On 24th May 1895, the Elgin Courant reported the opening “in New, Centrical, and Commodious Premises, No’s 38 and 40 South Street… a Family Grocers, Tea, Wine & Spirit Merchants”.
The founders of the firm were James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail, and from the outset (as the newspaper reported) the stock was “personally selected”, with a view to providing “a superior article at a popular price” and giving “the utmost satisfaction”.
Among the new shop’s first employees was John Urquhart, a lad of fifteen who was to serve his apprenticeship under the partners. He was an able learner, and before long was helping James Gordon to select and buy casks of malt whisky from local distilleries, and assisting with the creation of house blends for the firm’s customers around the north of Scotland. When J.A. MacPhail retired in March 1915, Urquhart became a partner in the business, and when James Gordon died suddenly only two weeks later, he became senior partner.
In parallel with the grocery side of the enterprise, John Urquhart developed the whisky broking business begun by James Gordon, and in particular began to specialise in single malt whiskies – bottling under license for famous distilleries such as Macallan, Glenlivet, Glen Grant, Linkwood and Mortlach. As part of this business he began to select and fill his own casks – almost always Spanish oak, ex-sherry casks – at these and other distilleries, and to mature his whiskies for much longer than was customary at the time.
John Urquhart was joined by his son, George, and daughter, Betty, in 1933, and by another son, Gordon, in 1950. By this time the family firm held the largest range of bottled malt whiskies in the world. Most makes were unavailable elsewhere, since very few distillery owners bottled their own malts as singles – indeed, it is no overstatement to say that Gordon & MacPhail single-handedly kept the amber lamp of aged malt whisky burning during the post-war decades!
In the mid-1960s George Urquhart took the unprecedented step of launching a range of single malts from different distilleries under the brand name ‘Connoisseur’s Choice’, and offered the range for sale in the rapidly expanding Italian, French, American and Dutch markets. This move laid the foundations for the significant interest in malt whisky in these countries that remains to this day.
Just as his father had introduced him to the firm, so George brought in his own children. The oldest, Ian, joined in 1967, after having been trained in the wine and spirit trade in London and France. He was followed by David in 1972 and Michael in 1981. The former had studied business in Aberdeen; Michael is a Chartered Accountant. George’s daughter, Rosemary joined in 1981.
The family partnership became a limited company in the late 1970s, but ownership and management remained with the family, as it does to this day. George Urquhart died in 2001, five years before his grandsons Stephen Rankin and Neil Urquhart were appointed Associate Directors. They became Directors in September 2010.
Today sees other members of the fourth generation join the firm as Richard Urquhart and twin brother Stuart continue the family tradition and support the company as it moves into a fast-paced, technology driven 21st century.