Is there a distillery that has been pummelled like Mortlach in recent years? Very unlikely is the short answer, when you consider how the Beast of Dufftown has now been reduced to little more than a whimpering field mouse.
This iconic Speyside distillery withstood the ravages of time and economic forces for generations. Safely nestled within the Diageo stable, Mortlach’s reputation was intact amongst enthusiasts and to passers-by its beauty and historical elegance were undeniable. Then the fatal decision of premiumisation from its owners arrived a couple of years ago. This marked a new beginning and in theory would lift up the distillery from its calm existence into a world-leading single malt with the price tag attached.
All the preparations were made. Bulldozers moved in – ahead of final approval – and demolished some of that aforementioned history. The distillery would receive a new annexe thereby boosting production and when the improvements were completed, it would be able to deliver an output on a scale similar to its supposed rivals in Dalmore and Macallan. No expense was spared with the appointment of a brand ambassador to spread the 2.81 message and provide foster care for those rather expensive 50cl bottles.
Nearing the end of 2017, the status update is that the range still exists, but has failed to capture the imagination of the consumer. Personally, I recall a rather plush wedding reception this summer where a Mortlach was on offer. It was perceived by onlookers as a mysterious inclusion, rather ornate and dinky, but wasn’t slurped like its neighbouring bottles. A fool and his money are easily parted and without question some have taken the bait – mostly in the Asian market – and likely never returned.
The Beast of Dufftown cowers in a corner – wounded but not fatally – a pale shadow of its former self. The onsite plans have never come to full fruition and its classical looks are somewhat tarnished by a new facility that feels out of character with the setting. That Mortlach brand ambassador has moved on to promote the range of Bacardi malts including the Deveron of all things. More recently, Duncan Tait, the distillery manager has left to join the new community start-up GlenWyvis in Dingwall. All of this begs the question what next for Mortlach?
Ideally this means a return to common sense and the core ideals that established its reputation. The dispatching of those 50cl bottles, removal of those ridiculous price tags and a reengagement from the blenders to let the distillery shine. The physical damage is irreversible and onlookers may suggest that as a brand Mortlach has become tarnished and many former devotees will not return. Only time will tell, but a continuation down this premiumisation pathway seems folly now and another poorly conceived and short-sighted launch from Diageo.
The distillery manager moving on is understandable given the conversations Malt has had with several within the industry. Many distillers want to do exactly that. Create and sculpt whisky, as opposed to pressing buttons and orchestrating internal controls. The majority of these long-established distilleries have become complacent and stuck in a rut. The incoming new generation is far more adaptable and open to new ideas and a more hands-on, crafted approach. It makes for an exciting prospect moving forward but what of Mortlach?
Whilst the current official range is financial nonsense, the independent sector still seemingly has copious amounts of Mortlach to feed the legend of the beast. The classic accompaniment remains a filthy sherry cask. However here we have a well-aged ex-bourbon vessel that was until recently available on the Cadenhead Warehouse Tour. Campbeltown doesn’t only offer the best distillery in Springbank but can harbour delightful casks from other distilleries. Thankfully, Noortje put down her addictive Jenga blocks and ventured out to this distant region of Scotland and came back with bounty such as this.
Distilled on 4 March 1987, cask 953, this would have been pre-tinkering of the 1990’s that some of my enthusiastically detailed obsessed friends tell me changed the character forever. Bottled at 51% strength and 30 years of age, this is bound to be an echo of the past. Let’s see.
Cadenhead’s Mortlach 1987 29 year old review
On the nose: those sculpted aromas that only come with time and patience. Furniture polish, raisins and a fusion of pepper and wood shavings. Beneath this resides strawberry jelly, bananas, a rich honey and cardamom. Time reveals the burnt topping from a rice pudding, walnuts and a toffee penny with some Dairy milk chocolate notes.
In the mouth: its interesting as initially I was expecting a fruit burst that is suggested by the red apples but this quickly dissipates leaving a spice body with nutmeg, pepper and more vanilla. Nuttiness and a polished brass take us towards a gentle finish propagated by the oak cask.
This is certainly an enjoyable and refined example of a Mortlach from an ex-bourbon. Many I’ve had previously lack the balance and fine-tuned aerodynamics that this dram offers. Overall, this Mortlach is a very good whisky just missing that extra level to reach excellence.