Mortlach is a single malt that holds a special place in my heart.
While my recent sensitivity to sulfur pretty much renders me unable to enjoy most sherry-influenced spirits these days, I can still remember the days when I first tried and enjoyed sherried Mortlachs bottled by independent bottlers (IBs).
Gordon & Macphail’s (G&M) Mortlach 15 and Diageo’s Mortlach 16 from the Flora & Fauna (F&F) range were my earliest encounters with Mortlach. This was around 2015. Being relatively new to spirits and living in the Philippines – an immature spirits market – concepts such as “worm tub condensers” and “distillate-forward spirits” were pretty much unknown to me. The brand narrative revolving around cask influence dominated both the local scene and my own thinking at the time. As a result, all that mattered was being given a chance to enjoy bottles that were not officially available in the country. Now, I’m not saying the previous sentence is a bad thing; it just means the lack of education and awareness didn’t let me better appreciate what I was drinking at that time.
In case you’re not aware, Mortlach is one of those few Scottish single malt distilleries that is really difficult to get to know. It’s similar, in a way, to the Loch Lomond distillery, due to the fact that they don’t only operate one set of wash and spirits stills, and because they double distill them. For more context, let me refer you to Scotch Whisky dot com’s more in-depth look at the distillery’s ways.
Diageo probably noticed the fandom independently-bottled Mortlachs were receiving, which likely drove them to release a regular range of Mortlachs. Safe to say, this is part of the reason independently-bottled Mortlach are harder to come across – G&M’s Mortlach range has been discontinued, for example – aside from more people catching on, of course.
In this article, Jason talks about Diageo’s first attempt at the premiumization of Mortlach back in 2013. (These releases barely made it to the Philippines, hence, I knew little of them). It’s unclear to me why that product range didn’t do well, but as Jason said, it failed, so Diageo changed their approach. They revamped the Mortlach range in 2018, and they were just launched in the Philippines in late 2020. Jason says more about this topic here.
Before you read my review on the following bottles, let me say that I’m no Mortlach expert. I hadn’t had more than five different kinds prior to the additional three in this review. With that, I’m going to review the whole new range (except the 14-year-old travel exclusive) while comparing it to two Mortlachs bottled by different IBs. Special thanks to the person who sent me samples of the new Diageo Mortlach range. The IBs were bought by me.
Old Provenance Mortlach 2008 10 years (Douglas Laing) – Review
Distilled Feb 2008. Bottled April 2008. Locally bought for $60. 46% ABV.
On the nose: A very hot welcome. Luckily, it quickly dissipates. There is a slowly-alternating assortment of medium-sweet and fruity aromas like ginger candy, coconut sugar, dried apricots, dehydrated oranges, and pineapple with cream. Then slightly lighter aromas of orange peel, pears, honey and dehydrated lemon peels are picked up.
In the mouth: The welcoming heat is pleasantly weaker, yet the fruity notes are, gladly, more expressive compared to the nose. Medium tastes emerge of dried apricots, candied oranges, ginger candy with pineapple cream to end. The heat slightly rises up again and gives way to slightly lighter and more easily disappearing tastes. There are notes of dehydrated lemon peels, pears mashed with honey, vanilla, coconut sugar and apple juice.
Moving on, we have the entry-level expression in Mortlach’s officially-bottled range, previously reviewed by Taylor.
Mortlach “Wee Witchie” 12 Year Old – Review
On the nose: Lots of immediate sweet and fruity aromas with undertones of sour notes. Upfront are medium-strength and lasting notes of ripe plums, prunes, dried dates, orange jelly, dehydrated orange peels and chocolate orange. After these are lighter and more easily-dissipating notes of cherry-flavored candies, mocha, leather, cherry juice concentrate, more dried dates, honey, blood orange, prunes, lemon peel, pears and lanzones.
In the mouth: Upfront sweet and fruity notes as well as sour undertones. There’s a tinge of sulfur that teases me, but it almost immediately goes away. There are pleasant tastes of dried dates, raspberries, cherry-flavored candies, chocolate candies, Japanese adzuki beans, sultanas and Japanese buckwheat honey. At the end are very light tastes of dried oranges, chocolate orange, date syrup, caramel, rye whisky and Fox’s berry-flavored candies.
(8/10 if it were cheaper)
Mortlach “Distiller’s Dram” 16 Year Old – Review
On the nose: The heat here is more prominent compared to the 12. Sweet fruity notes also dominate, but the sweetness starts out as very tangy. The underlying sourness is still there, too. Medium and lasting aromas of yuzu, prunes, baked oranges and orange peels, cherry-flavored candy, dried dates, date syrup, ripe plums and Japanese adzuki beans are what I get. Light and faster scents of dirty wet socks, wet carton, leather, browning red bananas, sultanas and whole red cherries appear at the end.
In the mouth: Initial heat is light compared to the nose. The sulfur is more evident compared to the 12, but nothing that I find bothersome. It’s also more like the 12 here: the sweet fruity notes are similar while still followed by some sour notes. Medium and lasting tastes of dried dates, ripe plums, dark chocolate oranges, candied oranges, Japanese adzuki beans and dried dates are what I get. After those is a slight burst of ethanol heat. It’s followed by lighter and also more easily-dissipating tastes of Fox’s berry-flavored candies, orange peels in simple syrup, honey, prunes and sultanas.
Signatory Non-Chill Filtered Mortlach 1997 17 Years Old – Review
Distilled June 2 1997. Bottled May 7 2015. Matured in Hogshead. Cask # 7176. Bottle # 186.
Locally bought for $60(!!!) back in 2016. (IBs were very unknown here then. No one knew what Mortlach was, either.)
On the nose: Initial medium and hot aromas of pineapple glaze, coarse leather, baked apples, Fuji apple juice, honey, fresh Japanese peaches, lemon peels and orange peels. Before the pineapple aroma are very, very light hints of ashes. After the symphony of fruits are lighter scents of leather, burnt citrus peels, candied orange peels, dried apricots, orange jelly, and that worm-tub meatiness I love.
In the mouth: Not as hot as on the nose, but the notes I get are pretty similar. Upfront are medium and lasting tastes of pineapple syrup, something leathery, baked apples, Fuji apple juice and fresh Japanese peaches. Then I get light and brief tastes of muscatel, elderflowers, tea, chico and cloves.
(just look at the price!)
Mortlach “Cowie’s Blue Seal” 20 Year Old – Review
On the nose: This probably gives off as much heat as the 16, but the upfront aromas are different compared to the 12 and 16. Medium aromas from the ex-sherry casks like prunes, cherry-flavored candies, dried dates, ripe plums, dried apricots and candied orange peels are what I get. There’s an unsurprising flash of sulfur. The heat suddenly spikes, along with medium aromas of baked dough, raisins, sultanas, caramelized orange peel oils, and finally, more sulfur and honey.
In the mouth: A lot less sherry cask influence than on the nose. I’d say the tangy and sherry flavors are more balanced in terms of intensity, but not in layers, of what I taste. There are medium tastes of chocolate, orange peels, prunes, dried dates, honey, caramel, candied orange peels and dried apricots. These really linger, but it lacks the complexity the 12 and 16 have. After the notes above are lighter tastes of dehydrated lemon peels, more sulfur, more honey, Mandarin oranges, orange jelly and leather.
For conclusions, I’m going to do separate comparisons. The first part is for the Old Provenance 10 and the “Wee Witchie” 12 year, as they’re closer in age. The second part is for the “Distiller’s Dram” 16, Signatory UCF 17 and “Cowie Blue Seal” 20 for the same reasons above.
Conclusions Part One:
The 10 and 12 are pretty similar in that I don’t get the meaty sulfur notes from them. These aren’t the meaty types of Mortlach, the G&M 15 and F&F 16 to which I am accustomed. They both lack the coarse yet pleasant textures and meaty sulphuric profiles I positively recall from those past experiences. This is particularly surprising since the 12 spent time in ex-sherry casks. 90% of the time, I taste sulfur from contemporary sherry-casked influenced whisky.
Despite not having the meaty and sulfur flavors I was looking for, I still think the OP 10 is a beast due to the more intense fruity flavors. It’s uncommon for me to get these more intense flavors from modern-day single malts that are condensed with shell and tubes. Meanwhile, the 12 is unusual. I think the sherry influence and relatively low ABV has tamed the beast, yet I still think it packs a punch, as it offers complex flavors and layers I’m not used to getting in distillery-bottled single malts these days.
Could it be that this is what young Mortlach is really like? Like I said, I’m no Mortlach expert. Their different cuts and 2.81 times-distilled process are confusing. Single malts from more modern distilleries that use shell & tube condensers and are of the same ABV don’t have the same weight as this Mortlach.
Jason said something along the lines of Diageo wanting to turn Mortlach Macallan-level famous. I suppose this is why Diageo went the sherry route, too. I’m not confident in the quality of Macallan these days, so I’m not going to bother comparing them with Mortlach. That said, I will compare the prices of some Speyside single malts using The Whisky Exchange as a reference. Mortlach 12 is £49.95 on TWE; compared to other famous 12-year-old Speyside single malts, Glenfiddich 12 is £34.95; Macallan 12 Sherry is £71.95!?!?!; and Macallan 12 Double Cask is £53.95. Macallan 12 Triple Cask goes for £58.95.
£49.95 is a pretty steep price for an entry-level SKU to a brand. Something tells me Diageo isn’t aiming to make this as readily-available as Fiddichs and Livets. My guess is you will find this range wherever you find your Macallans and Dalmores.
Conclusions Part Two:
After having tried all five whiskeys, I’ve come to the conclusion that Mortlach distillates are pretty heavy in bright orange flavors. The 16 year is pretty similar to the 12 and 17 year in terms of both having different shades of orange as flavors they give off. I guess the ex-bourbon casks help amplify those as well (it’s not like vanilla and coconut syrup aren’t mentioned in the reviews), so I think the orange flavors still mainly come from the distillery DNA.
The 16 and 12 are also similar in terms of temperament and the flavors you’ll get. The flavors in the older one just linger longer and have more layers. Something is telling me that the prime age for Mortlach is around the late-teens mark. Out of these three Diageo bottlings, I enjoyed the 16 the most. The Signatory 17 is also just glorious, as I get the meaty and sulfur notes I was seeking. I guess it’s the kinds of cuts used for this age range?
I don’t have a problem with the pricing on this, as it’s not far off from other 16-year-old distillery bottling single malts like Aberlour 16, Lagavulin 16 and Glenlivet Nadurra 16. Yes, I used TWE prices again.
Judging by the scores, you can see that the 20 year is my least favorite among the line up. This is just another proof that older does not mean better. There isn’t much complexity, and the sulfur that I abhor from sherry casks is more noticeable.
What do I think of the whole new Mortlach range? It’s expensive but good. I think it can give Macallan a run for its money as long as the quality stays the same. Knowing these multinational companies, though, I doubt it will. This revamped range seems to be made for easy and good drinking with friends while enjoying cheese, cigars and fruits. Give these a try if money is not an issue.