It’s not often one gets the chance to visit a distillery normally closed to the public. And some may query why you’d need to – after all, in places like Scotland, distilleries have been opening their doors to the whisky curious on an ever-increasing basis since Glenfiddich commenced tours in 1969.
But, it can be deliciously exciting to get to sneak around a distillery that you know isn’t used to seeing people from outside of its staff rota. And that is exactly what I (and others) had the chance to do at Mortlach distillery in May.
Normally closed, the team there started offering special tours during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival a couple of years back to huge success although this success has not resulted in you being able to find any Mortlach marmalade in a big gift shop. That said, the plan is to increase the number of tours during the festival, especially since the distillery is undergoing a huge renovation, which will see it double its capacity by 2015 from its current output of just over three millions liters per annum.
Mortlach distillery is one of the seven distilleries of Dufftown in the saying “Rome was built on seven hills, Dufftown stands on seven stills”, having been the first to be built and licensed in the area in 1823. It was here, in fact, that William Grant worked for 20 years before starting up Glenfiddich, so it has a long tie-in with the great and good of the region.
Of all the distilleries I’ve been to, Mortlach is both one of the most interesting and perplexing. But more on that later when we get to the stills.
As background, much of its production goes into Johnnie Walker Black Label but it is also bottled as a single malt from time to time, appearing in the past in Diageo’s (once, United Distillers’) popular Flora and Fauna series (now called the Distillery Malts) and as a 16-year old distillery release. The distillate it produces is meant to be sulphury and meaty, so is key to Diageo’s new make spectrum, with only Benrinnes, Craggonmore, Dalwhinnie and Glenkinchie having similar characteristics within its 28 distilleries. The majority of its new make is also matured in European oak casks, adding on to that rich, heavy style.
Set on a fairly compact site, the distillery is a good old working one. There are no signs with fancy writing explaining the various elements of the whisky making process, no brightly painted railings and scrubbed up buildings. In place are the distillery workers going about their regular day-to-day business in buildings that have peeling paint and a grey theme. In fact, it’s refreshing in its greyness.
The distillery – I was told by site operations manager Sean Phillips – uses concerto malt grown in nearby Keith and has its malting done at Burkhead. It receives seven loads of 28 tonnes a week. Its malt goes through the mashtun with the first run at 64 degrees, moving on to 74 degrees and finally 92 degrees, producing 52,000 litres of wort.
There are six washbacks on site (to double to 12 by 2015) in which the wort goes through a 53-59 hour fermentation.
Now, up to this stage, everything seemed to be normal – but once we got to the stills, things suddenly got confusing. Unlike many distilleries, which have pairs of wash and spirit stills, the stills at Mortlach are all different. This makes for a rather confusing, spider graph of distillation practices. Sean attempted to explain it all to me, but the best way to illustrate it is with, well, an illustration:
To help clear up that picture, according to my notes wash still number three is paired with spirit still number three. Then, the middle cut of wash still one and two are paired together and fed through spirit still number two. Finally, the tops and tails from wash stills one and two, are paired with the tops and tails from spirit stills two and three. All of these are also distilled on spirit still number one, affectionately known as ‘Wee Witchie’ and key to the unusual practice at Mortlach. It’s bizarre but also fascinating.
There, that’s made it clear hasn’t it?
The distillery also uses worm tubs, which helps to add a weightiness to the new make. This is because there is less copper for the new make to interact with and, as copper tends to remove heavy, sulphury compounds, it means those notes are left in for Mortlach.
Once we’d finished the tour with Sean, we headed inside for our tasting. And where did we go? To a tasting room? To a special distillery house? No. In fact, we went to the former canteen. It was grey. Brilliant!
There Donald Colville – Diageo’s global Scotch whisky ambassador – took the group through a set of very special drams.
We started with the new make spirit, which is filled into casks at around 63.5%. On the nose, there are notes of cotton candy and a bit of iron, while the palate was meaty, metallic and grassy. It was intriguing – not as sweet or floral as other new makes I’ve had but one that certainly stands apart.
Next up was a sample from cask 4550 – a 16 year old whisky matured in a refill ex-bourbon barrel. At around 58%, this was a grassy, peppery and meaty dram on the nose with just a touch of that fresh manure smell (something that, I realise, would put many people off but which only reminds me of life growing up on a farm). That grassy note really continued for me on the palate, while the spice translated to a cinnamon flavour in the mouth.
For the next sample, we took an about-turn from the heavier, farm-fresh notes I found in the first two. Cask 977 was a rejuvenated hogshead cask (one that has had its initial layer of charcoal stripped back to reveal new wood and which then undergoes a fresh charring to open up new wood pores). On the nose, this was quite fresh and fruity, with a definite leaning towards the sugared pineapple end of the fruit spectrum to me. On the palate, there was a lovely, cinnamon cake note along with coconut and dulce de leche – that glorious creamy caramel sauce favoured by the Argentinians.
Sample number four took us down the sherried route, with a 55% dram from cask 2356 – an 11-year old European red oak butt seasoned in-house with Sherry. On the nose, it was slightly sharp at first (Donald said balsamic and I agreed, thinking of a reduced balsamic sauce). This melted down to more of a buttery note after a few minutes with my nose in the glass. On the palate, it was drying at first, but then a lovely, toasted wheat and crumble base flavour came through that was very satisfying, making it one of my favourite of the day.
Finally, we had a wee sip of special Spirit of Speyside Festival Bottling, released by Mortlach in a series of 3,000 bottles. This was comprised of a mixture of ex-sherry and ex-bourbon American and European oak casks and came in at 48%. On the nose, there were notes of sticky sugar, the scent of freshly sawn wood on a cool day and a dash of citrus sharpness. The palate, meanwhile, was lighter than expected, with notes of brown sugar and a woody dryness. It was very pleasant but couldn’t beat cask 2356 for me.
When finally we finished it was with a great sense of satisfaction at having discovered something off the beaten path. In a wonderful gesture, the distillery team gave two of the people in our group the only branded glasses they had on-site. The reason was because he had traveled all the way from France (by car to Manchester, then flight to Aberdeen and finally car to the distillery) overnight after missing a flight, just to ensure he could be there with his friend for his friend’s birthday. The team at Mortlach was so impressed with the pair’s dedication that they rustled up the only thing they had in their cupboards to give (since there is certainly no gift shop on site). It was a wonderful, memorable moment when the glasses were presented and the look on the pair’s faces was priceless – showing that Mortlach is something truly special.
If you do happen to be in Speyside next May for the festival, I definitely recommend getting onto one of the tours there. I’m confident you won’t be disappointed!