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Signatory 1991 Mortlach versus “The Wee Witchie”

A Turkish proverb advises, “No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back.” I’m shocked to report that someone – a multinational beverage conglomerate, no less – seems to have actually taken this advice.

I’ve recently tackled the issue of opportunistic price increases in my review of Aberlour A’Bunadh, and my conclusion was: vote with your wallet. If a corporate owner chases profits by putting up the price of your favorite whisky, buy something else.

Can I be completely honest? I can’t believe that actually works, other than as a coping mechanism to help us poor whisky drinkers get by. I presume that these big corporations have big corporation buildings full of big corporation people (oh, and consultants) whose job is to research markets, segments, price points, and so forth. The profile is so high, the investment so great, that I cannot imagine there is less-than-comprehensive due diligence performed before undertaking a price increase or rebranding, much less half-rebuilding a distillery.

I would be wrong.

Jason contemporaneously weighed in on Diageo’s 2014 decision to undertake the “premiumisation” of Mortlach. In essence, this equated to bigger price tags on smaller bottles. Only four years in, this has proven to be a misstep (put kindly), so much so that Diageo publicly walked back the move last summer. Though there’s not an apples-to-apples comparison across the range due to difference in age statements, some back-of-the-envelope math indicates an average -60% price cut (adjusted for bottle size).

I’m as surprised as anyone to be saying this, but “good on Diageo.” It takes a lot of humility to listen to critical feedback from consumers. It’s difficult to engage in self-reflection and courageous to admit when a mistake has been made. Taking action to rectify these errors shows that someone at Diageo cares deeply about the integrity of their products and their relationships with their customer.

GAHAHAHAHA! They did it because they weren’t making any money, obvi! Mortlach quickly became an overt catastrophe, with distillers and brand ambassadors alike fleeing the listing ship like tartan-clad rats. Someone done messed up. I’d love to tell you that the guy (and it is a guy) in charge of this debacle got fired; more likely he threw some underlings under the bus and got promoted to Global Vice President of F***king With a Perfectly Fine Thing to Cop Some of Them Hot Renminbi.

What will be interesting to find out is whether Mortlach can reestablish the trust that they eroded through such a nakedly opportunistic money grab. As a prominent fellow Midwesterner put it: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.” Judging by the coverage here on MALT, Mortlach have turned off their serious drinking audience with these shenanigans. The savvier sippers among us seem to have defected to the independent bottlings, as is the case with so many other distilleries that have lost their way under misguided corporate parentage.

So, we are back where we started from. By “we are” I mean “you are.” My good luck is that I’ve never tasted a Mortlach in my life, for better or worse. Until now!

To digress for a moment: my prior approach to a new (to me) distillery has been to opt for the entry-level whisky/whiskey/bourbon/etc. Since I’m not doing this for pay, I figure I’m writing these reviews as a public service. I surmised that my efforts were best placed by grabbing the same bottle that a normal punter would pick off the shelf and evaluating it as the benchmark for a given producer.

I’ve only just realized that I’ve been swindling myself. Of course, nobody sells their best whisky for $50/bottle! To make amends, I’m barbelling the new low-end Mortlach with a ridiculously expensive independently-bottled single cask. I’m worth it. Also, Jason informs us that a sherry cask Mortlach is the only way to go. Also, it was free.

This is cask #4244, distilled 5/14/1991, bottled 7/19/2016 at 55%, in a run of 222 bottles. My local has it for $300. This dram was graciously shared with me by Carl; many thanks to him for his generosity.

Signatory Mortlach 1991 25 Year Old – Review

Color: Orangey-brown

On the nose: Wonderfully expressive. Kola nut, chestnuts, golden raisins, nutmeg, dates, honey, cocoa butter, lily flowers, eucalyptus, mint leaf, and balsam.

In the mouth: Starts with a bright burst of tart kumquat. Immediately eases into a densely woody midpalate, transitioning through the richness of dried apricot into another sharply citric crescendo towards the finish. Long and warm through the back of the mouth, balanced by a clearly-delineated lingering mineral note. Throughout it all there is a weight to the underlying spirit; not heavy, per se, but massive. It provides inert ballast against the forceful influence of the sherry cask.

Conclusion

A glorious whisky. Packed full of smells and flavors. Clean, rich but fresh, and always finding equilibrium throughout every phase of its progression. You get what you pay for.

Score: 9/10


OK, on to the heavy lifting. I have spent my own hard-earned money on the lowest entrant in the Mortlach “truth and reconciliation” range. It’s named after a still. Yes, really. I can’t do any worse than their official description, reproduced here:

“An ode to our smallest yet most essential still, the ‘Wee Witchie,’ this 12-year-old Single Malt Scotch Whisky has been double-cask matured in both European and American oak to enhance the distinctively rich and robust character that makes Mortlach whiskies legendary.”

The more astute readers among you will note the lack of informational content in the above blurb. I purchased a 750 ml (remember those?) for $47 at Buena Park’s finest bottle shop. It is 12 years old, bottled at 43.4% and available from Master of Malt for £49.95 or via Amazon for £53.35.

Mortlach “The Wee Witchie” 12 Years Old – Review

Color: Dark carrot, with a luminous glint of Irn-Bru

On the nose: This hasn’t lost any of the signature Mortlach meatiness. This is distinct, yet hard to describe; variegated, yet monolithic. In the order that I am able to grasp the aromas: egg yolk, honeysuckle, the damply yeasty aroma of unbaked dough, some more richly buttery notes, vanilla bundt cake, and a hint of freshly-cut green stems.

In the mouth: Weak throughout. Flat entrance, with a faint, watery woodiness. This evolves a somewhat candied licorice note of Good & Plenty. There’s a bit of rich mandarin orange citric tartness, but – again – diluted, as though you’d squeezed one into a pint glass full of water. There’s the most flaccid burst of vanilla and cinnamon before the watery-sweetness of watermelon (out of season) and a hint of cigarette ash emerge as the only lingering notes on an otherwise unremarkable finish.

Conclusion

As an olive branch to aggrieved customers, this falls well short of making the necessary amends. It’s as milquetoast and dull as Diageo stablemate Dalwhinnie, and that’s saying something. Until Mortlach gets its act together, money spent on this official bottling seems a waste, even presuming a normal rate of failure on the independently bottled single cask offerings.

Score: 3/10

Lead image is an official photograph. And there are a couple of commission links within this review which as you can see never affects our opinion.

CategoriesSingle Malt
Taylor
Taylor

Taylor's a native of Chicago. After heading to university in Scotland, he graduated from drinking Whyte & Mackay and Coke to neat single malts. He's also a keen fan of Japanese whisky, having visited the country regularly over the last several years, where he was able to assemble a decent collection before prices went batty.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Cheers Ed. I feel like I’ve done my duty for now; I’ll leave the 16 year old to any of my other MALT colleagues who would care to have a crack at it.

  1. Avatar
    PBMichiganWolverine says:

    I might be off base here, but I always felt the independent bottling of Mortlach were better than the distillery ones. Which is surprising, because one would think they’d want to keep best casks for themselves.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      This is true for more than Mortlach. Perhaps to do with the necessity of blending to a brief in globally commercial quantities? I’m sure Mark and Jason have opinions better-formed than mine. Thanks again for reading PB, and GO BLUE!

  2. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    In reply to “keeping best casks” I think it’s a typical thing that as whisky drinkers (particularly current day taste) we like full flavours, and sometimes forget most people don’t. Therefore Chivas, Diageo etc make their releases mostly “boring”, as they need easy to drink whisky to sell in the bulk they do.

    In regards to the main article – I had wondered what I was reading at first! I was already writing up a big reply in my head, not to mention the shock that I was reading this on Malt! But continued reading and saw the rest, and my faith was restored. However I wonder how as a vast company Diageo has been affected by Mortlach – recently it’s become obvious even standard bottlings such as 18yo across the industry are moving up in price quite quickly. Is this purely the market and lack of supply? Or by sacrificing Mortlach have Diageo got us used to a standard whisky being worth more? Therefore it’s helped increase the prices on all the other distilleries they have? It’s quite normal to use this halo mode to pull up the prices of everything else, and helps normalise bottles moving up in price (“This 18yo is £20 more than it used to be, but still cheap compared to Mortlach’s 18yo so worth it” type thing). Macallan have done this perfectly (business wise) – many think it’s a bargain to pay £100 plus for NAS whisky of varying quality, as the prices for stuff at the top pulls up the lower end with it.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Jeremy… Ha – Gotcha! I understand your theory, but one would have to think Diageo was pretending to be idiotic to be clever in order to successfully execute this “strategy.” Applying Occam’s Razor, it seems more likely they just badly misjudged the market’s credulity with regards to Mortlach. In any case, thanks much for reading and weighing in.

  3. Avatar
    Welsh Toro says:

    My word, a lot of good content in that one Taylor. First off, you lucky b…..d, you got the Signatory 25 for free (well done). I had Signatory’s previous bottle of that one at 24 years old. It was excellent and cost me about £125 in 2015/16. We talk about Mortlach’s prices but what about the independent bottlers. This bottle would be twice the price today at least. A 100% price rise in 3 years. Independent bottlers have jumped on the wagon as well. The much enjoyed G&M Mortlach 15 (43%) is at the peak of its price limit and I’m not in any rush to replace it now.

    Okay, Diageo screwed up Mortlach big time. Gallons of unsold stock made them have a change of heart. They damn well tried it on though didn’t they? (I think Aberlour will learn that lesson too.) We have the new range which, for the record, is still well overpriced. I’m afraid your review of the 12 only confirms what I suspected about the quality. A very enjoyable review as usual. I watch the YouTube whisky content but I love the written word so much more. Cheers. WT

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      WT, kind words- and yes, I am lucky to have generous friends! Point well taken about the independent bottlers and pricing. At least you get the benefit of transparency, though! Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  4. Avatar
    Nellie says:

    Cheers to you Sir for this review. The Mortlach Flora and Fauna bottling, now extinct, as you know, was and will forever be my favorite whisky. I have half a bottle left for special occasions.

    When Mortlach effectively sold out and rebranded it was easy to ascertain that the revised product offering and accompanying value proposition were utter crap. I was hoping that they were pivoting back to their loyal customers (me), but it seems the final revised product is not in keeping with the original quality that we had come to expect in the former, transcendent iteration…addmittedly a tough task to adhere to. Still, I admire their zeal in recognizing the foolhardiness of their ways, as you allude, and subsequent attempt to reconnect with the customer base. In the meantime, I’ll stick with the Dailuane F and F and sleep quite peacefully. Cheers.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Nellie, Glad you enjoyed it. I’ve yet to try any of the Flora and Fauna range, though they garner consistent praise. As for Mortlach: perhaps Diageo will do better with the more mature expressions, though I won’t be forking out for them on the basis of my experience with The Wee Witchie. Thanks again for your comments!

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