The whisky produced at Dufftown distillery Mortlach has long been desired by blenders as a core constituent malt within their blends. This is often attributed to Mortlach’s naturally heavy body, that provides both solid base-flavour 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 utilisting 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’. It is Mortlach’s inherent quality as a new make spirit combined with its natural weight and affinity for sherry cask maturation that has resulted in its high desirability for blending. As such, until recently, single cask Morlach was a fairly uncommon sight, barring bottlings from independents who snapped up any available casks.
Until 2014, there was only one official distillery bottling of Mortlach in the form of the 16 year old from Diageo’s Flora & Fauna series. Now, the range consists of Rare Old, Special Strength, 18 year old and 25 year old – all bottled in 50cl decanters and at 43.4% ABV barring the Special Strength which ups the alcohol volume to 49%. The new releases represent an attempt by Diageo to introduce Mortlach as a single malt to a wider audience – but they’re expensive – really expensive when you consider the smaller bottle size in fact. This so called ‘Morlachisation’ of taking a little known blending malt, and tarting it up in fancy packaging with a super-premium price tag is to my mind a worrying trend. It’s been emulated by Diageo’s competitor Pernod Ricard – with the reintroduction of official bottlings of Longmorn, replacing previous version with new whiskies at frankly eye-wateringly prices. Not a trend that I think any of us should be overlooking lightly, nor supporting either.
The Flora & Fauna series was introduced in 1992 by United Distillers (a forerunner of Diageo before various industry mergers took place) and consists of 26 single malts from across the company’s range of distilleries. Originally, the bottlings, though all similar in style and design has no name – it was not until the sadly departed Michael Jackson noted the botanical references across the labels that he coined the nickname ‘Flora & Fauna’ – a nickname that has stuck. First editions of the series came packaged in wooden boxes – these are highly desirable on the secondary market – then cardboard, and now, you’ll probably just be buying a bottle with no packaging at all. The most desirable of the series is probably the Speyburn 12 year old – not necessarily the most exciting whisky in the series – the distillery was sold onto Inver House Distillers, and therefore much fewer bottlings were produced compared to the distillers which remained in the portfolio of United.
The Mortlach Flora & Fauna is held in high regard, and whilst it is still available, it commands a fair old penny. Like other F&F bottlings it comes in at 43% ABV.
Nose: Immediately rich and sweet. The sherry influence here is obvious, however it's very much an old school sherry aroma – raisins, sultanas, berries and chocolate of course – but incredibly fresh, ripe and in no way overwrought. The sherry is supported by some Mortlach meatiness as you’d expect – a joint of ham, beef stock and some umami flavouring via soy sauce. Spicing is quite present also – cloves, pepper and a touch of cinnamon.
Taste: Sweet and spicy with toffee pudding, chocolate and dates joining very pronounced pepper. Dried fruits, berries and some aged mahogany all scream sherry, but again, whilst the influence is high, it’s not overdone. Honey, and inherent meatiness, but with some underlying gentle floral notes – leaves, menthol and heather. Rich and full-bodied, and whilst not necessarily what you might consider complex, this is simply a very very tasty whisky.
Finish: Medium in length and delivering further spicy pepper and a hint of dusty malt in a relatively drying finish.
Well-regarded for good reason, Mortlach 16 year old is a very good whisky. The natural spirit character shines through, and likewise provides a basis for the cask influence – sherry and spice – with both feeling well in tune with the whole liquid experience from start to finish. If you find a dram of this available to try, don’t hesitate.
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