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The Story of Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseurs Choice range on its Golden Anniversary

The ‘Connoisseurs Choice’ range was created by whisky visionary, George Urquhart, second generation of the family that still own Gordon & MacPhail.

Originally founded in 1895, Gordon & MacPhail has filled its own hand-selected casks with new-make spirit from over 100 distilleries from all over Scotland.

Against a backdrop of seismic social and political change around the world, George Urquhart decided in 1968 to go against the grain and bring whiskies to market under the Connoisseurs Choice brand in their purest form: as single malts. The whisky industry’s own metamorphosis was underway.

The first Connoisseurs Choice bottlings featured whiskies from distilleries such as Port Ellen, Strathisla, and Rosebank. The Talisker expression was on sale at the time for the princely sum of £4. Today, you can still pick up a Connoisseurs Choice Glen Keith bottled in 1968, but this bottle will cost you almost £700.

Some of these original bottlings under the distinctive black label have fabled status among whisky enthusiasts, such as the Glenugie 1963, as well as the 43-Years-Old Mortlach 1936.

Over the decades, the label has been redesigned several times and the shape of the bottle enhanced.

The growth of the Connoisseurs Choice range in the 1970s and 1980s was accelerated by George Urquhart’s annual pilgrimage to visit Italian collectors and distributors who helped to build awareness and shape the future flavour profiles of new stock being laid down for maturation. Just as his father had introduced him to the firm, so George brought in his own children. His eldest son, Ian, joined in 1967, with his younger brother, David, welcomed in 1972.

Some of the greatest ever bottlings under the Connoisseurs Choice name, were bottled in the 1980s including many from distilleries that are now lost, including so-called ‘unicorn whiskies’ such as those from Lochside, St. Magdalene, and Kinclaith.

In 1981, Michael Urquhart and his sister, Rosemary (Rankin) joined the company, completing a whole generation of siblings all working within the company, each bringing skills and valuable business experience learned elsewhere.

The Connoisseurs Choice range’s ‘Brown Labels’ were updated in 1988 by the next stage of labels, known among collectors as the ‘Map Labels’ featuring a thumbnail map of the spirit’s origin. These were superseded in 1996 with the introduction of a colour-coded background for each region.

Earlier this year, to mark the 50th Anniversary, the range received its latest reincarnation. Each bottle now details the whisky’s provenance and maturation in detail, aligned with the modern consumer’s thirst for information. The most recent launch in August 2018 saw the range enhanced by a collection of special Connoisseurs Choice whiskies, each aged 30 Years Old or more, each presented in decanter-style bottle and each available in wooden presentation box.

Since 1968, almost 100 distilleries have been featured as part of the Connoisseurs Choice range, with over 2,000 individual bottlings. In 2018 alone, 100 new Connoisseurs Choice expressions have come to market.

George’s legacy comes into particular focus when the facts and figures are investigated. In 1968 the total export value of all single malt Scotch was less than £3million. Last year the equivalent figure had grown to more than £1.1 billion.

Gordon & MacPhail’s Director of Prestige, Stephen Rankin, a member of the fourth generation of the Urquhart family, “I’m sure my grandfather, George, would be immensely proud of how the category he pioneered continues to grow and positively affect the Scottish economy. He’d also love the fact that members of the family still play active roles in helping to shape the next fifty years of the range he created.“

Connoisseurs Choice has been exported to more than 60 countries around the world and continues to showcase the rich diversity in flavour profiles, from the smoky malts from Islay to the floral and mellow notes associated with Speyside drams.

“Over the years,” adds Stephen, “it has been fascinating to see how appetites have changed in different parts of the world and it’s an ongoing challenge to predict what’s going to be most popular ten years and more from now. It’s rewarding to know that collectors and whisky enthusiasts all over the globe are keeping an eye on new bottlings such as the recently released Connoisseurs Choice Glen Elgin 1997 which sold out almost instantly. They’re trying to spot which whiskies will become superstars in decades to come.”

So have a look in the attic and under the stairs. If you find an iconic Ardbeg 1974 from Connoisseurs Choice, you’ve found a piece of history - and an iconic dram.