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.

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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

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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!

Check out the A Cheeky Dram scoring system here!

Ardbeg An Oa

The highly anticipated new edition to the Ardbeg core range!

In this review we return to Ardbeg distillery which is located on Islay’s Kildalton coast. Today’s whisky is the brand new An Oa, the first addition to the core Ardbeg range of expressions since the introduction of Corryvrecken in 2009.

The name ‘An Oa’ is a reference to the Mull of Oa which is a peninsula located nearby to the distillery. Just like this rocky and windswept part of the coast, the An Oa has the rugged oomph that one expects from a heavily peated Ardbeg dram. And yet the An Oa also displays the more approachable side of this distillery as these wild notes are tamer than in other Ardbeg core expressions.

This whisky was matured in a combination of casks including Pedro Ximénez, charred virgin oak and ex-bourbon, which were all then married together in Ardbeg’s new bespoke oak Gathering Vat by Master Distiller Bill Lumsden. In keeping with the most of the core Ardbeg range (apart from the 10 Year Old), it does not have an age statement. It is bottled at 46.6% which is lower than both the Corryvrecken and the Uigeadail.

ardbeg

Nose: Typical Islay peat, Terry’s chocolate orange, smoky streaky bacon grease, a touch of lemon. Then there is an oak note and a hint of vanilla.

Palate: A sweet and creamy dram. Peat at the fore, dark chocolate and liquorice.  It mellows into buttery banana bread, honey, vanilla and stewed peaches. There is a little Christmas spice, flavours of nutmeg and cinnamon and cloves. The palate becomes a little dry towards the finish.

Finish: Seductively long. Still quite sweet but with a slight tang of resinous pine and an excellent, warming mouthfeel.

an oaOverall, a very drinkable dram and a good addition to an already strong core range. You will start by intending to have just a single splash in the evening and will soon find that a good part of you bottle has gone. Initially I did think that the An Oa was a little one-dimensional but this notion was dispelled as I discovered more to it over time. Whilst it is not as intense in peat or proof as the Uigeadail or Corryvrecken, the An Oa’s more relaxed profile makes for easier drinking for Islay whisky lovers here in Australia as we have now begun to enter the (very warm) Australian summer season.

16/20

Check out the A Cheeky Dram scoring system here!

Have a look at my review of the Ardbeg Kelpie.

Kilchoman Tasting

Core range and the newly bottled Australian Cask Exclusive. The ‘barley to bottle’ ethos works a treat!

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Kilchoman is the youngest distillery on Islay. Established in 2005, it was the first new distillery to be built on Islay for 125 years. Kilchoman is a family-run affair and relies on a strong ‘barley to bottle’ ethos. It is one of a very small number of Scottish distilleries to grow the majority of their own barley, run their own floor maltings (a production step now largely outsourced) and even bottle on-site. To say they are passionate about their whisky is an understatement.

Earlier this year a Kilchoman representative travelled from Islay to Australia to host a series of whisky tastings from coast to coast. In true small business style, this representative was the founder’s son, Peter Wills. When I attended one of these tastings it was quite special to hear Peter’s fascinating (and often hilarious) stories about the early and very hands-on days starting up the distillery. He recounted the fun of filling 7000 bottles using a teapot from their onsite café in the early days. Following the whirlwind Australian tour, Peter and his brother were planning to hit up the west coast of the US of A, in order to bring Kilchoman to even more lucky whisky lovers.

The Australian tasting that I attended brought back memories of the time I visited Kilchoman in 2015. I had previously tried some of their core range (and I also have a Sauternes Cask Matured 2016 hidden away for a rainy day) but I was not familiar with the distillery’s more recent releases and so the tasting was a good opportunity so see where Kilchoman is at now and where they are going in the future. Whenever you get the chance to try multiple expressions from one distillery in a single sitting – do it. It gives you a much greater appreciation of the distillery’s style and character.

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Below I have written down my impressions of the whiskies at the tasting. As it was a tasting my notes were a bit briefer than normal and based on just the one dram of each (I do find that I warm to certain whiskies when revisiting them a second or third time.)

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100% Islay 7th edition

Matured in bourbon barrels, mainly first-fill ex-Buffalo Trace. This particular edition is 7 years old and bottled at 50% ABV. There are only 12,000 bottles available a year worldwide.

Nose: barley, newmake, a little peat, lemon and strawberry.

Palate: vanilla, butterscotch, milk arrowroot biscuit.

Finish: sweet but not overpowering, very long.

Machir Bay

A mix of maturation in 90% bourbon barrels and 10% Oloroso sherry casks. Does not have an age statement but apparently is about 5 years old on average. Bottled at 46% ABV.

Nose: Lemon, citrus, pear, a little hint of sweetness and then the sherry.

Palate: Smoke, peat and fruit in perfect thirds.  Takes about five minutes to open up and when it does the peat and smoke really come to the fore.

Finish: More peatiness that overpowers anything else.

Sanaig

Made in the same way as the Machir Bay but goes into different casks, namely 70% Oloroso sherry hogsheads. Bottled at 46%.

Nose: sherry sweetness, a little citrus and some light smoke.

Palate: peppery, peat then a lighter lemon curd and toffee note comes through – definitely much richer and heavier than the Machir Bay.

Loch Gorm 2017

Their sherry cask, limited edition annual release. This is the sixth version and is a 7 year old whisky matured in sherry butts, mostly first fill. It is a yearly release, with 13,500 bottles released this year.

Nose: raisins, dark chocolate jaffa and slight smoke.

Palate: peat, dark chocolate, BBQ smoke, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Australian Exclusive Single Casks 691/11

This exclusive bottling was distilled on 11 November 2011 and bottled on 25 May 2017. It was initially matured in an ex-bourbon cask before being finished in a Pedro Ximenez sherry cask. The cask yielded 261 bottles and it is bottled at 57.5%.

Nose: buttery, cinnamon, stewed fruits and a little citrus.

Palate: raisins, dark treacle, scones with jam and cream.

So, did I have a favourite? The Loch Gorm 2017 was a standout from the core range. The dark chocolate orange on the nose and smokiness on the palate really rubs my tastebuds the right way. I was not a big fan of the Sanaig. I usually enjoy whiskies matured in Oloroso casks but the Sanaig was, to me, a little thin and one-dimensional. Perhaps it needed maturing for a bit more time? The Machir Bay and 100% Islay are both solid drams with a complex palate and a long finish.

And the Australian Exclusive Single Cask? It was a very different experience to the others. The delightful Pedro Ximenez came through strongly on the nose and heavily influenced the palate. I snapped up a bottle and I’ll happily keep sampling this one, enjoying it that little bit more for knowing what I do now about its provenance, about the people that made it and the passion they have for whisky.

Mortlach Single Cask Release 1998 (Wemyss Malts)

Ginger Glazed Gammon!

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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.

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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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A Cheeky Dram scoring system

Tasting whisky will always be incredibly subjective. Some people love peat, some love the lighter floral styles, some love cask strength and others want an easy drinking dram for a night by the fire. Preferences can also change over time, and sometimes mine change depending on the company I’m with, where I am, the experience I’m having, the weather, my mood and a multitude of other factors. This is my personal scoring system. Make of it what you will 🙂

0-7: Spit it out. Clean your teeth immediately.

8-10: Don’t bother. Have a dry night and make yourself a nice peppermint tea instead.

11-12: This is okay. I wouldn’t necessarily drink it again. Some redeeming characteristics.

13-14: A good dram for this style of whisky, some things about it I felt were lacking, unpleasant or just not to my taste.

15-16: A great dram, definitely keen to keep drinking this and would recommend to friends.

17-18: A really excellent dram. A lot of good things about it. Savour this bottle.

19: This is up there among one of the best drams I’ve tasted, get a bottle or two if you can.

20: A dram that cannot be beaten. Pure perfection.