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
*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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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