In 2014 Diageo charted a new course for one of its lesser known distilleries. A rebranding, repositioning and remarketing that would earn widespread disdain from the enthusiast community and end up being termed ‘Mortlachisation’. Now in 2018, it seems we are soon to witness the next iteration from this distillery. A trio of new Mortlach expressions (12 year old ‘The Wee Witchie’, 16 year old ‘Distiller’s Dram’ and 20 year old ‘Cowie’s Blue Steel’) have been spotted on the TTB database.
Several things are still unclear about these upcoming releases – will they replace the current line-up of Rare Old, 18 and 25 year old? Or will they supplement the existing range? (whilst the labelling looks new, the bottle design and shape seems similar/identical). When will they be released? – this is still as yet completely unknown. But, perhaps the most pertinent questions are, what will the pricing for these new Mortlach expressions be set at? – and will they be delivered in standard sized bottles rather than the current 50cl iterations?
2014’s Mortlachisation was notable for several reasons – none of them good. Outside of enthusiast circles, Mortlach was a little known distillery - inside, it was previously an accessible and characterful malt. Premiumisation was nothing new, even back in 2014, but Diageo decided that in order to introduce Mortlach to the wider world a new brand proposition would be required. The largely unknown whisky returned in snazzy glassware (in a 50cl size) and with quite staggering price hikes. If you’ve either won the lottery or are a stone cold idiot you can buy the 18 year old (in a 50cl bottle) for £162 as of today. A quite ludicrous offering that does nothing but equate notions of premiumisation with unbridled greed.
The range drew widespread condemnation (and we’re not even going to discuss the change in the distillate profile over the last 30 years here) and has become the butt of many of a joke. Perhaps these new expressions will finally allow the distillery its moment to shine and capture that wider market that Diageo hope to achieve for it? – Get the liquid and the price point right and there’s no reason why not. But, to attempt a 2nd stab at ultra premiumisation would strike me as extreme foolishness – There’s no reason that Diageo should not get this right this time around. We should not expect these new whiskies to be cheap – but we can at least hope that they’re priced ‘fairly’ with regards to the quality inside the bottle.
Interestingly, if you look closely, you’ll note that the new labelling includes a reference to the distillery’s nickname ‘The Beast of Dufftown’. Let’s hope it’s not a case of once bitten twice shy.
Today’s Mortlach is from the ever-reliable Signatory Vintage Cask Strength Collection. Distilled in May of 1991, this has been matured in a sherry butt (Cask number 4240 – which I’m sure is some type of refill rather than a 1st) for 24 years and then bottled at 55.5% (66.6 would have been much more evocative and amusing to write about). 587 bottles were released in 2015 – as such this one is long sold out – though you might see it cropping up at online auctions – the last sale price being £140.
Nose: An eclectic selection – blood oranges, tangerines, Jaffa Cakes and Key Lime Pie (I.E. fruits, sweetness but with chocolate/biscuitiness). Running throughout is pungent sulphur which is derived from the weighty distillate itself rather than from the use of candles – as such, this doesn’t emphasise struck match or brimstone at all - but it is certainly rather farmyard, and has slight tinge of hydrogen sulphide (H2S). Funky stuff. Maltiness is highly pronounced, this again gives the impression of substantiveness. Alongside, seasoning (both salt and pepper), gentle grassiness and touches of menthol. Water brings out aromas of both the spirit and the cask – slight underlying minerals, reeds and then roasted cereals and coffee beans.
Taste: A big textured arrival – deep flavour, and seemingly ‘full fat’. Malts lead off – slightly toasted, joined by golden tobacco leaves and barley water. These are joined by a fruit basket – all the oranges, peach, sour berries and cherries. The spirit character has beaten 24 years of sherry cask into total submission here – whilst there are cask influenced flavours – chocolate, ginger and the aforementioned red fruits – hefty, minerality and herbalness runs riot. It’s quite charming – as far as sledgehammer approaches go. Seasoning levels are high here – pepper in particularly expresses real bite and impact. The addition of water is oddly interesting, softening the arrival (reducing fatness down oiliness), but then adding hotness and spice to the mid and back palate.
Finish: Medium to long, with touches of earthiness and minerality fighting it out with sherry-led flavours – nuttiness, cherries and cola cubes.
This Signatory 24 year old Mortlach offers a fascinating array of aromas and flavours – it’s big, brassy and altogether unsubtle. It’s also highly distillate-led and offers the imbibed a fairly unique style of particularly weighty whisky. Those adverse to sulphur (don’t go talking to me about candles – that’s not what’ going on here) might find this tougher going. Likewise, you’re possibly going to need to crack on with this at 55.5% - water doesn’t provide the calming influence you’d expect – unless adding in big quantities, at which point you’ll start to drown things. Nevertheless, this is distinctive, quirky and, though not quite ‘meaty’ certainly a little on the beastly side.