This month Charles reviews the travel exclusive Mortlach Special Strength.
Mortlach Distillery is discreetly situated in a wooded glen on the southern edge of Dufftown – the first licensed distillery in the town which would become the ‘whisky capital’ of Speyside, with eight distilleries – and draws its water from ‘Highlander John’s Well’, much esteemed by illicit distillers.
It was founded in 1824 by one James Findlater, but he soon ran into financial difficulties, as did his successor. The third owners were John and James Grant, who removed the distilling equipment to their new distillery, Glen Grant, down the road at Rothes. For a while the Mortlach buildings were used as a Free Church, then the distillery was revived by on John Gordon, under whose ownership the whisky “attained some celebrity in the district under the name of The Real John Gordon”.
In 1852 Gordon was joined by George Cowie, a local man who qualified as a surveyor and worked for two of the leading railway engineers of the ‘railway boom’, assisting with the construction of bridges, viaducts, tunnels and stations all over the United Kingdom, before returned to his native heath to become John Gordon’s partner. On the latter’s death he became sole owner of the distillery and began to win a high reputation for his whisky far beyond Speyside. The Elgin Courant remarked:
“There is not perhaps a distillery in Scotland that has so many private customers as Mortlach from which spirits are sent not only over the three kingdoms to families, but to America, India, China and Australia, in all of which Mr. Cowie has customers who prefer his distillation to all others…”
George Cowie was succeeded by his son, Dr. Alexander Cowie, who until 1896 had pursued a highly successful career as a doctor in Vienna, London and Hong Kong, and who now applied his scientific learning to distillation.
Within a year he had doubled the size of the distillery to six stills, and introduced a complex distilling regime - unique in the whisky industry, still followed today and so complex that it takes six months of training for new stillmen to operate. The heavy spirit thus produced became known as ‘The Beast of Dufftown’!
Dr. Cowie’s only son was killed in the First World War, and when he retired in 1923 he sold Mortlach to a leading customer, John Walker & Sons, through whom it became part of the Distillers Company Limited and its successor, Diageo. The demand for the spirit in the Johnnie Walker blends and others – Mortlach is ranked Top Class by blenders – radically limited the amount available as a single malt, indeed, although a small amount was released by ‘George Cowie & Son’ in the 1970s, the first proprietary bottling was only released in 1986, at 16 years old.
By 2011 the influential Whisky Exchange was grumbling that “a great, but criminally under-exposed distillery…deserves far wider recognition”, little knowing that already plans were being laid to do just this. In 2014, Diageo released three expressions of Mortlach – Rare Old, 18 Years Old and 25 Years Old, all bottled at 43.4%ABV. Now these have been joined by High Strength, a Duty Free exclusive.
Although under 50%ABV, it hold its beading admirably. A rich nose, with meaty notes in the foreground (roasting tin, over-cooked beef, char), with fruits behind (peach, blood orange, red apple). At full strength the taste is sweet and fruity, with light char in the finish. A little water dries out the aroma and introduces caramelised apples with cinnamon, with light orange zest or oil. Smooth and spicy; sweet and soft to taste.