Walking In Uninvited at a House Where You Do Not Live: Mortlach Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 22 Years and Bottled at 46% ABV by Alchemist

14 - 1-5Being an inveterate drinker of fine Scotch whiskeys bottled by independents, I’ve grown accustomed to spirits matured in a manner the distillery itself might frown upon. Macallans and Aberlours aged entirely in ex-bourbon casks, for example; or, to the contrary, heavily peated Bunnahabhains or Caol Ilas deeply influenced by years at rest in a sherry butt. My last review parsed an 11 year old Mortlach aged entirely in an ex-bourbon hogshead – I liked it a great deal – and here we have another Mortlach, also matured with no influence of sherry casks but for twice as long, 22 years, and from an independent bottler I’d neither seen nor heard of before buying this bottle: Alchemist.

Here’s what I read about this bottler on scotchwhisky.net: The driving force behind the company is Gordon Wright who not only has significant experience in the world of single malt whisky – with his family connections to the Springbank distillery and, latterly, his involvement with the “re-birth” of Bruichladdich – but who also has had the opportunity over the years to gain considerable insight into some of the world’s other classic spirits.

Springbank is, bar none, my favorite distillery, and “latterly” I’ve become quite fond of Bruichladdich, especially of their Cuvee series (thank you, Dave). I’m also a big fan of Mortlach. So it’s safe to assume Gordon Wright and his Alchemist label have put something together here I may enjoy a great deal. Let’s see…

The Whisky

It’s Mortlach, and it isn’t. And what more there is to say about that, I say below. Here’s a great overview of the Mortlach Distillery from the indispensable Malt Madness site: http://www.maltmadness.com/whisky/mortlach.html

The Nose

The first aromas to pleasure my eager olfactory bulbs are clean, dry malt and sawdust. And Macoun apple slices – or maybe a grainier apple like a Red Delicious – and a bit of honey.

What is somewhat baffling here is the familiarity of this profile – and I’m not talking about other Mortlachs. What the nose on this reminds me of is Glenfarclas – something between or in the vicinity of the 17 or 21 year old distillery bottlings.

Unfortunatly, I remain in medias res here, still transitioning from MA to NY, and I don’t have any Glenfarclas open in my temporary living quarters. I do, however, have an open bottle of Blackadder’s 23 year old Blairfindy from their Raw Cask series and ‘Blairfindy’ is just a legally necessary misnomer for Glanfarclas (the Grants, the family that has owned Glenfarclas for generations, hale from Blairfindy Farm and are sometimes referred to as the Blairfindy Grants).

Pouring a dram of this Blairfindy 23 (48%) and then nosing it side by side with the Alchemist Mortlach 22 (46%), the similarity is indeed uncanny.

So, if this smells like a good Glenfarclas, what’s the point? Why not just go out and buy the decidedly luscious and elegant 21 year old Glenfarclas for about the same price? Or, for that matter, why not go out and buy this Blackadder 23 year old Blairfindy – if you can find it?

Hhmmm…

Closer attention does reveal some differences. For one thing, the Blairfindy has a faint warm floral character to the nose that this Mortlach does not exhibit. And the Alchemist Mortlach has a very modest suggestion of minty acetone that the Blairfindy does not possess. And some young and savory vegetable scent – I’m thinking salted celery. But, still, the similarities are both arresting and curious.

I am a vocal fan of the Glenfarclas distillery and have often remarked that the olfactory and taste profiles of one of the better examples of this distillery’s juice – the 17, 21 or 25 year olds, say – constitute for me the Platonic Ideal of single malt Scotch whisky, the immutable and eternal form or idea of what a single malt Scotch whisky is, and the standard or benchmark all other single malt Scotch whiskeys could be thought of as variations of…

That’s just me, of course. If my thoughts, expressed, sound like babbling rhetorical poppycock to you, that doesn’t mean I am not, myself, convinced by them.

All of which is to say, I very much like the nose on the better Glenfarclases and thus am drawn to consider the very similar nose on this 22 year old Mortlach bottled by Alchemist as something to admire and, thus, to rate highly.

On the other hand, I have never before had the experience of the juice from one distillery reminding me so much of the juice of another. In a side by side comparison! Yes, they are from the same basic region of Scotland, both from the County of Banff, in fact, but individuality is the be-all and end-all, the raison d’etre, the signature, fingerprint, aim and rationale of each and every distillery in Scotland. Redundancy cannot, should not and will not be tolerated. So, from this perspective, how can I possibly give high marks to the nose on this Alchemist echo of Glenfarclas called Mortlach?

Let’s be perfectly clear: I am not saying I find the products of these two estimable distilleries, Mortlach and Glenfarclas, compromisingly similar. I do not. All I am saying is that this one very limited Alchemist bottling of Mortlach is compromisingly similar to some of my favorite bottles of Glenfarclas. And thus, despite enjoying it, my score must reflect my bewildered disappointment. 18/25

The Palate

This will be a quicker study, I promise.

My first impression upon pouring this potion over my tongue is – well, if you can imagine biting into a thin-walled hollow globe of granular sugar that has been filled with viscous clover honey, that’s it.

In the second wave, it’s the unsullied malt and the apples, but this time the apples have been baked.

There’s a hint of chocolate and a bit of banana confection.

And there is woody oak, just enough to remind the palate that this was aged in a refill ex-bourbon cask for 22 years, but not so much as to suggest over-aging. Oddly, considering its age and years of maturation in American oak, there is a noticeable lack of spiciness.

All of which adds up to a good, pleasant, even interesting palate, but nothing particularly distinguished, sophisticated or refined, nor anything that sets this whisky above its peers in any significant way. 20/25

The Finish

Finally! If your palate is anything like mine, the finish on this whisky will not disappoint. It is big and bold with lots of malt and honey and baked apples, now with cinnamon, and, for the first time, overripe honeydew melon. And, pulling this all together is the pleasurably embracing sting of oaky barrel tannins, like a scratchy, itchy, tight wool dress being zipped up around the fruity sweetness and spice. Here, in the finish, for the first time with this particular potion, I know I am drinking Mortlach. 23/25

Balance/Structure

This is tough. In one sense, there is a pleasant arc to this elixir, an unbroken, arching, descending line that runs with nary a twist or turn through the nose and palate, and which then grows bold in the finish. And I suspect the cut on this was rather tight based on the oily, just-this-side-of-bloated mouth feel.* And this whisky gives a relatively firm sense of structure as well, which could be the result of a well-chosen cask.

The lack of individuality in the nose, however – with the nose being this particular whisky’s most complex, most interesting facet – is a real problem.

In my heart, in my whisky-drinking memory cache and in the summary of my senses, I’d say everything about the experience of savoring and sipping this whisky leads to the conclusion that it is a good but not a great whisky – which, pardon me, is something I expected from an independently bottled, bucksy 22 year old from one of my favorite Scottish distilleries. So what we have here is a bottling that is at once good and disappointing. 18/25

Total points for this whisky: 79 **

* When I first opened this bottle, I was not impressed, the experience being one of bloated honey sweetness and soft, simple, meandering malt followed by sawdust and sour tannins, much like some younger, overrated, bloated-with-hyperbole Dalmore distillery bottlings I’ve had. This, and many an example like it, should caution each and every one of us never to pass final judgment on a whisky the day or even the first week it is opened. Good whisky needs time to breathe.

** However… Let’s say I had never before tasted a good Glenfarclas – what score might I have given this whisky then? My rating of the nose would certainly have been higher, maybe +3 points. And that would have influenced my rating of balance and structure as well, by +2 points perhaps, meaning I might have given this whisky a score of 84 points if I hadn’t found its lack of individuality so disappointing.

An Alluring Blonde Among Swarthy Brunettes: The Classic Cask’s 2002 Mortlach 11 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

CCMortlach11Compared to the richly multifaceted 40 year old blended Scotch whisky from The Classic Cask I had such a torrid olfactory affair with in the course of my last review, this much younger Mortlach, from the same bottler, is a relatively simple pleasure. Still, the high caliber of quality here is no less evident, which speaks volumes for Spirit Imports and it’s The Classic Cask line. Like Blackadder’s Raw Cask range or Meadowside Blending’s The Maltman series or The Creative Whisky Company’s The Exclusive Malts bottlings – and perhaps a few others – The Classic Cask line is, in my experience, consistent in quality from bottle to bottle and from one distillery to the next.

In fact, I contend that one of the distinctions that sets independent bottlers such as these apart from distillery brands is their ability to offer a very wide variety of whiskies that are of consistent high quality. Of course, yes, you can find a distillery – Lagavulin is a good example, Glenfarclas another – that offers consistent quality throughout their entire range. However, their entire range is limited to one distillery. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is certainly confining.

With an independent bottler that offers reliable quality, such as those I’ve mentioned, the range of quality whiskies on offer may cover every Scotch region and a whole library of compelling taste profiles. Trusting Glenfarclas or Lagavulin to offer quality products across their ranges is one thing; trusting Blackadder or The Classic Cask or The Exclusive Malts or The Maltman to do so is quite another – because the range and variety they lay before us is so wide and so various by comparison. Long live the Independents, I say!

The Whisky

This is Spirit Imports’ bottling of an 11 year old Mortlach from its The Clasic Cask line. Like everything else I’ve had from this independent, this is very good whisky. And while I can’t say I’ve ever had a Mortlach I didn’t like, this bottling’s taste profile falls outside the usual Mortlach meatiness, heaviness and pungency. Distilled in 2002 and bottled at 46% ABV, unchillfiltered and untainted by the prevaricating E150a, this spirit is at once both rich and delicate, many-layered and fruity, a bit vegetal and even a little marine. Definitely Speyside, certainly very good, but captivatingly out of character for this distillery.

The Nose

As I said, this is not ‘meaty’ – as one often hears Mortlach described.

Rather, I get a lawn of sweet grass and star fruit.

It is tight and clean and relates the tale of an older (third fill?) but very firm and tight ex-bourbon cask.

While there may be a touch of oak in the nose, and some youthful spiritousness, that is not what this complex of aromas is about.

The aromatic sweetness here is that of confectionary sugar sprinkled on lemon drop cookies.

More citrus comes through – lime especially, but mango as well, and candied orange slices.

And still more fruit, but unfamiliar – maybe the aroma of cherry wood boards?

Beyond that, there is something vegetal and clean – like chopping rinsed heads of iceberg and Romaine lettuce together.

Another pass of the nose and this comes up: A dusting of sea salt on orchid petals by a white pepper mill.

While one often reads Mortlach described as ‘heavy,’ I would say this particular example of the juice is more ‘serious’ than ‘heavy’.

If this aroma were a color category, it would be strong, variegated pastels. 21/25

The Palate

A surprisingly silky, oily entry. Mouthwatering and sensual.

A blend of malt sugars with clove and vanilla.

The sweetness leads and coats the tongue like malted honey, then the various spices – ginger, cardamom, allspice – layer themselves in with casual patience. The slowness of the radiating spices here, broadening and developing slowly, is alluring.

The fruit presence is still strong but is now less citric. 22/25

The Finish

All of the above, slow and sweet and warming, leads into a drying, spicy finish that doesn’t quite embrace the chest but leaves the tongue and throat with a long, lingering, persuasive experience. 21/25

Balance/Structure

What we have here is the balance and structure of a well-selected elixir matured in a good, firm, somewhat spent cask – and by ‘spent’ I do not mean bad in any way, just not imparting as much wood influence as it might if it were a first or second fill. The delicacy and intricacy of the nose leads to a more direct, more sweet and more silky sensual palate, that then debouches in a very rich, spicy, long and lingering finish. So this doesn’t have the wonderful arc of, say, The Classic Cask’s 40 year old blend – but, then again, not much does. As an 11 year old single malt whisky that most Scotch lovers can afford, this is one fine specimen indeed. 22/25

To make a comparison…

The Maltman’s 13 year old Mortlach – I’m holding a Glencairned dram of it here in hand at the moment – is also bottled with a 46% ABV and has a more pungent, more vegetal and more commanding, but less delicate and layered and sweet, nose. On the palate, The Maltman’s dram is once again more commanding, perhaps richer and more various, but less sweet, less pleasant, less mouthwatering and alluring. The finish on The Maltman’s Mortlach is less spicy but less sensual and long. Is one of these potions better than the other? I honestly can’t say. And I know that, if I gave an answer to that question, I’d probably choose the other as best a day or two later. These are both very good whiskies and I’m very fortunate to have them both on my shelf.

Total Points for this whisky: 86

A very special thanks to Lauren Shayne Mayer and to Spirit Imports, Inc. for the samples.