Mortlach Distillery & Its Incredibly Wacky Still House
Mortlach Distillery produces a much-loved whisky, but for a long time the Mortlach 16 Years Old Flora & Fauna was the only official bottling. That single bottling was enough to build a very loyal following. It has since been replaced twice over, first with a much maligned, very expensive range in 50 centiliter bottles, and now with a proper age statement core range that was much better received.
Of course, there have always been the independents providing a reliable output of often incredible single cask Mortlach whiskies. Considering that up until recently owner Diageo didn’t do much in terms of brand promotion, it is remarkable how well-loved Mortlach is amongst whisky enthusiasts. It is revered for its peculiar, meaty style, and affectionally nicknamed “The Beast of Dufftown”, a phrase coined by Dave Broom.
Drinking Mortlach is one thing, but visiting the distillery is something else altogether. A lucky few have been granted access in the past, but not many. About the only way to get inside, is during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. Which is what I did this year. It wasn’t a cheap ticket at 60 quid – more expensive than the Flora & Fauna used to be – but worth it to me, if only to be able to set my eyes on Mortlach’s wacky still house.
Donald Colville, global brand ambassador for Diageo’s Scotch single malt whiskies, showed me and a few other Festival attendees around the distillery. But before we set off into the distillery, surprisingly and courageously, Donald came out and said that the first iteration of the Mortlach core range was a mistake. Mortlach is one of his favourite distilleries (which came off as truthful and not as marketing talk), and they thought they were doing the right thing at the time. The market told Diageo otherwise.
The latest core range, with a 12-year old, 16-year old and 20-year old expression (keep your eyes peeled for reviews later this week), is something Donald is very happy with. When he interviewed for his first position at Diageo some two decades ago, he told Nick Morgan, his then soon-to-be boss, that if there was anything he could change at Diageo, it was to make Mortlach into a proper single malt brand. It took a while, as Mortlach was – and is – seen as almost a too important component of Johnnie Walker. But now finally, Donald got his wish.
The distillery itself only really gets interesting once you reach the pot stills, but I’ll go into a little detail about the wort anyway. Whereas the usual grist ratio in most distilleries is 70% grist, 20% husk, and 10% percent flour, Mortlach uses a ratio op 72/20/8. The reason for this, is that they tend to go for a clear wort, which is why they don’t want to add too much flower to the mash tun.
You’ll find plenty (probably most, even) distilleries in Scotland that produce a cloudy wort. It’s known to result in a spirit with more malty, nutty and spicy notes. If you’re going for a clear wort though (which is very commonplace in Japan), you’re more likely to end up with something fresh and citric-like. Maybe a bit of a lighter style in actuality, which is interesting, since that’s not at all what Mortlach is known for.
Walking through the fermentation room, you’ll notice 6 wooden wash backs, all capable of holding 54,000 liters of wort. Fermentation time at Mortlach is roughly 60 hours – just long enough to reach that secondary fermentation stage, but not quite as long as it takes to get a very fruity, ester-y wash. What happens next with that wash, is unlike at any other distillery you’ll ever visit.
The Mortlach still house is truly something to behold. I’ve seen distilleries where two of the wash stills aren’t quite similar (Strathisla comes to mind), or where the spirit stills aren’t exact replicas of one another. However, Mortlach takes it to the next level. Each and every copper pot still is completely unique, coming in its own shape and size, complete with the variety of worm tubs that sit outside the still room.
You might’ve heard before of Mortlach’s 2.81 distillation. Donald explained us how the process worked while we were standing there looking at all of the stills, and I could still not completely grasp it. I wasn’t the only one either. Instead of frantically taking notes, I just tried to take it in. What I ended up doing though, was googling the 2.81 distillation regime after the fact.
Here’s the exact explanation on Scotchwhisky.com, but in a nut shell it goes something like this. The Mortlach spirit is partly double (malty, bready notes), partly triple (fruity, rich) and partly quadruple (spicy) distilled. Combine these three spirits, and it equals out to 2.81 times distilled. This, obviously, is extremely simplified, and I encourage you to read the article I linked to.
After our higher education in distillation, we went into the warehouse, where the cask of the hand-fill exclusive for Spirit of Speyside was kept, next to an assortiment of Mortlach casks and others from the Diageo family. The Festival exclusive had matured in a bodega cask. We were offered a wee sip of the whisky, and I can’t say I was completely convinced, but on the other hand, 1 centiliter of whisky is extremely little to judge a whisky on.
Either way, touring Mortlach was a joy, and I’ll be on the lookout for a larger sample of the hand-fill so that I can write some proper notes. I will have reviews of all the new Mortlach expressions for you this week, including the Travel Retail Exclusive.
Thijs is a spirits writer and accredited liquorist from The Netherlands. He runs the blog Words of Whisky and contributes to a number of Dutch and international publications.