George Urquhart

GEORGE Urquhart, the president - and until last year, chairman - of Gordon & MacPhail, the Scotch whisky distillers and leading malt whisky specialists, has died in Elgin, aged 82.

A "Keeper of the Quaich", George Urquhart was regarded as a pioneer in the marketing of bottled malts and whiskies that had been aged over many years, long before the comparatively recent interest in and demand for single malts.

Leaving school at 14, he joined his father, John Urquhart, in the family business, which concentrated on groceries, wines, spirits and, of course, maturing, blending and bottling Scotch whisky. During the Forties and Fifties, with his father, he developed strong trading relationships with local distillers on Speyside. These were difficult times in the industry, and Gordon & MacPhail would often place substantial orders for fillings. This support for distilleries provided much needed cash for the producers of whisky.

In 1956, he became senior partner after the death of his father. Under his guidance over the next 40 years, he saw considerable expansion of the family business, which grew from employing around 25 to 120 at the present day.

In the Sixties, bonded warehouses were built in Elgin to accommodate increased stocks of carefully selected whiskies.

During the Sixties and Seventies, he spent an increasing amount of time travelling overseas, speaking with great knowledge and enthusiasm about whiskies, and in particular single malts. He developed many new markets - in some cases Gordon & MacPhail were the first to sell commercial quantities of bottled malts to these countries.

Through the company’s links with wine and especially sherry exporters, he was able to obtain some of the finest sherry casks available for the maturation of his malt whiskies. Customers became family friends, with some relationships extending over 40 years.

Facing the challenge from supermarket trading during the Seventies and Eighties, George Urquhart oversaw a change in direction for Gordon & MacPhail’s retail shop in Elgin - one of the most famous grocer’s shops in Scotland. It has become a successful delicatessen and the place to buy more than 630 different whiskies.

George Urquhart was an innovator, bottling malts when others were promoting blends. He used casks that had held different types of sherries, ports and wines - a practice now copied throughout the industry - and produced bottlings to commemorate special events.

In 1993 he fulfilled a long-held ambition when Gordon & MacPhail bought Benromach Distillery in Forres. It gave him immense pleasure to be present when the Prince of Wales opened Benromach Distillery in October 1998.

His reputation within the malt whisky industry both at home and abroad was unrivalled. His knowledge of Scotch whisky was exceptional: he keenly understood the people who play their part in the industry - the mashmen, the distillers, the bottlers, the blenders, the salesmen, the importers and the countless thousands who came to appreciate and enjoy the finer qualities of single-malt Scotch whisky.

In a changing world, George Urquhart was unfailingly courteous - a gentleman of integrity and tradition.

He will be sadly missed by his family - Rosemary, Ian, David and Michael - who continue to manage this 106 year-old family-owned firm, his many grandchildren, staff at Gordon & MacPhail, as well as friends and former colleagues both in the UK and in many countries overseas.

Paying tribute, Michael Jackson, the noted whisky writer and winner of five Glenfiddich Journalist Awards, said: "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.

"He had the judgment and foresight to acquire and lay down casks, and was thought eccentric for doing so.

"As I began to understand malt whisky, it seemed unbelievable to me that Scotland had almost 100 distilleries which in almost every instance kept their products secret. Only five or six offered their product in the bottle.

"Without two or three small independent bottlers, most of Scotland’s malt whiskies would never have been tasted in unblended form.

"To malt lovers, ‘bottled by Gordon & MacPhail’ is a phrase that rings around the world. The little shop in Elgin, and the extraordinary warehouses that few people see, are treasures.

"We all thank George Urquhart and his family for, in quiet diligence, maintaining this extraordinary enterprise."