A leopard can change its spots

Posted 08 April 2019 by Matt / In Mortlach
The Dramble reviews Mortlach 12 year old The Wee Witchie

Bottle Name: Mortlach 12 year old The Wee Witchie

ABV: 43.4%
Distillery: Mortlach
Region: Speyside

You don’t have to look far to find ridiculousness in 2019 – in all of its varied forms. Just a few days ago whilst passing through travel retail I witnessed dozens of eager travellers lapping up stories of Game of Thrones whisky ‘exclusivity’, ‘limited editions’ and ‘investments’…. none the wiser to the thousands upon thousands of bottles being held back for an imminent ‘release two’, nor what’s been going on at Scotch Whisky Auctions this month. Honestly, I love seeing greedy bastards getting burnt. Just next door to the behemothic Westeros-themed display sat the revitalised Mortlach range – empty of attention, barely a glace of interest aimed in its direction.

I’ve always considered Mortlach to be rather the enthusiasts whisky. The 2014 flop a brand relaunch might have introduced it to a few more punters, but it obviously didn’t shift enough bottles to satisfy owners Diageo. Overpriced, under filled and largely uninspired, I won’t dissect the old range further – but what I do find interesting, is how very un-2019 ‘new Mortlach’ feels. Self-indulgent hype, near shameful price rises (Balblair 25 year old I see you) and a ravenousness desire for selling anything to make a mere couple of quid –‘new’ Mortlach doesn’t feel like any of these things to me. Though it has taken a rather humble re-re-launch to get there.

There’s always been a fondness in whisky circles for Mortlach – by and large, independent bottlers have been the only real place to sate that need since the retirement of the much loved Flora & Fauna 16 year old. This affection is often attributed to Mortlach’s naturally heavy body, that provides both solid base-flavours and texture as well as an ideal spirit for sherry cask maturation. This inherent ‘weight’ is a product of the distillery’s unusual and complex distillation regime which involves utilising two sets of wash and spirit stills out of tandem (splitting the run unequally after the first distillations), whilst still operating a third pair of stills as one would normally expect. The resultant spirit ends up being distilled 2.81 times. Other aspects of Mortlach’s production setup – restricting the airflow into the still to prevent the copper from removing heavy compounds, and the use of worm tubs at the terminus of every lyne arm – result in a spirit character that is often described as ‘meaty’.

As you’ll see as The Dramble gradually works our way through the new core range – whilst the spirit character still presents as weighty and textural, the meaty, sometimes sulphurous, ‘beastliness’ is not where Diageo see the distillery’s new range going. It’s still recognisably a leopard, but it has changed its spots, both in profile and, pleasingly, in its new (more realistic) market proposition.

Mortlach’s 12 year old expression, named ‘The Wee Witchie’ after the small No.1 low wines still (integral to the 2.81 distillation process) is composed of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry cask matured whiskies. The resultant liquid is bottled at 43.4% ABV and available for a shy under £50 from Master of Malt.

Nose: Dainty, airy and quite garden-fresh – honeysuckle, peaches, orange peels alongside clean cotton sheets and vanilla fudge. There’s a sense of weight here – almost waxiness, but also faintly mineral with a delicate saltiness. Spicing is temperate, but still presents from the sherry cask influence – cinnamon and ginger. Reduction is far from necessary here, but does bring out maltiness with pancake mix, oaty biscuits and smooth milk chocolate.

Taste: The arrival is a little thinner than I’d have hoped for – but, interestingly some waxy textual elements develop once properly in the mouth. Tinned fruit – peaches and apricots alongside mango juice, tobacco leaves, and gingerbread. Chocolate and dusty cinnamon and ginger spices emerge in the mid-palate, whilst creamy toffee and floral oiliness are joined by raisins and sultanas. Dilution once again takes things in a malty direction – chocolate covered digestives, Rich Tea biscuits and French crepes with flan and tart cases.

Finish: Medium, tarter with grapefruit and lemon and a pleasantly fading dusty spiced oakiness.

Mortlach 12 year old The Wee Witchie represents a modern take on the distillery’s spirit character – whilst the oak is not all embracing, it is more prevalent than any anticipated ‘beastly’ characteristics. There’s some weight here, but the order of the day is more firmly focussed on the combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks – maltiness, fruitiness and wood influence – fairly light, somewhat passive, but well-integrated all the same.

I find some of the other reviews for this bottling totally perplexing. Comparisons to the Mortlach Rare Old (which was certainly not either of those things) seem reasonable enough – but appraisals based on pairing this entry-level bottling off against much older (very well regarded) sherry matured indy expressions are fundamentally meaningless. They’re not the same thing at all. The Wee Witchie is a different type of beast with a composition designed for a different, much wider audience.

Arguably, this is far from the best 12 year old whisky out there – likewise £50 still feels like a bit of a push for the quality on offer (though hardly surprisingly given current peak ridiculousness levels) – but nevertheless, I find this to be a rather likeable re-introduction.

Score: 83/100


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