Mortlach Rare Old & Special Strength

A side by side comparison looking at the different effects of distillation and maturation.

Here we return to Mortlach, a Speyside distillery that I am fascinated with because it produces such an intriguing array of flavours in its whiskies. A few months ago I reviewed the independently-bottled Wemyss Malts ‘Ginger Glazed Gammon’ and if you want to brush up on the general information about the Mortlach distillery and its idiosyncratic distilling process you can find that here. Since that earlier post I have been lucky enough to try some additional drams from Mortlach. Moving from the independent bottlings to the official distillery bottlings, my palate has now run the gamut of the Mortlach core range all the way from the (presumably) younger NAS bottlings through to the venerable 25 year old.

mortlach lineup

In this particular review we’ll cover the two NAS offerings: the Rare Old and the Special Strength. The Rare Old is the opening gambit in the newish Mortlach range that Diageo launched in late 2014. It is bottled at 43.4% ABV, and was matured in a mix of four different types of casks: bourbon, sherry, refill bourbon and recharred barrels. The Special Strength is apparently pretty much the exact same liquid, but bottled at a higher 49% ABV and released as a Travel Retail Exclusive. Hunting down this particular bottle helped me while away some of the time during my long layover at Changi airport earlier this year! Because of the close similarities between the Rare Old and Special Strength they provide an interesting side-by-side tasting comparison. So, how exactly does this slight increase in proof impact on the profile of these whiskies?

 

Rare Old

rare old

Nose: Butterscotch at first sniff and then a refreshing hit of menthol, opens up into honeycomb, roasted pineapples and glazed ham with burnt bits, a big hit of red apple.

Palate: Initially spicy then mellows into quite a light dram; prunes, ham steaks, wood (that hot dry wood from a sauna), tobacco and drinking cocoa.

Finish: Definitely dries out your mouth a little, still spicy (cloves, white pepper), very long, no alcohol burn, a light pleasant finish.

16/20

The Special Strength

special-strength.jpg

Nose: Vanilla custard from packet mix, dark unsweetened cocoa, then the sweetness comes through with hints of honey, orange peel, raisins, hazelnuts.

Palate: Dark cherries in syrup, cacao, pineapple, ginger spice. Surprising rounded flavours of caramelised banana and arrowroot biscuit then the typical Mortlach charred-meat characters shine through.

Finish: Honeycomb (Violet Crumble – a classic Aussie chocolate bar for those who may be overseas!) and treacle tart

15.5/20

Whilst these two bottlings are undeniably similar and both carry the signature Mortlach notes of sweetness and meatiness, the difference in proof makes them distinctly different. Whilst the Special Strength’s higher proof translates to an initially harsher mouthfeel, this difference is reflected more deeply in two whisky’s flavour profiles as well. In particular, the sweetness in the Rare Old come through more fully, whilst the spicy notes are more to the fore in the Special Strength. Taken together, they provide an interesting study in the impact the distillation has on the whisky as opposed to the cask maturation. Both are lighter and less challenging than some of the other ballsy Mortlachs out there; they definitely go down easily and make a good summer dram.

In the coming week I’ll finish off my look at the Mortlach core range with reviews of the 18 Year Old and 25 Year Old. As we approach the festive season stay tuned for more interesting drams!

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Mortlach Single Cask Release 1998 (Wemyss Malts)

Ginger Glazed Gammon!

mortlach sign
Sadly, as close as we could get to Mortlach without scaling the fence!

The region of Speyside is the heart of whisky production in Scotland and nestled within Speyside is the small but picturesque location of Dufftown. Dufftown boasts not one but seven distilleries, and both The Balvenie and Glenfiddich can be found there. However, the first distillery founded in Dufftown way back in 1823 was Mortlach. Mortlach is not a whisky you usually see at your local bottle store as the vast majority of its prodigious output goes into blends and accordingly it doesn’t often end up as a single malt. Indeed, the distillery itself keeps a low-profile being closed to the public and unavailable to tour even if you make it all the way to Dufftown. This is all quite a shame really, as Mortlach’s single malt is quite distinctive and fascinating to drink: possessing a heady mix of savoury, meaty and (when sherry-influenced) fruitcake characteristics.

There are six washbacks and six spirit stills at Mortlach. These are not, however, paired off in the usual way and Mortlach’s idiosyncratic distillation process follows a labyrinthine course that cannot easily be summarised (even with a flowchart). Without getting too technical, at Mortlach one pair of stills acts as a double distillation. The low wines are redirected and in one of the spirit stills, redistilled twice. The upshot of all this is that the final spirit at Mortlach is, according to the distillery, distilled ~2.81 times. This is quite unusual for scotch as most distilleries generally just distil their spirit twice. Ordinarily, the more you distil the spirit the lighter the final product, as heavier components like oils are left behind. Think, for example, of the very clean spirit at triple-distilled Auchentoshan. However, Mortlach’s whisky is certainly not light. Instead, the multiple distillations result in a spirit that has had a lot of contact with the copper of the still but that hasn’t been stripped of heavy components, resulting in characteristics such as barbequed meat notes. If you are interested in this process, can I recommend having a look at the following explanations, which are far clearer than mine!

This is a good explanation from the folks over at Scotch Whisky and here is the even more detailed version at Whisky Science for those who understand and appreciate the chemistry of distillation.

mortlach castle
Balvenie Castle in Dufftown, originally known as Mortlach

The Mortlach whisky that I am lucky enough to be reviewing here is an independent bottling by Wemyss Malts. I bought this bottle at The Whisky Shop in Dufftown, just a few hundred metres down the road from Mortlach itself. It is a single cask release that was distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2016, making it 18 years old. There were only 306 bottles produced at a respectable 46% abv. Wemyss has not provided any information about what the whisky was matured in but if I were to hazard a guess from the flavor profile I would take a punt on it being a refill sherry cask. ‘Ginger Glazed Gammon’ is emblazoned across the label which, if nothing else, made me laugh. I don’t think many people would be enticed by a drink being described that way! It is a pretty accurate description though!

mortlach dram
A lovely golden colour. Aussie wildflower in the background; I really am blogging from Perth, Australia, not Perth, Scotland!

 

 

Nose: Stewed pears moves towards apricot, then into savoury notes as the mouth-watering honey ham gains traction, a hint of sulphur, sherry (plump raisins) and woody/barky spices (cinnamon stick, ginger) round it out.

Palate: Salty green olives then spiced barbequed slow-cooked meats take their place, mellowing into beef stock, with a final foray into dark chocolate and sage.

Finish: A light metallic taste that (thankfully) fades into a more tannic, herbaceous finish with a honey sweetness.

This whisky really grew on me. I didn’t really like my first couple of drams, but I did find it intriguing and kept finding myself wanting to try it again. I am glad that I persevered as this whisky was rewarding when I finally got my head around the strange flavour profile. The meaty characteristics are certainly like nothing else. Overall, a complex, multi-layered and an interesting foray into a distillery with an idiosyncratic process. Despite the higher-profile company it keeps in Dufftown, Mortlach is not a distillery that should be overlooked.

16/20

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