Interviews 26 November 2020

Life Lessons with Gordon & MacPhail’s Michael Urquhart, IWSC President 2021

The new IWSC president has had a long and dynamic career which has included restoring a lost distillery and launching the oldest-ever single malt. Now he's more focused on his golf swing – among other things. Just don't tell him he's retired...
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Scotch whisky veteran Michael Urquhart started his latest adventure as the 2021 president of the IWSC this week, for which he will doubtless draw on his long experience running the family business – independent whisky specialist Gordon & MacPhail.

Having qualified as an accountant, Urquhart joined G&M as finance director in 1981, helping to grow the business both in the UK and abroad, along with his late brother David.

“Traditionally our business was quite local,” Urquhart says. “We did some work with the likes of Fortnum & Mason and Harrods, but while 30 years ago, there was an interest in single malts, there wasn’t the range out there that there is today.”

Retirement is a notional phrase

During his time in the business, Urquhart oversaw the 1993 purchase and rebuilding of a lost Speyside distillery, Benromach. He also launched the oldest bottling of single malt Scotch ever to be sold: a Mortlach 75-year-old, ordered to be filled into cask in 1939 by Michael’s grandfather, John. He retired as managing director in 2014.

Since then, Urquhart has kept busy as a non-executive director of the National Theatre for Scotland, and has been involved in the Scottish Council for the Development of Industry. He is also Chairman of the business assembly for the Moray Growth Deal, focusing on a £100m project for the development of the Moray and Elgin regions over the next decade.

“Retirement is a notional phrase,” he says. “I’m delighted to be able to give back.”

What was your childhood ambition?

I was brought up in a family business, and spent holidays working in the warehouse or the bottling hall, so a commercial career was probably inevitable. After school then college in Edinburgh I qualified as a chartered accountant. I contemplated a career as a stockbroker, but thought better of it and returned to G&M as finance director in 1981. And what a fantastic career it proved to be – in a fascinating industry.

What do you know now that you wished you’d known when you were 21?

That was a long time ago – prior to the internet, the mobile phone and even the fax machine. So it might have been useful to have had some advance warning of such technical advances.

Moray Golf Club: "We are always socially distanced as our shots go in different directions"

What exercise do you do?

I play golf two or three times a week, but not competitively (my handicap is 29 so I’d need all the help I can get!) They say golf is a good walk ruined, but I enjoy the views and we are lucky to have so many good courses here in Moray and Scotland in general. I play at Elgin GC (described by Peter Alliss as the best inland course in the north of Scotland) and Moray GC at Lossiemouth, considered to be one of the finest links courses in Scotland. My game is improving, slowly, but the chat with my golfing companions as we go round the course is more consistently enjoyable. Luckily, we are always socially distanced as our shots go in different directions.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

I can be a bit dogmatic…

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?

When I stepped down from the board of G&M I bought myself a Range Rover Sport. It’s a very comfortable car, and being that bit higher on the road, you can see so much more.

"Great restaurant": the Ness Walk Hotel at Inverness
Most expensive possession: a Range Rover Sport

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

We are very lucky to live in Moray, with its own micro-climate. You can enjoy from the seaside and wonderful beaches, to the mountains and everything in between. Not to mention it being home to more than half of Scotland’s distilleries. We enjoy getting to Edinburgh, London or Australia to see our children and grandchildren and enjoy the attractions of the cities. Spending time in Edinburgh during the Festival each year is always fun, but I’m always happy to come back afterwards. Moray will always be home.

If you could do any other job what would it be?

Now I’m “retired” I can pick and choose what I do. I keep in touch with my industry friends via the committees of the Keepers of the Quaich and the Worshipful Company of Distillers, and I’m closely involved with the Moray Growth Deal, as chair of its business assembly, which is looking to invest £100m in the coming decade or so. I’m also on the board of the National Theatre of Scotland (not for any thespian skills, I might add). I couldn’t ask for more.

Two types of thriller: Ian Rankin and Kim Darroch

What luxury item – aside from whisky – would you take with you to a desert island?

Well, you’re right, some fine single malt Scotch whisky would be my first choice, of course; there is such variety. But if that’s not allowed, I’ll take a few books instead.  It would be a mixture of biographies, thrillers and crime fiction. I’m just finishing A Long Stride, the history of Johnnie Walker by Dr Nick Morgan, after reading Collateral Damage by Kim Darroch, former UK Ambassador to the US. I have The Powerful and the Damned, the diaries of the former editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber, and The Rise and Fall of The City of Money, a financial history of Edinburgh by Ray Perman ready to read – along with Ian Rankin’s A Song for the Dark Times and other thrillers.

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

I’m looking forward to G&M having its second distillery – The Cairn is currently under construction. And lowering my golf handicap and the number of balls I lose.

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

I’d get rid of tariffs on trade between the UK and the EU (and vice versa) to set a benchmark for others to follow in support of global free trade, and for the US to drop the unfair tariff on Single Malt Scotch Whisky and British cashmere.

"Scintillating": Aberdeenshire-born Annie Lennox would be an ideal dinner guest
"Plenty of cream and butter": TV chef James Martin

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Arnold Palmer, to get some tips on golf. Ian Rankin, to chat about his character DI John Rebus and his favourite haunts in Edinburgh. James Martin for his relaxed and convivial style of cooking (with plenty of cream and butter). Sir Alexander Walker (son of John ‘Johnnie’ Walker) to discuss family businesses in the whisky industry. And as the whisky industry has been so male-dominated in the past (thankfully that is changing) it would be good to hear from two formidable women, Helen Cumming of Cardhu Distillery and Bessie Williamson of Laphroaig Distillery who could easily hold their own with all these men at the table. Last, but far from least, Annie Lennox and Emeli Sandé, both brought up in Aberdeenshire, for some musical entertainment and scintillating conversation.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Predictably, fine wine and Single Malt Scotch – and a bit of chocolate…

What’s your secret talent?

Avoiding manual labour. I believe in the circular economy, so try wherever possible to employ someone else to do the hard work.

When were you happiest?

At home reflecting on a successful business trip over a plate of mince and tatties (potatoes).

Who do you most admire?

There are a few who have paved the way for Scotch whisky to progress – Johnnie Walker, Andrew Usher, William Grant, James Gordon, my grandfather and father, John & George Urquhart, and others who have set the pathway for future generations in the to follow.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Chartered Accountants are often misunderstood.”

What’s your greatest regret?

I don’t tend to have regrets – everything happens for a reason and mistakes often create the best opportunities.

A good night in: Nigel Hawthorne, Paul Eddington and Derek Fowlds in Yes Minister

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?

Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, the BBC satire in the 1980s staring Paul Eddington as Jim Hacker, a government minister, then Prime Minister, who constantly bested by his Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby.

What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?

My kilt and highland dress which reminds me of so many happy times at celebratory events.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

It’s difficult to just choose one as I’ve had the pleasure of dining in many fantastic spots around the world over the years, but Rules in London is always a favourite. The COVID restrictions have been difficult but it has meant we have spent more time exploring places nearby and we recently enjoyed a stay at Ness Walk Hotel in Inverness, which also has a great restaurant.

What time do you go to bed?

Usually about 10.30–11pm to read a book, unless sleep takes over after a strenuous day on the golf course.

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