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.

The Arc of Life in Amber: The Classic Cask’s 1991 Glencadam 22 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

277998
So much of our time is preparation, so much is routine, and so much retrospect, that the path of each man’s genius contracts itself to a very few hours.

So said Ralph Waldo Emerson. I would add: And to a very few bottles.

The combined genius of raw materials – water, malted barley, yeast and oak – and of time, and of the skills and patience of craftsmen and masters distillers, sometimes contract into bottles of fine whisky – a distillation of geniuses, you might say. I could go on and on about this alchemy-like process, but I want to get straight on to the whisky at hand from a distillery I’ve never had the chance to try before. I leave you, dear reader, to discover the possible connections between life, whisky and transcendentalism suggested by that Emerson quote. Just know that the story and the answers you seek may be right there in your glass.

The Whisky

The Glencadam distillery is in the Eastern Highlands, not far from Speyside, and that is manifest in this whisky’s straddling of the two districts. It is reminiscent of some Speysiders I’ve had – better Linkwoods and Tormores, for example – but also of some of its closer neighbors such as Fettercairn and Glen Garioch. This is not to say it doesn’t stand on it’s own with an individualism that distinguishes it from other malts; it just shares, as most whiskies do, some general characteristics of its region like an overall brightness and lightness and a fresh lemon-grassiness, especially on the nose. It was once, and may still be, a constituent of the Ballantine’s and Stewart’s Cream of the Barley blends. This particular expression, from Spirit Imports’ The Classic Cask range, gains significantly in individualism by being bottled from a single cask filled in 1991 and matured – expertly, I’d say – for 22 years. It is presented with an ABV of 46%, is un-chill-filtered and untinted by the deceitful E150a. So, we’re off to a very good start…

Nose

Wowza! This is effusively fragrant stuff! Fresh mown grass, lemon zest, strawberry jam, fresh celery and sliced green peppers. When first poured, I got a whiff of Play-Doh – not a bad smell, but it dissipated within a few minutes anyway. Then there arose an olfactory air show of delectable creams: Strawberry cream filling, lemon cream filling, mint cream as you might find it in a Viscount Peppermint Patty (without the chocolate, however). There are salted almonds and pear juice and maybe just a hint of graham cracker. Fresh, involving, compelling, delightful. This is well-made, well-tended whisky; that, at least, is what the nose suggests. Water brings out more maltiness and something unspecifically floral. (23/25)

Palate

Warm and creamy, which is a combination I love. Tight, bright malt surrounded by warm sugar cookie crumbles, a touch of overripe cantaloupe, almond cream or perhaps a less specific creamy nuttiness, or Brazil nuts, maybe, shelled and piled like eggs in a grassy nest. There is a mild taste that is hard to pin down, something like chewing gum once you’ve chewed all the flavor out of it. More distinct than that, there is the luscious taste of butter pecan ice cream – but warm and without the pecans! Good stuff. Water brings out more oaky spice, more malty sweetness and, uh, a quick trace of what struck me for a moment as ozone; still, a few drops of water did not diminish the creaminess of this elixir whatsoever. (22/25)

Finish

Long and lingering, like spiced, melted butter. It courses down the throat and massages the heart with soft, warm fingers. While there are traces of oaky tannins passing through like frightened, bashful, elusive ghosts, this is, I think, the most mouthwatering finish I’ve ever experienced. So, so good! Water brings out more spice and a thin, slight but surprising whiff of iodine. (23/25)

Balance/Structure

This is well-made whisky – that is obvious in every aspect of it. The cask, which I assume was a refill American oak hogshead, was evidently tight and firm despite previous use. The balance here between nose, palate and finish follows an arc that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced in such a clearly defined manner before. The nose is all freshness and delight, offering up the best aspects of youth with all its fresh sliced peppers, celery, lemon zest, fresh-cut grass and pear juice among bakery and confectionary creams. The palate starts to bring in age with its creaminess and warmth, overripe cantaloupe, nuts and nut creams; you might say the palate is middle aged. The finish, long and lingering, easy on the throat, heart-warming and mouthwatering, has the comfort and easiness of age about it. Three stages of life in one potion. I have made these judgments, by the way, based on my experience of this whisky without water. Water didn’t diminish this nice old Highlander, but I preferred it at its bottled strength of 46%. (23/25)

IMG_20140605_114838_640~2
Total points for this whisky: 91

Many thanks to Lauren Shayne Mayer at Spirit Imports for the samples.