When Mortlach announced in late 2013 that there would be four new whisky releases from the highly prized brand, the buzz about it started almost immediately with the news spreading like wildfire within the blogsphere and whisky-related sites.
When the company then announced the pricing structure of those releases a few weeks back, feedback nearly immediately turned from excitement to criticism. Not from all corners, mind, but much was made of the fact that the whisky – and particularly the £600 price tag for the 25-year old – could be out of reach of many of the people who had always enjoyed the Flora and Fauna 16 year old release, now to be discontinued.
Now, in case you missed the announcement, the four releases are to be a main market NAS version – Rare Old – along with a NAS Global Travel Retail version – Special Strength – and an 18- and 25-year old. All are to be 500ml and are priced at £55, £75, £180 and £600 respectively.
It’s the debate that’s becoming more and more fervent in the whisky talking-space – how much is a fair price and are whisky companies beginning to over-price products? And fair enough, why not ask these questions? Whisky lovers are – as many people know – passionate about the spirit and it’s inevitable that if change occurs, there will be those who welcome it and those who are concerned or critical of it.
From my perspective, I try to not judge whiskies until I’ve had the chance to try the liquid. I’m not saying this to suggest that others are incorrect to question – it’s just how I personally prefer to approach things.
When I first heard about Mortlach’s pricings, my initial thought was to think about the brand, its history, its output, its upcoming costs and how all of these will have been worked into the new pricing structure.
To start, I thought about the distillery itself. Mortlach has, for much of its life been praised for its malt within the blending sphere. As the first distillery in Dufftown, it has a rich history, and a trademark of producing just of rich, meaty and heavy a spirit. It has been used by blenders – not just within its parent company Diageo but many other companies – to create structure and intensity within blends and is always praised for its quality. With the vast majority of whisky drinkers globally consuming blends – somewhere between 92-95% of worldwide whisky consumption – it’s easy to do the maths and realise if Mortlach has, for decades, been seen as an integral part in blending, then there will not be unending stocks for use in single malt.
I then thought about its output and upcoming costs. Mortlach is due to be doubling capacity – something I first mentioned in this piece on my visit to Mortlach posted in July last year – from 3.4m litres per annum, to just over 7m. To do so, Diageo is investing in building a mirror distillery on the same site. So, while there will be a greater proportion of Mortlach in the future, the stocks being released right now will be from decades past when the output was limited and mainly used up for blending. The company will also – naturally – be looking to recoup some of the costs of its investment in the interim. All things to keep in mind. Diageo might be a big behemoth but it will still look at costs on an individual distillery level and that investment will have to be balanced out somewhere.
Next, I thought about the brand. Mortlach has always been praised for its Flora & Fauna 16 year old bottling, so chances are the new releases are going to be of just of high or higher quality. Additionally, when I was up at the distillery last year I was able to try a selection of single cask samples and the Spirit of Speyside bottling for 2013, all of which were impressive. All of this made me think the new releases – at whatever age – would be of interest.
And finally, I decided that with all of these things in mind I’d refrain from making any further judgements until I had the chance to try the liquid. I had – at that point – no indication that I would get that chance to do so, and was, therefore, not banking on it.
However, as things went, I did get the opportunity to sit down with Dr Matthew Crow – who worked on cask selection and blending – along with new brand ambassador Georgie Bell, and Dr Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach to try them out.
As I had the chance, I wanted to hear from them their thoughts on the pricings and I took the opportunity to ask Nick, who told me the following: “I have always been of the view that whisky has been underpriced. The Flora and Fauna series was, for us, not a commercial proposition. We only ever released 800 cases a year. It was something that was just out there. But people should know that Mortlach is a very rare thing. We’re not going to put it in a bottle and just give it away. We could use all of this for blending and Diageo would be very happy with us and it would be dishonourable of us to not give it a pricing it deserves.”
Matt followed that up, mentioning that the price range was of a wide enough spectrum to fit many people’s budgets. On the topic of the NAS Rare Old, he added: “When I think of the work that went into this, into the cask selection and development, I’ve always thought that we undervalued it.”
So, with all of this in mind, what exactly were the new releases like?
Georgie started off by explaining to us that: “Most people know Mortlach as a sherry-led rich whisky. But what we wanted to do was show off the distillery characteristics in various forms. This is about, ‘If you thought you knew Mortlach, you don’t.'”
Matt continued that saying: “We started thinking about what we could bring through from the new make and how we could stretch that, and pull that and what flavours we could bring in from cask influence.”
As such, the NAS Rare Old version has been constructed from a mix of the casks featuring in Mortlach’s warehouses: 1st fill ex-bourbon, refill ex-bourbon, heavily charred casks and ex-sherry casks. The Special Strength for GTR uses the same casks but has been bottled at 49%, while the 18-year old features 1st fill European oak butts, American oak hogsheads and European oak refill casks, while the 25-year old is comprised of whisky only matured in refill American oak casks.
Additionally, the whiskies are featured in extremely beautiful bottles. I’ve spoken before on this site how I appreciate when whisky comes in great packaging – I don’t think there is anything wrong with designing beautiful homes for a beautiful spirit and these do not let the liquid down. With glass and metal combined in Art Deco style bottles, the packaging is something you’d want to hold on to after you’ve finished the whisky. I’d personally opt for draping them in pearls and leaving them on my dressing table, but maybe that’s just me.
But back to the whisky – without further adieu, here are my personal tasting notes of each new release.
Rare Old: 43.4%: £55:
(n): A rich, earthy note comes through first – moss, damp trees and brown leaves for me. Then a layer of sweetness: honeysuckle and caramel. Finally, a note of something savoury and dry, like tea bags, before fennel and oranges. There’s a real mix of sweet and savoury on this one and I had to repeatedly go back to it to re-nose because I kept finding something else to discover.
(p): With lots of rich texture, it started with those earthy, almost muddy notes, lots of depth and a slight bitterness that worked across the sides of the palate. Then cinnamon spice and cocao powder before it finished on fennel, black peppercorns and dried mangoes.
Special Strength: GTR Exclusive: 49%: £75:
(n): At first, more dried fruits came through: lots of mango and papaya, along with vanilla, but a great balance was added with a pepperiness too. Brown sugar, wet paper and an ashy, sooty characteristic followed, along with fruit cake. I added some water to this one to try it out and found more zingy fruit notes emerged.
(p): On the palate, I really noticed the punchier strength from the Rare Old version. It’s much thicker on the palate, almost meaty in texture, with more notes of cinnamon spice and a slight iron/metallic note at back of palate. With water, caramel and earthy spice notes came out. I preferred the nose to the palate on this one.
18-year old: 43.4%: £180:
(n): Floral, with a nice bit of candy sweetness (for me, strawberry foams), along with orange peel, green leaves, vanilla beans and something buttery. Wonderful nose.
(p): There was a great dichotomy between the sweet and savoury on this one – a rich earthy spice akin to mustard leaves and fennel seeds, balanced with fresh almonds and chocolate. It was very mouth-filling but not heavy on the palate. There was a great contrast there but it was still surprisingly fresh.
(n): This one took me a minute to really analyse because I was genuinely overwhelmed at first with how much I loved this. I’m a big fan of Mortlach aged in American oak and this was a beautiful example. At first, bananas and cake, then candied almonds, a sea-salt/briney note, blackcurrant bushes, candle wax, vanilla cream, concentrated dried strawberries and a slight, earthy sootiness.
(p): A very fresh, perfumed palate at first with fresh plums and a milk chocolate note, before that earthy aspect came through in the form of dried spices, black pepper, juniper berries and brown sugar. Phenomenal. So many layers, it’s one I’d need to go back to again and again if I could afford to.
And so, in conclusion: yes, the new Mortlachs do live up to a level of craft and structure that I was hoping they would do. The cask selection has been so precisely done on these and perfectly highlights the distillery characteristic along with showing off how the whisky changes dependent on cask maturation style. The Rare Old is a superb entry-level offering and will definitely be going on my shelf when it comes out in June. The bottles are beautiful and constructed with such precision as to be considered art.
Now, will I personally pay £600 for the 25 year old? No. It’s my favourite of the bunch but, unfortunately, is not a sum I would be able to afford. London’s rental prices eat up my wages before whisky can. But is it worth it? Given all the various factors discussed above, I think it is. Just because I can’t personally afford it does not mean I will be bitter if I cannot get to try it again. There are a lot of holiday destinations I’d love to be able to get to and will not anytime soon but I’m not aggrieved that some people are able to.
Only time will tell with how it is received globally but I’m personally glad to know that more people around the world will be able to get a hold of Mortlach across the board. It’s been a bold move by the company and I’ll be keen to see how it develops over the coming years.