The history of the Washington DC wine and liquor trade along with a review of some Gordon & MacPhail Single Malt Scotch Whiskies.
By Joshua E. London and Louis Marmon
Washington Jewish Week November 30, 2011
According to Buddy Berman, Jews have been intimately involved in Washington D.C.’s wine and liquor business since the beginning of the 20th century. Buddy knows from where he speaks. Besides nearly 40 years in the drinks industry, he is also the son and grandson of Prohibition era bootleggers who supplied hooch to the thirsty citizens of the Nation’s capital.
While Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920, D.C.’s federal status meant that Congress could and did legislate it “dry” early. So from 1917 until several months after the national repeal of prohibition in 1933, the production and distribution of alcohol in D.C. was outlawed.
This was essentially ignored by most locals – including members of Congress and several successive Presidents – so demand remained defiantly steady. To quench this thirst, booze suppliers became entrepreneurial. Buddy’s family, for example, would go to Miami and meet boats dispatched from Cuba, then return north to D.C.
After Prohibition was repealed, the police hand-delivered the new liquor licenses, with the first going to the National Press Club. Besides the bars, there were soon more than 360 local shops selling alcohol in D.C. with all but a tiny handful of them owned by Jews. Buddy says that most of these were formally small groceries selling produce and household items. The owners lived above their stores and had to go to the central market by 6 a.m. to refresh their stock. The owners quickly realized that “not only doesn’t alcohol spoil after two days, but it also gets delivered.”
Buddy’s first job was at his father’s store located in the middle of the block on Connecticut Avenue at Calvert Street. Over the subsequent decades he has worked for several other D.C. liquor stores and distribution companies, with a break to serve in the army. Currently, Buddy represents the private labeling firm Paramount Distillers and also Gordon & MacPhail, the legendary purveyors and independent bottlers of single-malt Scotch whisky.
According to Buddy, the biggest local change in the business is the shift from “hand-selling” to a more self-serve mindset. “When someone would come into the store,” he said, “they would be asked if they needed any help finding something. Now they are expected to find it themselves.” While “anybody can spend $100 on a bottle of wine” selecting something to drink “still boils down to taste” so developing a relationship with someone at a local store is the best way to assure that you will find something you like at a reasonable price.
The trend away from hand-sales is unfortunate, as consumers tend to become more susceptible to booze marketing and “packaging” when product information is tightly controlled by the folks trying to get consumers to part with their hard-earned cash. “Often, the fancier the bottle,” Buddy noted, “the less interesting is what is inside.” We completely agree. Of course, representing Gordon & MacPhail puts him in a particularly strong position to make such assertions.
Gordon & MacPhail (G&M), to those not in the know, is one of the greatest independent bottlers of single-malt whiskies. Established in 1895 by James Gordon and John MacPhail as a grocery, wine and spirits shop, the firm developed a strong whisky presence.
Just as the firm began exporting its whiskies in 1914, John MacPhail retired and John Urquhart, who had been with the firm soon after it began, became a controlling partner and then the leading presence in the firm. It was Urquhart, and now his progeny, who have made G&M the success that it is today. Though their whisky shop remains in the same location where it started over a century ago, the firm has a global status and even owns and re-launched the nearby Benromach Distillery.
Starting in the 1930s, Urquhart began to lay down stocks of whiskies from all across Scotland in G&M’s now legendary warehouse. Besides creating their own blended whiskies from this supply, the firm helped create the global market for single malts by bottling these whiskies independently of the whisky producers who, back then, almost never bottled anything but blends.
This practice not only helped create a market for single malts but, more importantly, it eventually helped convince whisky producers of the financial benefits of directly meeting this ever-growing demand for single malts. Thankfully, G&M is still at it, supplying the world with some of the greatest and most diverse single-malt whiskies around.
Here then are some choice G&M bottlings that are well worth seeking. All of the following are available at Potomac Wines & Spiritsin Georgetown. If your local shop doesn’t carry G&M whiskies, suggest they do so immediately.
G&M “Connoisseurs Choice” Isle of Jura 1997 12-year-old Island Single Malt Scotch Whisky($60): this sprightly, elegant malt offers aromas and flavors of marzipan, citrus fruits, soft peaches, malted barley, vanilla extract, anise, ginger, white pepper, and something vaguely herbaceous. Light, but rich, tasty and fragrant.
G&M Scapa 2000 Orkney Single-Malt Scotch Whisky ($67): An oily malt exhibiting aromas and flavors of toffee, butterscotch, toast, barley, citrus fruits, vanilla and honey, with a slightly bitter edge, a touch of brine, peat and a whisper of, slightly unwelcome, sulfur on the otherwise long, grassy finish. Lacking some of the complexity more typical of Scapa, but offers enough to keep it interesting and make this an absorbing, lovely, easy-drinking whisky.
G&M Mortlach 15-Year-Old Speyside Single-Malt Scotch Whisky ($70): This light-bodied, straightforward whisky offers enjoyable aromas of barley, cereal notes, heavy fruit compote, and pumpkin spices with flavors of raisins, caramel, fruit salad, toasty oak, vanilla, pepper, and a whisper of something like licorice. A nice dessert-style whisky.
G&M (“Rare Vintage” range) Glen Grant 1958 (on sale at Potomac Wines and Spirits for $303): This 49-year-old whisky is a revelation! Rarely does a whisky endure this many years maturing in wood, without being utterly beaten to death by it – yet this example shines brilliantly.
This is a rich, complex, exceptional whisky. Deep mahogany colored, exhibiting enticing aromas of toffee, cinnamon, cloves, stewed fruit, oak and vanilla, followed through on the balanced palate with additional elegant flavors of malted barley, fruit, leather, raisins, orange and apple peels, pear, something like cider, and with hints of toasted cereals. The finish is long, lush and racy. This is a great example of G&M’s “Rare Vintage” range, and, as these things go, one well worth the money. This is liquid history and sheer bottled poetry! L’chaim!