Speyside’s Strathilsa distillery is the spiritual home of the Chivas Regal blends. This seems normal, the way it’s always been. Only it isn’t.
Strathisla, which was officially named Milton (although it was founded in 1786 as Milltown) enjoyed a stellar reputation for making great whisky, which was named for the river that ran behind the distillery, Strathisla. In the 1940s, the distillery was owned by one George Jay Pomeroy, who resisted advances by Seagram’s agent in Scotland, the famous whisky broker Jimmy Barclay (a true character, worthy of a book about his life, who owned Ballantine’s and was one of the big suppliers of whisky to the prohibitionist USA, and the man who bought the Chivas grocery for Seagram’s – who had a burning desire to best DCL, owners of Dewar’s, Bell’s and Johnnie Walker who had turned down Bronfman’s offer to work together during prohibition). Quite conveniently, Pomeroy was convicted of tax evasion in 1949, and the distillery went out to auction in Aberdeen. Chivas, acquired by Sam Bronfman in needed a reliable source of single malt around which to build a blend, and Barclay was going to get it. You can read a lot more about this fascinating story in F. Paul Pacult’s well written book “A Double Scotch: How Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet Became Global Icons” ($4.99 on Kindle).
Gordon & MacPhail have wanted to have their own distillery since the 1940s, and in April 1950 when the distillery was put up for sale, G&M bid on it, against Jimmy Barclay. Barclay had the deeper pockets, and bought the distillery for £71,000, which opened the way for Chivas Regal – reintroduced in 1954 – to become the powerhouse it is today. G&M maintained a close relationship with Strathisla, and were the de facto official bottlers of the brand for many decades.
What about Gordon and MacPhail? The Urquhart family held on to the dream of having a distillery, and in 1993 bought DCL’s silent Benromach distillery, which they rebuilt and refitted (the equipment being dismantled for parts), taking it well beyond what it was (or probably would have been) under Diageo.
Gordon & MacPhail Strathisla 1963, Bottled 2009 (43%)
Appearance: Deep mahogany, thick legs running down, slowly tapering off.
Nose: Sherry, burnt wax, mint, blueberries, really fresh nutmeg and some strawberry jam. Despite being 45 years old, it has those fresh berries. They just don’t make them like this anymore.
Palate: That bitter old burnt wax, with a fruit compote and lots of red wine tannins, and quite a bit of milk chocolate.
Linger: Bitter with sweet overnotes, dryness in the mouth and coffee and some chocolaty notes.
It’s really hard to beat these old G&M sherry casks, with their signature burnt wax and the deep deep sherry. I could nose this stuff all day.