Mortlach, Whisky’s Best Kept Secret

This article is part of a series of luxury spirits articles sponsored by Diageo.

“Any time I hear someone order Mortlach in a bar, my ears prick up,” claims Ewan Gunn, Global Scotch Whisky Ambassador at Diageo.

Though this Speyside distillery has never exactly been a household name, it’s long possessed a cult fascination among whisky connoisseurs. Rich, luxurious, and remarkably refined, it’s hard to believe it doesn’t attract the same insane pursuit that many other “luxury” whiskies do. The days of Mortlach Single Malt Scotch Whisky being an insider’s secret are slowly changing, however. The mainstream is finally starting to catch on to the brilliance of the brand, inspired by exciting and world-class releases over the last few years like 2019’s Mortlach 26 Year Old and 2021’s Mortlach 13 Year Old.

The funny thing is, the mainstream has enjoyed Mortlach forever; most just have never realized it. Because it’s such a big, meaty, and powerful malt, since 1823 Mortlach has been a key component in the blends of some of the most widely distributed whiskies, including Johnnie Walker, literally the best-selling whisky in the world since World War II.

Mortlach's Speyside distillery
Mortlach’s Speyside distillery, the first distillery in Dufftown, Scotland.

Mortlach was the name of the original village that sprang up around the abbey of the name, founded by Saint Moluag in the 7th century. Eventually, in 1823, Mortlach became the first legal distillery in Dufftown, at the heart of Speyside. When George Cowie joined in 1853, the former engineer applied his audacity, skill, and determination to grow the distillery’s reputation across the world.

In 1896, George’s son, Dr. Alexander Cowie — not a distiller by trade — joined the business. Somehow, despite his neophyte status, Dr. Cowie used his science acumen and his father’s strange distillery design to weave liquid through six stills of completely different silhouettes and a tangle of copper pipes. This method created, and still creates, a one-of-a-kind spirit that is dark and earthy, as well as rich and complex; these powerful whiskies are unlike anything that has come before them.

“The process gives you such an intensely complex liquid and character from the minute it comes off the still,” believes Diageo master blender Dr. Craig Wilson.

When Mortlach’s doors were opened almost two centuries ago, it was the only distillery in Dufftown, which is in Moray in the northeast of Scotland toward the North Sea coast. Today, however, Dufftown produces more whisky than any other place in Scotland and is home to countless other distilleries.

Many connoisseurs would finally become familiar with the quality of Mortlach when the brand first began releasing it as a single malt in 2014. (Some independent bottlings and special releases occurred earlier than this.)

There is Mortlach 12 Year Old, dubbed “Wee Witchie” in an ode to the smallest of the distillery’s stills. There is the 16 Year Old, called the Distiller’s Dram in honor of an exclusive single malt bottling released solely to distillery workers back in 1992, the first time many of them had ever tried the whisky they made in single malt form. The 20 Year Old, Cowie’s Blue Seal, recalls the story of Dr. Cowie’s daughter discovering her late father’s private stock in 1973 — this is Mortlach’s very best Scotch, a refreshing lift of aromatic and overripe fruits and a touch of spiciness. It would surely make the doctor proud.

“For me it’s the way the unique 2.81 [distillation] process gives you such an intensely complex liquid and character from the minute it comes off the still,” says Wilson. “It’s like having three distilleries at the one still house.”

Because of this “almost” triple distillation — hence the 2.81 designation — the whisky stands up to long maturation cycles, especially in sherry casks. This creates whiskies packed with notes of bitter chocolate, marmalade, dark fruits, and even tobacco. Mortlach single malts bridge the gap between mellow and smoky with an unparalleled flavor that harkens back to a time when whiskies were bigger, bolder, and darker — Mortlach is to be enjoyed, not endured.

In the last few years, more mainstream drinkers have realized what the experts have known all along, in large part thanks to the massive splash that was made when Mortlach 26 Year Old was included in the Diageo 2019 Special Releases Single Malt Scotch Whisky Collection, an annual series that showcases the breadth and depth of Diageo’s exceptional whisky stocks. This quirky release was a natural cask strength offering, matured in first-fill Pedro Ximenez and oloroso sherry seasoned casks. With only 3,883 numbered bottles, packaged in a stunning collectible box, it was the most limited of the 2019 Special Releases and easily one of the most acclaimed. People are still talking about it today.

If some collectors were late to grab that bottling, they now have another opportunity through the darkly robust and rich Mortlach 13 Year Old , part of the newly launched 2021 Special Releases collection. It starts mellow before introducing a soaring note of freshly oiled wood, leading into a savory and meaty palate, rich in heather pollen and fresh crushed herbs. This year’s Special Releases collection is dubbed “Legends Untold,” and, indeed, Mortlach has long been a legend hiding in plain sight, just waiting for its story to be recalled — a story of ingenuity, passion, and a bold flavor unlike any other.

“You know you will always get a whisky of unparalleled richness and complexity when it is a Mortlach,” says Wilson.

This article is sponsored by Diageo.