People often ask me to name my favorite whisky. I think it’s a plea for help, to have an “expert” cut a swath through the jungle of single malt Scotch whisky bottles lining store shelves and say, “DRINK THIS,” like whisky Moses stumbling down the mountain (hmm, there’s a post in there somewhere).
I can’t do it. I can’t pick one ultimate favorite whisky. Instead, I provide handfuls of favorites or I go up a level and pick can’t-miss distilleries. Ardbeg, Balvenie, Highland Park (coming soon), to name a few. Oh, and this other one, Mortlach. Many people don’t know it. Read on for the remedy.
Mortlach is the oldest of Dufftown’s many distilleries (currently six operating distilleries, three closed) and arguably the most desirable distillery in Diageo’s portfolio. The name doesn’t get much shine because close to 99% of Mortlach’s spirit production goes into blends like Johnnie Walker. There is no standard bottling of Mortlach single malt; to get past this scarcity, consumers must hunt down independent bottlings.
So what’s the big deal with Mortlach’s whisky? To put it simply, it’s different from everything else. The whisky has a huge body with a savory, meaty aspect held in generally perfect balance with the other flavors and aromas. Some have argued that Mortlach represents a completely different style of single malt Scotch. When I tried Mortlach in Speyside last year, I was floored. I had to get some. Luckily, I managed to snag a bottle of the Mortlach Flora & Fauna 16yo (still unopened), and when I saw that a tour of Mortlach was on the dockett during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival earlier this year, it was the first event I booked. Mortlach almost never allows tours; the event sold out in less than a day.
My final day at the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival revolved around a tour of Mortlach distillery and a ride up into the foothills of the Cairngorm Mountains to visit The Grouse Inn for high tea and a pseudo-vertical of Mortlach single malts. Our guide, the gentlemanly Steve Oliver, picked up our group outside the Whisky Shop in Dufftown and drove us a couple miles to the distillery. Of course, this being a Diageo operation, no electronics were allowed inside Mortlach, so I was forced to engage my photographic memory.
Since Mortlach doesn’t provide tours, it hasn’t had Diageo’s tourism money poured into it. The distillery looks like many of other distilleries I’ve visited: function over form, older equipment, tried-and-true processes. It won’t stun you with its beauty like Glenrothes or Glenmorangie will, but there is one extremely unique part of the tour: the stillhouse. There’s a lot of folklore about this place. People talk about how Mortlach is 2.5 times distilled – a partial triple distillation – and how the distillation process works this way or that way. It never makes much sense, which is strange because distillation is a fairly standard process: wash flows from the washbacks into the wash stills, where the first distillation happens, then on to the spirit stills where the second distillation happens. The heart of that second distillation is put into barrels for aging.
Easy, right? Not at Mortlach. Every still is a different shape and size (one is called the Wee Witchie because of its witch’s cap shape), meaning the proto-whisky must flow a certain way through the stills to arrive at the distillery’s spirit character. There was a flowchart on the wall of the stillhouse that “explained” the process. Diageo doesn’t need to worry about Mortlach’s secrets getting out – you’d need a Rosetta Stone to decipher it. Turns out Mortlach’s distillation process shares some similarities with Springbank and Benrinnes, which you can notice in the character of these whiskies. On the way to the canteen we got a look at the larch worm tubs still in use to condense the alcohol vapor. Some of my favorite distilleries, places like Talisker, Dalwhinnie, and Edradour, also use worm tubs and it made sense to see them here.
Steve saved the day in the canteen as he provided our first taste of Mortlach (the distillery was going to give us Pittyvaich – also very good, but…): A single cask Mortlach 19yo from The Wine Society bottled at 55.8% ABV. Big, meaty, Sherried with developing flavors and a long, complex finish. A+. The perfect setting for enjoying a dram of Mortlach.
Or might there be someplace even better?
After the brief tour, we collected our electronics and took the bus south of Dufftown into the barren, wind-swept hills of Speyside. A solid 20 minutes of winding, guard-rail-less, high-altitude roads, led us to The Grouse Inn’s parking lot as a cold rain drizzled down. This has to be the most dangerous place for a pub in all the world; certainly the 225 whiskies on optics only contributes to the sense of doom surrounding any trip home. As I walked into the bar, hundreds of golden bottles gleamed in the gantry’s recessed lighting like an artificial sun. Talk about a happy light – that’s one way to combat seasonal affective disorder. Doom schmoom.
The group settled in as Steve poured a Gordon & Macphail single cask Mortlach 13yo. Moreish Sherry fruits blaze to life followed by gravy, figs, and antique leather. The finish evaporates the rain on our coats. Holy. Next up is Douglas Laing’s Old Malt Cask Mortlach 15yo (Non-chill-filtered, single cask, cask strength). This dram pulls back on the Sherry profile and offers up honeyed breakfast cakes, allspice, possibly ginger…even cumin, and Skor bar with an unctuous mouthfeel. My notes say “life changing.”
Steve finishes our day out with a dram from the destroyed Dufftown distillery Pittyvaich. This Flora & Fauna bottling highlights rare non-sweet flavor elements, kind of like Mortlach, with strong allium notes (think green onion and chives) taking over the beginning fruit notes before drifting toward anise and black licorice. An intellectual dram worth studying.
After all the drams, high tea was served and fortified the group. It was a delicious and surreal experience, way up there in the empty hills, being surrounded by such a sumptuous spread and a treasure trove of whisky.
Mortlach is an exemplar of the old ways. They should never change their process. The whisky they’re producing is excellent stuff and, if they would change, they run the risk of never remembering how they used to do it in the event they had to relearn their process from that flowchart I saw. As whisky consumers, you should add Mortlach to your whisky wishlist. Hell, it’s Christmas, why not shoot high with Gordon & Macphail’s 1938 Mortlach? It’s only $5,500/bottle.