The century-old single malt is the fodder of fables, the holy grail of hooch. In the world of whisky—so susceptible to the allure of the age statement—there will forever be a concerted effort to make this dream a reality. But there’s a good reason why it hasn’t happened yet: The physical constraints are daunting. Thankfully, Stuart Urquhart loves a good challenge. Meet the man who thinks he can deliver a 100-year-old scotch in the near future.
If ever there was a company suited to hurtling the 100-year barrier, it’s Gordon & MacPhail. The family-owned independent bottler has been judiciously stewarding scotch since the 1890s. From the small Speyside town of Elgin, it oversees hundreds of barrels collected from more than 70 producers.
As operations director, Urquhart is in charge of lining up the proper liquid with its ideal cask companion. “Leaving a [barrel] to reach its full potential, undeterred by demand or necessity, is a long-held family mantra,” he says. “We will only release a whisky when we feel it’s truly at its pinnacle.”
In recent years, he has been realizing that pinnacle in older and older whiskies. Gordon & MacPhail grabbed headlines earlier in the decade by releasing some of the most mature malts on the market. The Generations series debuted in March of 2010 with a 70-year-old Mortlach bottling. By 2015, more liquid was drawn from a similar batch of casks, resulting in a 75-year-old expression. The whisky was originally laid down in first fill sherry butts on November 17, 1939, by John Urquhart, Stuart’s great-grandfather.
Challenges and Workarounds
Mortlach retailed for more than $30,000 a bottle—not a bad deal when you consider how little remained by the time it left the barrel. “A sherry butt starts off containing 320 liters of alcohol,” says Urquhart. “After 2% evaporation [per year] over 100 years, only 42 liters of alcohol would remain.” Best case scenario, that’s a total of just 60 bottles.
But the infamous angel’s share isn’t the only element confounding an ultra-aged whisky. “The environmental factor determines how the water and alcohol within the spirit evaporates, and this impacts the alcohol strength of the remaining spirit,” says Urquhart. “If the environment encourages alcohol to evaporate faster than water, the strength will reduce, and it can drop to under 40% ABV. If [this happens], then it’s not possible to sell it as Scotch whisky.”
So after decades of aging, a scotch eventually runs the risk of not being scotch anymore. Bigger producers have developed a somewhat scandalous remedy for this unfortunate turn of events called cold-fingering. They stick an icy rod into the affected barrels and extract water from the solution as it freezes around the metallic interloper. Slowly but surely, this will raise the proof of the remaining whisky. But it’s not exactly legal in the eyes of the Scotch Whisky Association.
Fortunately, Uqruhart thinks he has stumbled upon the proper barrels—and the ideal conditions—to lawfully keep the whisky above the 40% mark. “The casks that Gordon & MacPahil has had success with have mainly been sherry butts, such as the 1948 from Glen Grant distillery that we released earlier this year,” he says. And by his calculations, there’s similar liquid in that same Elgin warehouse that could weather another three decades of maturation.
Gordon & MacPhail isn’t the only horse in this advanced age-statement arms race. Last year, The Macallan unveiled 599 bottles of its oldest single malt to date. Amber-hued and 72 years young, it’s packaged in a Lalique crystal decanter and considered a bargain for $65,000. Glenfiddich and The Dalmore have both released 64-year-old expressions in the 21st century.
G&M has a competitive advantage over its Scottish neighbors, however. As an independent entity, it doesn’t have to answer to shareholders and isn’t concerned with meeting a bottle minimum when marketing a new release. Urquhart notes that they aren’t beholden to anything but “patience and having a desire to allow casks to pass through the business for future generations of colleagues.”
But just because they can make a 100-year-old label doesn’t mean they should. “In a nutshell, I think it’s a gimmick,” says a prominent whisky writer who requested to remain anonymous, given the contentious merits of ultra-aged spirits. “Those who buy such bottles have a vested interest in liking the liquid. You wouldn’t spend all that money, open it and then declare, ‘Meh, it’s nothing special.’ It might cost 100 times more than a stellar 20-year-old whisky, but in reality it’s not going to taste 100 times better. The knowledge that you’re drinking something very old, very rare, very exclusive is, in a way, part of the experience.”
Gordon & MacPhail, for its part, hasn’t gotten to where it is on the mere promise of an experience. The whisky it sells is damn good and has been since 1895. It follows that if Urquhart is ready to release the world’s first 100-year-old malt, it’ll be a whisky he knows is worthy of brandishing his family’s mark. “There’s no guarantee,” he says. “Only time will tell.”