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Mortlach Rare Old – Feature Review

Mortlach single malt whisky has returned to the wider world, with the much anticipated debut of four new expressions. The one with the lowest price, but by no means inexpensive, exhibits no age statement and is simply named Rare Old.

Region: Speyside      Style: Spicy/Fruity/Herbal     Class: *Standard No Age Statement

Strength: 43.4%

*NOTE: Originally priced as a Premium level malt, Mortlach Rare Old has dropped in price in the U.S. in recent months. It can now be found “on sale” for under $60 and even under $50. This is a malt of a different color !

Please bear in mind that the rest of this review is based upon the average price of $125 that greeted Mortlach fans upon its release, basically twice the price of the Mortlach 16 yo Flora and Fauna edition (only available from Europe with hefty import fees.)

As such, my position on the Rare Old has shifted somewhat, and I have since acquired other bottles, due the reasonable prices. My feeling now is “very worth a try to see if you like it enough to buy more.”

Diageo sunk an enormous amount of money into refurbishing the Mortlach distillery, increasing production, and positioning it as a premium brand for international and travel markets. Given the changing climate in the whisky world, the anticipated release of Mortlach Rare Old will be seen by many as an early and important test of the no-age-statement era of malt whisky that is already upon us.

Would the Rare Old prove to be the latest greatest no-age-statement single malt? Or would it fall short of expectations? After all, this is not just any whisky being reimagined as a premium no-age-statement expression.

This is Mortlach.

Mortlach Old Rare Review 1MansMalt.comAnd here is my review of Mortlach Rare Old.

We were introduced in a tiny “Celtic pub,” during my university days of the 1980s. That establishment offered three varieties of single malt: The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Mortlach with its unique, savory profile.

Thus began a love affair that has lasted all these many years, even though I have never seen Mortlach in another bar since, and eventually had to resort to various sporadic independent bottlings, if I could get it at all. It really was that singular a spirit.

Mortlach offers an unusual combination of double and triple distillation. The wash and spirit stills run with little or no reflux, meaning more sulfur comes through. And while most of it is double distilled, a percentage of the wash receives extra distillation in smaller ancillary stills with unusual shapes, including one known as the “wee witchy,” further concentrating the sulfurous potion, and building up the unique beefy quality that sets Mortlach apart from other whisky.

In High Demand

Coming from a small, eccentric distillery in Speyside, Mortlach is prized by blenders to the point it was unavailable in an official distillery bottling for some years, except in small amounts as part of Diageo’s Flora and Fauna series of obscure blending malts. That 16 year old expression was typically described as heavy, massive and meaty, and coveted far and wide as one of the great whiskies of the modern world. Not legally sold in the United States, only by hook or crook was it acquired.

The F and F edition has been retired in favor of the current line up. It will take a lot to fill those shoes, so I tried my best not to expect too much of the new and greatly anticipated Mortlach, which has finally arrived in the American Market.

Tasting Notes for Mortlach Rare Old

Mortlach Distillery, Dufftown, Speyside

43.4% APV, 2.81 times distilled

Nose:

A light nose that must be sought from the bottom of the glass grows into a kaleidoscope of sweaty and sweet solvents, dry sherry, fresh orange skins, vanilla bean, a pepperbox, spice cake, peach ice cream with black cherries, Bananas Foster, and a garden mulch of spearmint and lawn clippings.

The signature Mortlach richness of chestnuts and dark herbs in a roasting pan of fatty lamb chop jus rises over time, but remains elusive. It is a mouthwatering nose, but most notes are faint below the sweetness.

This is not your dad’s malty meaty massive Mortlach. It is an ethereal, lighter-weight descendent, with slender, oaky bones, and both bitter rind and pitted fruits that are fragrant but not as plump or juicy. Slowly, the coriander and other darker herbs increase, along with dusty bookshelves.

Splash:

The initial splash upon the tongue starts with a mild, sweet fruitiness chased by a tall bitterness that turns out to be a thin veil, pushed out of the way by a shallow wash of vanilla extract, rather than the fuller mouth the nose suggests. And then a surprisingly smart tail of wood spice whips across the top of the mouth, pricking and crackling with cinnamon and white pepper.

Technically, this is very smooth, as there is no spirit burn at all. But there is plenty of spicy bite.

The drying wood of the immediate finish is soon flooded, as the mouth waters prodigiously.

Palate:

While the nose is certainly found in the mouth, both are less massive than typical Mortlach. Viscosity builds, but it remains rather silky.

As sips are chewed and savored, flashes of cherry sweeties, star anise, and nibbles from an old pencil repeat, with burnt brandied sugar. But the planty mulch of soil, stewed fruit, nuts and roasting herbs that was once the bulk of Mortlach’s flavor is but a backdrop for the honey-laced vanilla taffy, with sherry as a supporting player upstaged by the ensemble of herbal bitters, cinnamon bark, cloves, and white pepper that embeds itself into the cheeks and soft palate.

There is a candy quality to the fruit and sweets, which reminds me of the Bushmills 1608 crystal malt expression, but like most every aspect of this Mortlach, it is fleeting. Facets flit on and off like fireflies, rather than slowly rising and falling in the malty, brandy-like reduction that was the Flora and Fauna expression.

Finish:

The finish remains woody, with a faint vegetable bitterness that turns to minerals. Coals glow from the soft palate and cheeks, and the sweet residue from a recent cherry cough drop coats the tongue, along with a wisp of warm milk from an empty carton, which never quite turns to chocolate.

Orange flavored children’s aspirin rises from the Rare Old grave as the evening goes on, while red plums, milky caramel, mowed lawns, and lemon verbena haunt the empty glass.

Water:

A drop or three of water spreads out the bitter and the sweet, and helps the distillery character to blossom with fatty nuts, earthy peat, lush grasses, and the figs of European oak, along with lime leaves and mild pipe tobacco, but at the cost of thinning out what already comes off as watery to begin with. It is best to limit the water to droplets.

Mortlach Old Rare Conclusion:

This is a nuanced whisky, soft and supple in its complexity.

Mortlach Rare Old review chart One Man's Malt 1mansmalt.com

(click to enlarge)

Where earlier expressions of Mortlach had a full, thick presence, and weighty depth, the new Mortlach has an oak skeleton that provides a svelte but more defining structure, with a more translucent interior, so that various facets are perceived remotely, yet with clarity, no matter how light their touch, or how deep they reside. And in some cases they retain their signature long into the extended finish.

A departure from its predecessors in terms of dynamics, balance and weight, Mortlach’s Rare Old expression is a finely crafted spirit with its individual merits, while the qualities Mortlach was known for are all there, only fainter and in different proportions.

And yet, I cannot quite recommend it.

Perhaps it took something with the natural richness of Mortlach to provide the master blender enough substance to sculpt the three-denominational oak frame and suspend the mobile of delicate facets in such a finely detailed tableau. But to achieve this, they carved away all the meat and muscle that makes Mortlach Mortlach, along with most of the greens and grains, and lush fruit compote that rounds it out.

It is a nouvelle cuisine edition.

Fixing What Wasn’t Broken

Mortlach Rare Old exhibits the cleverness and craft that went into it when set alongside market competitors like Macallan’s Fine Oak series, or other good, mainstream malts. But this Mortlach’s real competition, in my eyes, is other Mortlach, now limited to a forest of independent bottlings, since the Flora and Fauna edition is fading away.

It is just too different to replace traditional Mortlach. And that is why I have a hard time approving of this whisky, especially at its price point.

While I can accept this new expression is different, I do not like how dominant the wood becomes when drinking more than one glass, in a bitter tea tannin sort of way. This can be a sign of older whisky in the vatting, as is a nose that sits down inside the glass. But there just isn’t enough richness, body and depth in the nose or palate to fill in the oaky grip, at least not compared to the Mortlach of old.

With, supposedly, 0.4% more alcohol by volume, Mortlach Rare Old is notably less rich with less body. In fact, it is less malty, less meaty, less earthy, less sherried, less fruity, with less of just about everything that makes the Flora and Fauna and some indie bottlings of Mortlach stand out, so well-loved and sought after.

It seems more like a gentle Highlands whisky than a muscular Speysider. While Mortlach may have provided an artist’s palette that could be finessed into this translucent box of positioned flavors, it comes off softer and notably shallower than it could have, or should have been.

The time-delay Wow Factor of classic Mortlach simply isn’t there.

I was prepared to accept this possibility, just for the opportunity to have Mortlach available in the wider world. But not for the amount of money Diageo expects us to pay for it. 

And that is the real reason Mortlach Rare Old comes up so short.

Underperforming and Overpriced

Venerable whisky experts like Charlie MacLean and Dave Broom never consider price when evaluating a whisky. But when it comes to malt for the common man, those who cannot write off their whisky as a business expense must take price very much into consideration.

Whether or not the higher tiers of this new lineup possess more of that Mortlach muscle, one does not need to be familiar with earlier expressions of Mortlach to see that at $125 per bottle, this Rare Old is stunningly overpriced whisky.

In addition to my own notes, I held two separate tastings to garner opinions from those less prejudiced toward the old Mortlach than I. One was a social tasting, and one was a formal blind tasting.

All but one person had never experienced Mortlach. All but one person enjoyed the new expression. For perspective sake, the lone dissenter runs toward the Talisker and Bowmore style in her tastes.

All of them blanched when the price was revealed. And a list was quickly recited by both groups naming whiskies of various styles at that same price point, or well below it, offering a more rewarding experience.

I guess some of the Rare Old’s steep price helps pay for its new suit of big city clothes.

Mortlach Old Rare vs Flor and Fauna 1MansMalt.com

I Mean, Really?

The new Mortlach line comes in a vaguely art deco box meant for duty free chocolate truffles, including a lid and base made of plastic more befitting the toss-away package of a cheap Chinese toy. And next to every instance of “Mortlach” is a trademark symbol, signifying its new role as a multinational corporation’s money making device.

Inside is a bottle that most resembles a jumbo supply of perfume from a big box store, replete with chrome-colored stopper crowned with a plastic top. It is difficult to read the print on the glass in most light, with or without whisky behind it.

At first I found it appalling. But it has some interesting design elements that present and reflect the new penny copper and burnt brass accents of the whisky inside it. It will make a nice flower vase in time.

Perhaps Diageo thought it will be more noticeable on a crowded shelf. Perhaps they wanted to overshadow the Macallan bottle, which also widens as it rises, by taking that idea and exploding it. And then I noticed how the design makes it look like there is a lot more liquid in it than there really is, an old cognac trick. In any case, it tries way too hard.

When a product has a reputation of refinement and exclusivity, what Americans call “class,” is it typically understated in its presentation or overstated? This rebranding doesn’t give Mortlach an air of class. It looks like it is trying too hard to convince people it is classy. And as the saying goes, “Anyone who uses the word classy – ain’t.”

As I examine the packaging and bottle, I remain mystified as to exactly who is their target consumer group. Las Vegas tourists? Russian gangsters? Nouveau riche sheiks in Dubai? Everything surrounding this new Mortlach, including the price of the actual spirit in the glass, reminds me of an old Saturday Night Live sketch about a TV show called What Were You Thinking?

Most people outside of the UK have never tasted Mortlach, even if its reputation is known by serious malt drinkers. Perhaps the reimaging around the new but not necessarily improved Mortlach will coax enough whisky drinkers to buy a bottle, so Diageo recaps their investment and even makes a tidy profit.

I am sure there are many who will fork out that kind of money for single malt from what is deservedly touted as a legendary distillery.

But after spending $125 for a kitschy bottle filled with Mortlach Lite, who will ever buy a second? Or for that matter, who will buy the Rare Old and be inspired to come up with the money required for the travel market expression ($180), the 18-year-old ($430), or the (don’t even think about it) 25-year-old?

“Not I.” said the old gray fox.

I found the Rare Old to be well-crafted but less impressive than the Mortlach it has replaced, at a price far too high. And they want to charge $430 for an 18-year-old single malt? I feel it appropriate to quote Captain Blackadder, when he said “There was only one tiny flaw in the plan… It was bollocks.”

There has always been a brisk business of independent bottlings of Mortlach, despite most falling short of the official Flora and Fauna expression. But I have found some that were more to my liking than the Rare Old, and I am sure I will continue to do so.

Rivals of Mortlach Rare Old Review One Man's Malt 1mans.com

Team of Rivals

Those who most appreciate whisky of delicate complexity may enjoy Mortlach Rare Old and find it worth the price to do so. But my recommendation, especially for dyed in the wool Mortlach fans is: Try Before You Buy.

And that is one man’s word on…

Mortlach Rare Old single malt Scotch whisky

For broader commentary on the promise and pitfalls in the no-age-statement era of malt whisky, please go HERE.

Want to spend $125 on a bottle of whisky? Look no further than…

Talisker 18 – My Review

Related Review:

Mortlach 16 Flora and Fauna

Highland Park Dark Origins – the first non-age-statement expression in the core range

Diageo and the Pitfalls of the No-Age Statement Era – a commentary

14 Responses to Mortlach Rare Old – Feature Review

  1. Andrew August 22, 2014 at 12:20 pm #

    Thanks for a great review. Your description matched exactly with my expectation. My friend told me about this new Mortlach last night. I love Lagavulin but the Mortlach F&F is incredible and one of the best of all time. I told him I doubted it was as good as the F&F or worth the price. I handed him a bottle of Mortlach Gordon & Macphail 15 and asked him if he preferred it to Lagavulin (at the same price). He said it was good, but of course not. I didn’t have an open bottom of F&F handy but I assured him that it was well worth the extra investment over Lagavulin which is both of our favorite. I think it’s time to get a few more F&F before they completely disappear.

    • One Man August 31, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

      Thank you Andrew, I appreciate the response.

      The M&G 15 also isn’t what it used to be. The current version is clearly traditional Mortlach but it lacks the weight and depth of what was purchased in a bottle with an identical label a year ago or so, which was much closer to the F&F. Lagavulin has that immediate wow factor. Mortlach takes a good glass-worth before one becomes aware of its marvelous inner-space.

      I envy your proximity to places that sell the Flora and Fauna series. I would certainly be getting a few myself, even if the prices have practically doubled and many shops are limiting sales to one per costumer. Sigh.

      Have you read my review of the Flora and Fauna? I moved it over from my old website and there is now a link to it at the bottom of the Old Rare review.

  2. ERR May 10, 2015 at 10:15 pm #

    The natural question then is what independent bottlings of Mortlach would you reccomend?

    • One Man May 22, 2015 at 11:11 am #

      Hi ERR,

      Sorry for the delay, been busy with other projects.

      That is a very good question.

      The real answer is, look for indie Mortlach from a sherry cask, no small feat, since most indie Morlach is in bourbon casks.

      As Dave Broom says, Morltach is at its best in European oak, even more rare these days. So if you can find an indie bottling of Mortlach from a sherry “butt” (European oak) rather than a “hogshead” (American oak) you are in the BUY zone.

      If one is looking to sample a good example of the distillery character for not a lot of money, the safest bet is the Gordon & MacPhail 15 yo Mortlach.

      Made from refill sherry casks, it is as close to the Flora and Fauna as I have ever found in terms of general flavor. But it varies from batch to batch and the bottles on NYC shelves in 2013 were darker, richer and much more like the F and F than the paler versions since then.

      So, it is by no means a twin to the old 16 yo (which by the way can still be imported from the UK, but at a much higher price than before they discontinued its production) But it at least tastes like obvious Mortlach.

      Otherwise, Mortlach makes for some interesting indies that are not typical for the distillery character.

      K & L Wines in California has an exclusive 16 yo that has a lot of American oak influence from refilled sherry hogsheads, but was finished in a European sherry butt. So it has the Mortlach malt center but less of the herbal mulch and oddball solvent. And then it is served up inside of pronounced gripping oak and pencil wood, with a juicy jamminess from the finishing sort of spread across it, bringing to mind the Diageo Distillers Editions. Not traditional Mortlach, but a very successful bottle of whisky.

      If it is a drinker’s first experience with Mortlach, they are not getting an accurate understanding due to the way it was aged and finished, but the Mortlach heart can be detected inside it.

      K&L and other shops have had some seriously great expressions, that were also departures from the distillery releases, due to long aging in single first fill sherry casks, etc. Total sherry bombs, but still soooo great. But sadly, all are extinct or in collector’s cabinets.

      It is my goal to track down examples of mortally-priced Mortlach expressions and do a comparison sometime in the next couple of months. So check back in June!

      And by the way, the Rare Old is now for sale in several U.S. shops for under $60! That is half price at least of what most try to sell it for. That makes it a much more reasonable proposition and well worth trying. I picked up another bottle of it myself last week at a shop in Brooklyn.

      I still consider it Mortlach Lite in terms of body and finish and wow factor. But it is still high quality spirit and well made and certainly more Mortlach than one can get from other distilleries.

  3. Mike Garvey January 1, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

    Here in the States it sells I bought a couple bottles for $30 each. I got it as an entry level Scotch for my ‘collection’. I am new to this game.

    • One Man January 7, 2016 at 4:57 pm #

      Happy New Year Mike.

      It is way better than entry level single malt and that is a very good deal.

      The problem for lovers of the old Mortlach Flora and Fauna is that it was so much denser and richer, full bodied with a considerably longer finish. It was eccentric and not for everyone. Diageo has re-imagined it to be unique from the other major Speyside sherried malts out there, but still directly competitive with them. And at $125+ a bottle it was offensively overpriced.

      Now that is common to find it in the $50 range it is a much more acceptable proposition, even if the F&F edition will be much missed.

      At $30 it is truly a great bargain.

      Now that is

    • bob winn January 23, 2016 at 12:22 pm #

      where in the world can you purchase this for $30? That’s insanely cheap.

      • One Man January 23, 2016 at 12:26 pm #

        Apparently it was on sale at some Costco for that amount. Costco being a members-only big box store in the U.S. that often sells dry goods in bulk, and has abnormally low prices on perishable items. They offer everything from olive oil to beer with their own label, which is often good enough for the price. But the one Kirkland brand single malt I have had was significantly overpriced. But actual brand names can be had for a lot less. Too bad only certain states allow Costco to sell spirits, including Delaware and Hawaii.

  4. bob winn January 5, 2016 at 3:03 pm #

    Costco is now selling this at $39. Is it worth a try at this price point?

    Best
    Bob

    • One Man January 7, 2016 at 5:01 pm #

      Hi Bob, and Happy New Year!

      I sent you an email as I was unable to get into my site due to some back channel maintenance.

      Unfortunately Costco is not permitted to sell spirits in New York State. Sigh. They offer some very good deals on single malt and their own Kirkland label sources from good distilleries. However, the Kirkland Highland single malt is overpriced at $50. It is young, shallow, with no finish to speak of.

      As for Rare Old, I have a bottle sitting right here, unopened, that I got on sale for about $45. Totally worth every penny at that price. But given how front-loaded it is in terms of the overall experience, it would have been better at 46%, in my opinion.

      Cheers!

  5. Eddie January 10, 2016 at 8:48 pm #

    I’m drinking from an on sale $40 bottle from Costco that I bought today and I’m very happy with it. I’m not a connoisseur or on any level you guys are but I’ve tried many different kinds of scotch and this is well worth the money. Thanks

  6. Clyde January 27, 2016 at 2:12 pm #

    Just picked up a bottle at Costco in Alhambra, CA., for $40.00 after $50 “coupon” applied. They had a few more bottles, but the sign indicates this is the last of the lot. They won’t be stocking anymore.

  7. Marty January 28, 2016 at 4:24 pm #

    The Los Angeles Costco at 2901 los feliz blvd. just found a number of the morlach rare old at $39. Just bought 6.

  8. Dan February 11, 2016 at 11:07 am #

    Just after Christmas the Irvine California Costco had it for $39, so I bought 3. Now the price is back to $89, otherwise I’d go back and load up. It is really a nice scotch for $39…much better than any other I’ve had in that price range.

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