I took the above picture of Mortlach distillery on our trip to Scotland in 2012. David and I were driving around Dufftown and I wanted to see the actual site before leaving. I'm a big fan of the whisky, when I can get the type of Mortlach that I'm looking for, so I wanted to get a look at the distillery in person. I love Mortlach when it's matured in first-fill sherry casks, massively rich, and bursting with baking spices. Finding that specific style in the U.S., however, isn't always easy.
Alfred Barnard wrote about his visit to Mortlach more than one hundred years before I got around to it. In his day the proprietor was a man named George Cowie. He writes:
Dufftown is a quaint village, almost aspiring to be a town, and stands close to Mortlach Church... The village is screened by Benrinnes, and there are two beautiful glens in the vicinity, Glenfiddich and Dullan... Mortlach Church and churchyard are famous as having been the scene, in the year 1010, of the great battle between Malcolm II and the Danes, resulting in the defeat of the latter... The Mortlach Distillery was built in the year 1823 and consists of an irregular pile of buildings on the right and left of the principal gateway. The barley lofts are 360 feet and the maltings 300 feet long, with a kiln floored with metal plates, and where peat only is used in drying the malt... The whisky is Highland malt and the annual output is 85,000 gallons.
Fast forward more than a century and we've got an entirely new Mortlach. The facility is now owned by Diageo and pumps out about 3.8 million liters of whisky a year. It's one of the key components of Johnnie Walker Black, providing the robust and flavorful backbone of the world's most recognizable blended Scotch. Millions of people all over the world love the flavor of Mortlach, they just don't know it.
The 2013 edition of the Malt Whisky Yearbook writes:
The...single malt from Mortlach distillery has many fans. This became apparent when it was virtually impossible to get hold of a few years back, when it was needed for the evermore popular Johnnie Walker Black Label. It's popularity is nothing new though. Already in the 1860s when the distillery was owned by John Gordon, Mortlach was sold in Leith and Glasgow under "the Real John Gordon."
I know a lot of UK whisky drinkers love Mortlach. John Glaser loves using it in his Compass Box blends and vattings. Like the above paragraph states, Mortlach's popularity is nothing new....for the UK, where one can find the 16 year old distillery bottling under Diageo's Flora & Fauna label. However, most whisky drinkers in the states have no idea what Mortlach tastes like - not because they can't find any, but because most of what's available is wildly inconsistent. What we've sold at K&L over the last few years has been bottled by A.D. Rattray, Duncan Taylor, Murray McDavid, Gordon & MacPhail, and numerous other labels, but an overwhelming majority of these selections have been a far cry from what UK drinkers expect from Mortlach.
Just recently a customer in our Redwood City store, who had purchased a 1995 Macallan Duncan Taylor bottling, came back to the shop and asked for his money back. Why? Because to him this whisky didn't taste like Macallan. I gave the customer his refund because he was totally right. It didn't. This particular 1995 Macallan was from a refill hoggy and had absolutely zero sherry influence whatsoever. Macallan without Oloroso sherry or new oak tastes like fruity, light, grassy Highland malt. It could have been Linkwood or even Auchentoshan for that matter. The point is: this customer expected to taste Macallan flavor when he purchased a bottle that said Macallan on it, not knowing about the vast world of independently bottled casks that offers many unique and out-of-the-ordinary versions of familiar brands.
Why mention that? Because most of what we've carried from Mortlach has also been completely unsherried, it's just that for most customers there's no expectation for what Mortlach should taste like.
If you look up tasting notes for the official Mortlach 16, a whisky I know and love (and bring back with me when I fly back from the UK), you'll read descriptors like: rich, raisins, Christmas cake, spicy, and powerful. When you see notes like that you know you're dealing with sherry; likely first-fill juice. Yet, let's look at the last ten or so Mortlachs we've had here at the store (NOTE: most of these are long sold out):
Mortlach 15 year, Gordon & MacPhail Single Malt Whisky $69.99 - This is pretty close to what I expect from Mortlach, but it's not quite as heavy. That's because it's a marriage of first-fill sherry casks dilluted by the addition of refill casks.
Mortlach 22 Year Old A.D. Rattray Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky (half-bottle) $67.99 - This whisky is from a refill sherry butt, so it has flashes of the robust Mortlach spice, but not at the level that I'm looking for personally.
Mortlach 17 Year Old The Exclusive Malts Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $129.99 - More refill action. Some richness, but nothing like what I'm on the hunt for.
Mortlach 17 year Malt Trust Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $125.99 - Single Bourbon cask. No sherry.
Mortlach 17 year Duncan Taylor Dimensions Single Malt Whisky $134.99 - Hogshead. Light and lean.
Mortlach 13 Year Old Murray McDavid Yquem Cask Single Malt Whisky $54.99 - Hogshead Mortlach, sweetened up with the dessert wine cask.
Mortlach 17 year old Cask Strength, Murray McDavid Mission Gold Olorosso Sherry Cask Single Malt Whisky $125.99 - YES! This one was fantastic. Just what I'm looking for. Too bad we sold our last bottle on February 7th, 2010.
Mortlach 18 Year Old Hart Brothers Sherry Aged Single Malt Whisky $124.99 - This one was almost there. It had the sherry, but it wasn't a single cask and ended up a bit too lean and soft. The cakebread and Christmas spices were absent.
1990 Mortlach 19 Year Old, A.D. Rattray, Cask Strength Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - This was a hogshead so the flavors were light and grainy. No richness.
Mortlach 12 year old, Murray McDavid Bourbon/Guigal Cotes Rotie Syrah Cask Single Malt Whisky $54.99 - This was the first "K&L Exclusive" I ever bought for the store back in 2009. Delicious, but not because it tasted like Mortlach.
So, out of all the Mortlachs I remember selling here at K&L over the past few years, only one of them ever really came close to what I think of when I think of great Mortlach - the Murray McDavid Gold because it had the intense sherry action at a high proof.
And that's just what I've sold at K&L. Then there's all of the casks I've been offered in the last few years. Second fill hogsheads galore! Tons of mild, mediocre, drinkable whiskies that were overpriced because they had the Mortlach name stamped on the bottle (similar to that Macallan bottle I mentioned before). If this selection accurately assesses what the American public has been subjected to when it comes to Mortlach, then it's no wonder that the distillery isn't nearly as revered here in the U.S. as it is by some of my Scottish industry friends.
If I could just find some first-fill, full-throttle Mortlach I think we could really show some of our California customers what this Diageo distillery is capable of.
If I could just find the right whisky, the kind that reminds me of what Mortlach does best, I think we'd really have a winner.