Mortlach is one of Scotland’s greatest distilleries with a colourful history, combining a tenacious and distinctive old style of whisky that is loved by many enthusiasts. Today, the distillery resides within the Diageo stable and was selected in 2014 – during the midst of a whisky boom – for premiumisation. This meant the launch of a new range of whiskies in smaller 50cl bottles, featuring a significant price increase and a new image that was deemed a risky move at the time.
Mortlach whilst familiar to many enthusiasts is not a well-known distillery even in Scotland generally. It’s fondly referred to as the Beast of Dufftown, which highlights its strong distinctive style and uncompromising approach that is best experienced after a sherry cask maturation. The distillery itself was established in 1823 following the introduction of the Excise Act that ushered many illicit stills into a legal status after the purchase of a license fee. For Mortlach, an illicit still did exist in the area and may have been its previous incarnation. James Findlater established the distillery in the same year and in doing so became the first Dufftown distillery owner; several decades before a former employee would set up his own distillery known as Glenfiddich.
As with many fledgling distilleries a conveyor belt of new owners arrived and departed with great frequency. In 1837, the Grant brothers decided that the Mortlach distillation equipment would be best dismantled and established elsewhere as the Glen Grant distillery. Mortlach then for a while adopted a new purpose as a brewery and supposedly a church before in 1851 production resumed once more. Shortly after this, George Cowie Senior become a part owner before taking full control in 1867 and thereby bringing some stability to the distillery.
Demand for whisky was on the increase as blenders discovered the approachable style of Speyside whiskies and the body of flavour that Mortlach offered. This explains the expansion of the initial trio of stills to double its number and ideally a discussion about the Mortlach distillation process. During this era, the practice of triple distillation was far more widespread than the traditional double process we seen today throughout Scotland. In-between for a variety of historical reasons, there are distilleries that have their own unique way of distilling and the genesis of their unique approach has been lost to time. Mortlach follows Springbank in that its distillation process falls somewhere in-between both practices and may have come about originally due to the internal upheavals within the distillery itself.
This unique practice was dubbed 2.81 distilled and featured on the aforementioned rebranding of the range in 2014 although in reality one could argue it’s more like 2.7 times. In essence it’s a complex process at Mortlach with numerous changes in modern times including those during the 1990’s that have changed the distillery character. The 6 stills on site are an odd combination of size and shape; again suggesting a ramshackle approach due to its being pieced together and added to over the years. Of particular note is the smallest still called Wee Witchie, where around 20% of the spirit is quadruple distilled compared to the remaining 80% shared by the other stills. The importance of the worm tubs at Mortlach to create its distinctive style should not be underestimated either.
By 1923 the distillery is sold to John Walker & Sons who are eager to acquire it for their growing range of blends before they themselves are acquired by the Distillers Company in 1925. This as a forerunner to the Diageo we know today spells an end to the musical chairs around Mortlach’s ownership. Then post-war a series of changes are phased in on site with the floor maltings closing towards the end of the 1960’s and a major refurbishment being undertaken. Direct heating of the stills ended in 1971 and in 2015 as part of its premiumisation, a series of changes to boost production were implemented but not fully completed, which is unfortunate given some of the irreversible changes carried out on the site. If you’re visiting Dufftown today, then a short walk to Mortlach is worthwhile with its iconic old buildings dating back to the 1800’s. For a moment it does feel as if you have stepped back in time with a long series of dunnage warehouses and imposing blackened brick structures dominating the area.
For many years Mortlach was a favourite of enthusiasts thanks to its iconic 16-year-old as part of the Flora & Fauna range. This has enjoyed an increase in demand and a surge in secondary market value due to the new range of Mortlach’s that debuted in 2015 and alienated much of its previous following. These recent editions feature a couple of No Age Statement releases plus an 18 and 25 year old. Thankfully the independent sector continues to bottle Mortlach across a variety of ages with sherry casks coming at a worthwhile premium.