportsman who has represented Scotland at curling – says the rise came despite a “challenging” domestic market, while noting that the business has witnessed “good growth” in its latest financial year.

Some 150 people work across the Gordon & MacPhail empire, most located in its northeast heartland, though attracting fresh talent can be a challenge.

“I don’t see a huge amount of challenge in getting people into the business, but there is a challenge getting some people to relocate to parts of the country that are perhaps seen as rural and remote,” notes Rankin. “Yet the industry has a massive range of opportunities – from scientists, product development, marketing and engineering, to ambassadorial work, IT, HR, logistics.

“I recently had the pleasure of seeing one of our staff grow from working in the retail shop to going out overseas and developing as an ambassador within the wider world of whisky. We know we have set them off on the path that has given then passion and hope. They are hopefully going to move forward with Gordon & MacPhail in their heart, which is great.”

In an industry dominated by major corporations such as Johnnie Walker owner Diageo and Pernod Ricard, the French parent of Chivas Brothers, many smaller players have been swallowed by foreign buyers and luxury brands. Gordon & MacPhail is fiercely proud, and protective, of its independent status, but Rankin acknowledges the role the bigger producers can play in raising the profile of the industry.

“The bigger companies can create a trend,” he says. “Everyone plays their part in developing the world of malt whisky and Gordon & MacPhail brings something different to it.

“Being an independent family-owned business is a unique proposition – it’s a massive selling point. It’s a really strong message to give out that you are dealing with a business that is 122 years old.

“We create opportunities that are there for family members as well as those who join the business. I happened to be the eldest of my generation. I was doing very well in the world of surveying and progressing with pace but there was a little bit of change in the business.

“My character is one of loyalty and where better to fulfil that dream and those commitments than to head into the family business. In doing that, you come back and start at the ground level.

“There is nothing at Gordon & MacPhail that either I haven’t done or don’t fully understand. There is no special treatment – in fact quite the opposite.”

Rankin has no regrets making the switch from surveying almost two decades ago, adding: “I have a lot of friends still in the world of surveying and it’s incredible how our paths can cross.”

The SWA trade body has been vocal over Brexit, pushing for continuity of trading relations with EU members, while rounding on the Chancellor’s inflation-linked hike in spirits duties at the last Budget, branding it as deeply unhelpful to one of the UK’s most ­successful and profitable industries.

“There is so much political uncertainty at the moment,” says Rankin, “but no matter what the outcome of the general election or Brexit negotiations, all we can ask is that government creates favourable conditions and agreements that allow us to trade without hindrance across the globe, make it easy for our customers to access the products and support what is a real Scottish success story.

“Businesses don’t have the power to vote, people do, so it becomes a bit more personal, but as a business we stand behind the organisations that we are members of.”