Dramming in Scotland 2011 #4 – Mortlach and the Grouse Inn

by Oliver Klimek on May 12, 2011

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Some distilleries are not normally open for visitors. Mortlach in Dufftown is one of the many Diageo distilleries focussing almost entirely on producing whisky for blends, so the owners see no need for a vistor centre. Only for the Spirit of Speyside Festival Diageo opens the doors to Mortlach for tours led by nobody less than the distillery manager himself.

But this particular event did not only feature the Mortlach tour. Steve Oliver, one of the organizers of the festival, combined it with a small whisky tasting and high tea afterwards.

Mortlach was the first licenced distillery of Dufftown, founded in 1823. It is located just outside the town centre in the idyllic Glen of the River Dullan. Mortlach itself was the old parish from which Dufftown later emerged. Mortlach church is about half a mile away, ironically just next to Dufftown distillery.

The distillery uses a unique “2.8 times” distillation where a significant quantity of the spirit along with foreshots and feints is triple distilled. The system is so obscure that it is virtually impossible to understand when it is explained to you less than five times. I suspect the number of people who could explain it to you by heart to be in the low double digit figures. But a key point of the distillation system is that every drop of spirit must have pased through spirit still no.1, the “wee witchie”.

Mortlach is unusual in another way too as all of the six stills (three wash still and three spirit stills) have different shapes. Nobody knows an exact reason for this other than the spirit they produce is bloody damn good, so they just stick with it.

But this is not yet the end of Mortlach’s specialities. It is one of the few distilleries that still use the old fashioned worm tubs instead instead of modern condensers. The spirit condenses more slowly in these curled copper pipes sitting in huge water-filled vats outside the stillhouse. This practice is said to have the effect of adding more robustness to the whisky, but yet again nobody knows for sure.

The distillery almost looks like a hundred years ago. But the production process has been automated to such an extent that it can be operated by a single person from a computer. Running seven days a week, Mortlach can produce about 3 million litres of alcohol per year. All spirit is transported with tankers to a centralized Diageo casking facility. The warehouses stock a mix of Diageo whiskies, just as Mortlach may be matured in any other Diageo warehouse too.

Mortlach single malt is known for its full-bodied character, and its taste – especially when matured in sherry casks – has often been described as meaty. This makes it a very interesting whisky for blenders, and Diageo’s Johnnie Walker blends rely strongly on the product of the distillery.

The flip side of this is that almost 100% of the distillery production goes into blends. There is only the 16 year old Flora & Fauna release that is bottled every few years by Diageo. If you want to try more Mortlach, you have to rely on independent bottlings; luckily there are plenty available.

I have stated it several times before: Mortlach is an excellent quality single malt that has a many fans because of its very special character. It is a shame that the owners don’t do justice to this demand by offering more original bottlings. And I can’t believe the distillery manager is very happy with the fact that almost all of his most unique whisky is diluted beyond recognition in blends.

On to the Inn

Distillery tours make hungry and thirsty, so the minibus that had brought the group from the Dufftown clock tower to the distillery now set course to the middle of nowhere, or the Grouse Inn in Lower Cabrach about 10 miles away from Dufftwon, to be more exact.

After a pleasant drive featuring hills and sheep the Inn suddenly materialized. It is a most amazing place, run by Wilma McBain, who looks after the enormous whisky collection of her late husband Ian. The Inn itself is popular for their inexpensive high tea, served on unpretentious tables covered with plastic tablecloth. But you shouldn’t come here just for the food anyway. Their whisky bar is in huge contrast to the dining area and features more than 200 different drams, many of them quite rare and collectable. And the prices are very affordable.

Obviously this is a very nice place for a whisky tasting, so Steve Oliver poured three drams, two to show different aspects of port maturation as well as a Mortlach (of course!):

  • Tomintoul 12 yo Port Wood Finish, 46%
  • Benromach Origins Batch 2 – Port Matured, 50%
  • Mortlach 12 yo, G&M Shop exclusive, 50%

Time was a little too short and tables were a little too small to take proper tasting notes, I’m afraid. The Tomintoul is a very decent and sippable dram, the Benromach could not quite match it. But star of the show was the Mortlach which was of a stunning quality and a very typical specimen of this distillery.

Unfortunately, time was running short as some group members had to be back in Dufftwon for another event. I would have liked to take some pictures of the Grouse Inn and especially their whisky bar, but we had to rush off before I could do it. After all I didn’t want to knock down my Glenlivet Archive 21 yo I had from the bar. Too bad there wasn’t time for more drams, but it was quite an experience nevertheless. Such a well-stocked whisky bar in a decidedly rural place has to be seen to be believed.

Tomintoul 12 Year Old Portwood Finish

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