Tapping 24 years of experience in the scotch industry, 11 of them with Diageo, senior global brand ambassador Ewan Gunn explains why Mortlach is whisky’s best-kept secret.
What makes Mortlach so elusive?
Because it’s not a whisky that’s been widely available. They’ve been making whisky at the distillery since 1823 in the small town of Dufftown in the heart of Speyside. They were the first legal distillery in town and was the only legal one for 60 odd years. Their whiskies were mostly highly prized by blenders, so it’s used in some of the most exclusive blends [such as Johnnie Walker Blue Label] and they would bottle very small amounts occasionally for private collectors and some of their close friends and family, but that was it. There was never a whisky which was marketed upscale until the 1990s, but even then, we didn’t put any money behind it. But what happened was, word started to spread amongst whisky connoisseurs, collectors and aficionados of great single malt, and it started to build a bit of a following.
Tell us about the brand’s unique distillation process.
It’s totally unlike anything else in Scotland, or the world probably. It’s 2.81 distilled. At Mortlach, there are six stills: three wash stills and three spirit stills. They’re all different sizes and shapes, so [that’s] already quite unusual. When you look at them, they’re all linked up with a mind-boggling array of pipework. We almost virtually run three different distilleries in one.
We start with double distillation, just like anywhere else in Scotland, but the rest we do something pretty crazy. We use the next two stills almost as one big still and from that, some of the spirit goes through a still, and some we set aside. We do that three times, setting aside 20% each time, and we redistill that through a very small still, which we call the ‘Wee Witchie’. We bring all that together in different quantities and that’s how we get that 2.81 figure. There’s no other distillery in the world that does something like it and it makes for a really distinct flavour profile because it’s got more complexity than any other single malt. And that’s even before we mature it.
What can one expect from the 12, 16 and 20 Years Old?
The 12 YO uses a combination of American and European oak. The former gives sweet vanilla notes and the latter more tannin and rich and dark fruits. I will say the 12 YO does a really nice job of straddling that line between sweet and savoury. It’s quite bold and robust, but there’s richness and depth. With the 16 YO, we took inspiration from the whisky we started doing in the 1990s but restrained the sherry influence, so it’s more elegant. There’s an oiliness in the mouthfeel, it clings to the palate and the savouriness comes through a little more.
Back in the day, after Alexander Cowie [who founded the 2.81 equation] passed away, his daughter found a case of his private client whisky, which was never delivered. It was called Cowie’s Blue Seal and we actually opened one of those bottles and used the flavours of that as inspiration for this 20 YO. The savoury notes translate differently with this. They come through as leather notes, polished wood and cigar boxes, but there’s still a lovely sweetness. It has really well-integrated flavours and incredible texture on the palate. It coats it beautifully with a very long and gentle finish.
Which of these do you prefer?
It depends on my mood. If I want something big and robust, it’s usually the 16 YO. But if I want something more elegant and sophisticated, then the 20 YO is great. If you enjoy an Old Fashioned and like big flavour, the 16 YO makes the most decadent Old Fashioned you’ll ever have.
This article first appeared on Nov 28, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.