Our time in Elgin began with a visit to the evocative ruins of Elgin Cathedral; but as far as I was concerned, the most important cathedral in Elgin was the legendary Gordon & MacPhail store—the place that many say is essentially the birthplace of single malt whisky as we know it. It is this store that began the consistent practice of bottling and selling whiskies from distilleries when their owners were not yet doing so. Their stocks are legendary and some of the oldest single malts ever released have either come directly from them or from casks bought back from them by the distilleries (G&M have their own bonded warehouse in Elgin and are highly unusual among independent bottlers for having filling contracts that let them mature their casks themselves). In the modern era, they have released a large number of excellent whiskies in a number of different lines, and until recently were one of the bottlers who could be most relied upon for providing value to middle-class drinkers. For all these reasons, as well as the possibility of finding some recent lauded releases still sitting on their shelves, I was very excited to visit. Indeed the visit was at the very top of the list of whisky things I was excited to do while in the Speyside. Alas, the experience turned out to be quite disappointing.
I hasten to add that this was not because of any deficiency in the store (well, maybe one). It was (mostly) that reality did not match my expectations. What did I expect? I suppose something along the lines of the old world atmosphere of Cadenhead’s in Edinburgh, or, for that matter, Berry Bros. & Rudd. I was expecting, in short, a store more quaint than shiny, and in keeping with their history, filled with a wide range of their bottlings of malts from across Scotland. In fact, the feel of the whisky part of the store was rather impersonal and the selection of whiskies turned out to be nothing special. They had a large but vanilla selection of official releases and there was not a lot of variety in what was on offer of their own releases. And the prices were on the high side. Of course, there were impressive displays of their older malts—particularly a lot of old Glen Grant, Strathisla and Longmorn—but those are well beyond the means of regular drinkers.
As far as the store is concerned, I’m sure their interest is not in the anachronistic expectations of idiots like me but in making money off of tourists—of whom there were a decent number in the shop. I don’t fault them for this; however, I was not terribly impressed with the one employee who came up to my friend and me to ask us what we were interested in. In the hope that things sold out in London or Edinburgh might still be available at the mothership, I asked if they might still have any bottles of recent multi-cask releases of Caol Ila and Highland Park, especially those from sherry casks. He outright denied that they ever bottled anything of the kind. I explained to him that I owned some myself but he still disclaimed knowledge of such releases. Finally, I showed him a picture of a bottle I was interested in and he allowed that they didn’t have any at the present. He then lost interest in us and wandered off. This might have something to do with the fact that G&M have recently overhauled their lines and taken them in a premium direction (and that they had large quantities of two Caol Ilas in the new livery in stock). By the way, while they have a “nosing section”—something I found ridiculous at Oban last year—at no point did anybody ask us if we wanted to taste anything we were looking at.
(It was nice to gape at the old bottles though—if you’re interested in looking at those too, click on the links in the slideshow to see the full-size images.)
I made mention above of “the whisky part of the store”. As you probably know, Gordon & MacPhail started out as grocers and the non-whisky part of their business still takes up the majority of the real estate in the store. You enter through that part of the store and if you’re looking to buy cheese or cookies or chocolates or, for that matter, wine or beer or cider, there’s a lot to choose from. There’s also a deli counter from where you could get fixings for a picnic lunch at one of the nearby beaches. As it happens, we purchased nothing at the store.
I did come away with a fair number of pictures for you to look at—have at them! Scroll down to see what’s coming next.
Next from the Speyside will be quick looks at the Strathisla and Glenfiddich distilleries. After that I’ll double back to Edinburgh for a meal report or two and a look at some more whisky stores there.
For what it’s worth, the first time I visited G&M, back around the turn of the century, the part that is now the deli/grocery was the whole shop–the current whisky room was added on shortly thereafter.
I suspect that a good deal of your disappointment is due to over-heightened expectations, although you did seem to get a duff of a clerk. I think you know that, too. I’m sure that another part of it is the way the whisky retail industry has caught up with and surpassed G&M, much as we once thought a pub with a dozen beer taps was something special, and now think that quite ordinary. The expansion mentioned above was pretty well mind-blowing at the time. I still have a soft spot for G&M, though. But your photos remind me that it’s been a while since I’ve been in.