Yesterday was a day I had been awaiting with a mixture of hope and fear. Diageo finally announced the pricing and the bottle design of their new Mortlach range.
The range which had been announced already in early December 2013 consists of 4 bottles of 500 ml size:
- Rare Old NAS (£55)
- Special Strength NAS (£75, Travel Retail)
- 18 yo (£180)
- 25 yo (£600)
Adjusted to standard 700 ml size, the guideline prices are £77 for Rare Old, £105 for Special Strength, £252 for the 18 yo and £840 for the 25 yo. There will also be 750 ml bottles for the US market but their prices have not been published yet. They will be available from June on, but only in select markets due to limited supply.
Diageo has decided to go the full monty with Mortlach. Back in autumn 2013 a group of influential whisky people was invited to a top secret mission to the distillery where the plans for Mortlach were presented: a multi million pound distillery expansion – or actually a clone of the existing distillery – and a new product range supposed to replace the singular Mortlach 16 yo Flora & Fauna bottling. Former SMWS ambassador Georgie Bell, who I had the pleasure to meet at the 2013 Victoria Whisky Festival, was appointed as brand ambassador for Mortlach in January 2014.
Initial reactions on social media to yesterday’s announcement ranged from disappointed over shocked to downright angry. Soon the word “Dalmorization” made the rounds. But other than a few “wait until we can taste it” comments, there was little enthusiam about the new Mortlach range, mainly because of the pricing.
I had been hoping for a proper Mortlach range for years, but I believed this was only wishful thinking until the news about the distillery expansion broke. A part of me was hoping for a Classic Malt style approach, but having become disillusioned by recent developments on the whisky market I also feared that Diageo would take it one step further. Which in fact has now happened.
The 16 year old Flora & Fauna bottling could be bought for £50 to £55. Now we have a no age statement whisky for £77 and an 18 year old for £252. With this pricing it is obvious that the ‘cheapest’ bottling of the range could never have an age statement. If its age is comparable to the 16 yo, people would ask why an 18 yo is so much more expensive. And if it is significantly younger, people would ask why it is so much more expensive than the older 16 yo. To name it “Rare and Old” just looks like a feeble attempt to justify the steep price. The standard argument for NAS of being able to pick the best casks regardless of age would not have had much credibility here when the name already suggests age and when there are proud age statements on the more expensive bottles.
“Dalmorization” was already mentioned. Diageo’s Nick Morgan stating “The bottles are strikingly different and I would call them decanters, not bottles. This range is all about redefining luxury in single malt whisky. The design and the size is part of all that intake.” certainly encourages this impression.
But actually the new Mortlach range goes beyond that. While it is true that Dalmore is asking silly prices for their high end bottlings that usually come in fancy decanters, they still do have a bunch of affordable entry level bottlings. With a NAS bottle for £77 (700 ml adjusted) Mortlach will have the most expensive official ‘entry level’ bottling of all working distilleries in Scotland.
Diageo will surely be able to explain the high prices, be it the rarity of the liquid, the extravagant bottle design or the salary of a dedicated brand ambassador who has no whisky to pour for half a year.
Mortlach has long been neglected by Diageo, and breathing new life into it certainly was the right decision. In principle. It is a truly great whisky, but there is one thing that Diageo appears to have forgotten here. For a long time Mortlach has been known as a single malt more or less only among the geeks. It has gained a cult status because of its unusual meaty character, especially when matured in sherry casks. Mortlach was a hidden gem only recognized by independent bottlers who have been providing excellent whisky for affordable prices.
Diageo should not be surprised about the heated reactions to the new Mortlach range. Mortlach’s high status as a single malt is largely due to the entusiasm of us whisky geeks. This one time we are not irrelevant. If we had not been spreading the gospel of Mortlach’s greatness for years and years, this distillery would doubtlessly continue to lead the sad life as Diageo blend fodder, just like Mannochmore or Glen Spey. It was us who made it possible. And it is a crying shame that now so many of us are priced out of it, no matter (or just because) how magnificent the whisky in those small perfume bottles is.