Molten Sunshine Raisin Cake: The Exclusive Malts’ 1995 Mortlach 18 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength, Single Malt Scotch Whisky

EMMortlachForgive me, father, for I have sinned. It has been nearly six weeks since my last whisky review!

Excuses? Oh, I have a dump truck load of them! There have been, no lie, ten thousand urgencies and complications of life that have intervened to trip, stump and stall me and to keep me from doing the things I love, such as savoring and reviewing good whisky. Perhaps foremost among my excuses – yes, for all their reality and impact on my life, these remain excuses – is the fact that I have moved from Massachusetts to New York since penning my last review. A scary move indeed!

Here in the mid-Hudson Valley I have not been able to find a single liquor store that carries even a tiny fraction of the treasures available to me at my beloved Norfolk Wine & Spirits back in suburban MA. It’s a three and a half hour drive back to Norfolk from where I live now, in a picturesque hamlet of emerging hipness and nascent sophistication called Beacon, NY, but I will be making that drive, as often as I can, just to get my hands on those sublime, rare bottles the profoundly good and industrious Bikram Singh* labors daily to bring to his shelves for his customers.

A particularly distressing disappointment I’ve encountered in the dozen or so liquor stores I’ve visited in this area is the lack – a nearly complete and total absence – of independent bottlings of single malt Scotch whisky. I may have seen one or two hardly-interesting Gordon & MacPhails here and there, maybe one Chieftain’s selection, but that’s it! Really! My fellow maltmen, ethanolics and whisky connoisseurs back in southeastern MA would not believe what a barren, arid wasteland this is!

So, please, good people, do listen up. If you’re reading this and you live in or nearby the Husdon Valley and you know the difference between a ‘farclas and a ‘fiddich, between a Longrow and a Longmorn or between a single malt and a malt blend, please please please do get in touch with me via this blog (or via Facebook if that’s where you’ve seen this) and we’ll get something luscious planted in this desert! I’m already in contact with a very good rep from an excellent Scotch whisky importer and he’s as eager as I am to get some good whisky flowing along the Hudson, but he and I can’t do it alone. Get in touch and we’ll make some noise – and, I promise you, we’ll share some very good malts.

The Whisky

If you think you’ve never had Mortlach, think again – it is one of the main components of Johnny Walker Black. Distillery bottlings have been very rare, but the evil (and necessary?) Diageo is now bottling it up in various expressions and selling it for exorbitant prices – which is not to say, if you’ve got the means, that those bottles will not be worth adding to your collection, sipping and savoring and drinking down. On the contrary, I’m sure they’ll be excellent. But you can find some outstanding, top-notch Mortlachs from independent bottlers at better prices. The whisky under review here is one such bottle.

The Exclusive Malts line comes from erstwhile whisky writer David Stirk’s Creative Whisky Company, which consistently bottles and sells superb single cask, cask strength single malt Scotch whiskies. This Mortlach, un-chill-filtered and untainted by the specious E150a, was distilled in 1995, has been aged “in oak” for a full 18 years and was bottled at 54.3 % ABV. It is a wonderfully clear gold in color and has legs you want to lick from inside the glass…


Plump raisins bursting in the sun, then scooped up and pressed to the bottom of a deep dish of strawberries and cream; there is also a gourmet variant of a chocolate and coconut Mounds bar here, and melted banana-coconut ice cream and a warm (warming) raspberry lime ricky. Redolent pencil shavings and oak sawdust doused with fresh-squeezed lemon, lime and orange juices. Nutmeg shells. Sweet vanilla and burned marshmallow. Baked green apple served over brown bread made with gobs of molasses. Then that warming aroma of nutmeg again. (23/25)


Some kind of luscious melon that has a rather keen but pleasant bite. A gourmet jam of apple, strawberry and lime preserves spread over Ak-Mak crackers. Raisin and date cake that has been warming on a windowsill all afternoon. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give this elegant elixir is to say its palate is very reminiscent of one of my favorite whiskies of all time, the 1975 Dallas Dhu bottled at 28 years by the (once and still) discerning folks at The Classic Cask. The core of that whisky, and of this one under review, is that succulent, overripe, mouthwatering cantaloupe juiciness – braced here by a dusting of nutmeg, baked apples and warm molasses. (23/25)


Raisins again, followed by that melting chocolate and coconut candy bar, nutmeg and melon juice, lots of sweet melon juice, long and bracing and warming warming warming all the way to the heart. (23/25)


This works, each element of the experience at once echoing and balancing the other elements like the fine-honed gears of a handmade Swiss watch. This is a juicy, flavorful, warming delight that also manages to be surprising, at least to Mortlach drinkers, by standing out as a quite different member of its tribe, distinguished by a juicy fruitiness that is unusual in a Mortlach and by a sense of exalted refinement. Not quite as meaty an experience as one expects from this distillery, but very good stuff indeed. (23/25)

Total Points for this whisky: 92

* The Whisky Lover’s BFF, the one and only Bikram Singh

Achieving the Possible: The Maltman’s Tobermory Aged 18 Years

IMG_20140404_113917_413~2I have been sick. Very sick. So sick that I went nearly two weeks without a single dram of single malt Scotch whisky! My work is all about due dates and deadlines, but last week, for the first time in the twelve years I’ve worked at my current job, I broke down and asked for help. Before I did so, I felt like I was trying to meet a deadline while being waterboarded! And yet, all the while, I was reading about whisky, moaning in bed, shivering under blankets in my reading chair, but surfing, as best I could, along the highways and byways of the World of Whisky. And then, two nights ago, when I felt I had regained sufficient health to brave a couple of drams, I poured myself a finger of Highland Park 18; and then, turning to my Longrow 14 year old cask strength, I had another finger, and another. It was like starting to breathe again after holding one’s breath for a dozen days! Oh, yes, Goddam! I was back in the world of great whisky!

If a body could just find oot the exac’ proper proportion and quantity that ought to be drunk every day, and keep to that, I verily trow that he might leev for ever, without dying at a’, and that doctors and kirkyairds would go oot o’ fashion.

– The Ettrick Shepherd, as quoted by Christopher North (1826) and later by Charles MacLean (2008)

When I started thinking about what the Maltfreak should next turn his palate and pen to, this Tobermory from The Maltman came immediately to mind. While I do enjoy an occasional dram of the Tobermory distillery’s own 15 year old, that is an expression it is possible to improve upon. Donald and Andrew Hart, the father and son team behind The Maltman series, are more than capable of achieving that.


This is, however, an odd one. After 18 years in a sherry butt, one would expect a bit of color, some blush, but this is diluted honey at best without a hint of any winey hue. I suspect the sherry butt this came from (#5011) had already been used not once, not twice, but several times before. On the more positive side, the clarity of the liquid is hazy – something I love to see. One can read that a whisky is un-chill-filtered, but it’s always better when that fact is obvious to the naked eye. The distillery’s 15 year old Tobermory has a nice golden hue, but it’s limpid as glass by comparison with this. Bottled at 46% ABV, the apparent consistency here is that of skim milk or lemonade; it has thin, moderately quick legs – nothing that’s going to keep you preoccupied for very long. (7/10)


The nose isn’t pungent – aromas don’t rise from the glass like smoke from a chimney – but it has many elements: cookie dough, wildflower honey, something green and vegetal, some kind of cooking oil – flax seed oil, maybe, and linseed oil, too – with some grass, some hay and something citrusy-lemony. There’s a bit of sulphur – not enough to be a negative quality and not nearly as much as one gets off the nose of the distillery’s current 15 year old. There’s a chalky or flinty aroma in there, too. And the slightest half-wisp of peat smoke. Very good and interesting – certainly enough elements conjoining here for this nose to be called complex, but not so rich that it distracts me from wanting to move on and take a sip. Maybe I’m getting spoiled? (17/20)


On the palate you get a satisfying malty, flaxy, diluted honey swirled with the linseed oil and with the lemony citrus taste intact. There is a hint of cinnamon. What was green and vegetal on the nose now reveals itself as fresh asparagus and baby spinach leaves. Like the nose, this isn’t ‘pungent’ on the tongue and the mouth feel has the consistency of heavily diluted, thin oil. The 15 year old distillery bottling is a bit more oily with a taste that is slightly richer, leading to a more luxurious overall impression on the palate. This is the one place where the distillery bottling is, to me, slightly, just slightly, preferable to this single cask. 17/20


The finish adds barley malt sugars, honey and spice – the cinnamon again but also white pepper. Though it is drying, it lasts long enough, with a sweet burn that continues through the throat and into the upper chest. The finish on the distillery’s 15 year old is more pungent and warm, but hotter and less complex; I prefer this Maltman 18 year old here. 17/20


The balance of elements in the palate and finish, from malt to honey to citrus, linseed oil and asparagus to drying spice, is excellent; and, though the nose takes awhile to decipher, it offers plenty of interest. One can quibble with one or more elements in the nose, palate and finish – but the fact is, as a whole, as a whisky, this works. 18/20

Quality of the Buzz

Finally, the quality of the buzz: This one adds a rather ponderous, low frequency element to something brighter and more sugary. As an intoxicant, this juice could offer more guidance. It doesn’t pull one toward dreamy introspective abandon, lost in the umbra of mythic forests, nor does it get one dancing out there in the moonlight of a simple summer’s eve. As it is, it’s interesting, but a bit undecided on direction; it keeps one hovering in mid-frequencies. 7/10.

Total points for this whisky: 83

Improving on a Classic…

Bunnahabhain 18 – What Makes Scheherazade Glisten in the Night?

Bottle-Shots-040The deep, rich intricacy of a dear, luxurious Persian rug, with all the stories, from text and notes, found in Sir Richard Burton’s translation of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights – all of this taking place on and among the opulent textile’s deep pile of lusty fibers, on a dark, warm, humid night – that’s the experience of Bunnahabhain 18 year old. This is a deep, rich, luxurious whisky. Savor it or leave it to others who will. This is, as I’ve already hinted, the glistening perspiration of Scheherazade on a warm moonless desert night. And this generous, glorious elixir of Lethe seems to glow from within, the color of translucent gold held up before a ravaging sunset. My favorite color of any whisky yet. And the mouth feel is rich, fine oil and silk.

My notes on the aromas wafting up from this whisky are a weave of interlocking redolences, more various and extensive than I can remember writing down for any other whisky.

The nose, then… First sniff… There is a fragrant mustiness that is unmistakably musty but not unpleasant in the least. Long-closed damp old room in an abandoned Victorian garden house. Moist, damp, woolen socks in the laundry closet of an athletic youth with impeccable hygiene. But these are just a few layers among a myriad. As whisky personalities go, this is Sybil’s more complex sister. Not a monster in the mix by any means, but a liquid host for multitudes!

Going back in… Baked cherries, dried cherries, sweet butter, toffee, cheap chocolate wafers from the discount grocer, spilled dried vanilla extract, thin Grade A maple syrup, black licorice, an open can of crushed tomatoes, dry sherry, a touch of citrus – lime? – candy, whole grain wheat bread, malty cereal, salted almonds, honey baked ham, and a very slight influence of peat (from a water source?) but nothing I would specify as smoke per se.

Second and subsequent sips (as the first is always preparatory): A cool, sweet savoriness with late developing spice, drying sherry cask tannins balanced with a wildflower (i.e., not cloying, but understated) honey sweetness, a sensuous warm burn, salt and white pepper, rum-soaked green herbs, those cherries again, sweet maltiness, red grapes, butterscotch candy, and the slight, unexpected taste of Marshmallow Fluff on the roof of the mouth.

The finish is classic, long, with ginger, thin honey, dark raisins in the sun, sweet malt and drying tannins and, finally, a scintillating trace of clove.

This is really, really good whisky!

No, I didn’t even mention that it hales from the most remote and unconventional distillery on Islay, ‘the whisky island’ – what difference does that make?

You can check out the distillery here:

Nota bene: Thanks to Bikram Singh, I was talking to that erudite, gracious hombre Ed Kohl at Andy’s Market in Taunton, MA, the other evening, sampling several of the wondrous malts he represents, and he mentioned that his Exclusive Malts of Scotland independent bottling brand will soon bottle and distribute a single cask 21 year old Bunnahabhain. Based on the quality of other single cask bottlings in this series (the Exclusive Malts of Scotland Bowmore 11 and Clynelish 15 were particularly exquisite – and reasonably priced – in my opinion), I couldn’t possibly be more excited about this forthcoming dream dram.

Here’s some Bunnahabhain 18 sipping music. Take your time and enjoy!


Holger Czukay