The Chemistry of Whisky

Mortlach Distillery and its unique distillation process

distillery | mortlach | whiskylifestyle

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October 24, 2022

Everything you need to know about Mortlach and its rich whisky
Foundation Year: 1824
Region: Speyside
Where: Mortlach Distillery, Dufftown, Moray, AB55 4AQ, United Kingdom
Owner: Diageo
State of Production: Active
Whisky Distinctive traits: Rich, meaty and savoury.
Visitor opening hours: Not open to the public

On a sunny day in June, the MNIW team visited Mortlach Distillery. We confess that we are a little biased. We have always loved the Mortlach distillery. Indeed, it was not without reason that our first bottling was a 22-year-old Mortlach! So, as you can well imagine, this was a unique emotional experience for us, as we finally wandered around the stills and washbacks of this distillery, breathed in the scent of the wort, and got to know the people who are part of this magnificent reality. 

But why do we particularly love the Mortlach distillery? Read on to discover all the secrets of the unique distillation process of their whisky, the ”Beast” of Dufftown”.

The History of Mortlach

As always, let’s start with a little bit of history. 

Mortlach is almost as old as Dufftown itself. James Findlater, Donald McIntosh and Alexander Gordon founded the distillery in 1823, receiving an official license to distil during the same year. Well, let’s be real. It was highly probable that just the day before the arrival of the license, Mortlach was an illicit distillery (like any distillery in Scotland at that time).

In its early years, between 1823 and 1853, the distillery passed from owner to owner, at one point even becoming a brewery (and very briefly also a church!).

Image from mortlach.com

The fate of the distillery changed when, in 1853, George Cowie joined the distillery with the then-current owner John Gordon. When he died in 1867, George Cowie became the only owner of the distillery. Mortlach whisky lived through a golden age. Soon, the whisky produced in this distillery became famous for its depth and strength of flavour.

Alexander Cowie, the inventor of the 2.81 distillation process

In 1895, George Cowie’s son, George Cowie Jr, joined the company. Two years later, the distillery invested in increasing its capacity, doubling the number of stills from three to six. The distillery was passed down from George Cowie Jr to his son, Alexander Cowie.

Curiously enough, Alexander Cowie had a passion for medicine and he graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine from the University of Aberdeen before moving to Vienna to further his studies (he even settled for a time in Hong Kong!) However, in 1896, as soon as he found out his father was ill, Alexander returned home to Dufftown and took control of the distillery. It was just the beginning of a new chapter of Mortlach. 

Drawing from his scientific education, Alexander Cowie, as the restless analytical mind as he was, paved the way for the creation of a unique distillation system: the 2.81 distillation process, still in use today at Mortlach distillery. 

Eventually, in 1923 the distillery was sold to John Walker and Sons. In 1925, control of the distillery passed to Distillery Company Limited, when they bought out John Walker.

In 1964, the distillery went through a major refurbishment, and all the pot stills were replaced.

Today, Diageo operates the distillery

For decades, Mortlach has been a secret ingredient amongst whisky blenders. Due to its rich and robust character, the whisky provides body and character to any whisky blend. But what about its single malt production? We will see it later in this article. For now, we will discover how it is made.

The Production

Let’s now see the real secret of the Mortlach distillery: the unique distillation process that gives us all a whisky so rich in flavours that it has been referred to it as the ‘Beast of Dufftown’.

Indeed, Mortlach is famous for its bold, and powerful spirit aged for years in the finest oak casks. Some people even say that Mortlach single malts remind of peated whiskies…except that the malt has not been actually smoked with peat!

But let’s go through the process one step at a time. 

Today, Mortlach has a production capacity of 3.7 million litres per year. The water used in production is drawn from the Dykehead Catsvraig, which lies in the Conval Hills of Speyside.

The Mash Tun 

The Mash Tun at Mortlach comprises up to 12 tons of malt grist with water at a temperature of 64° C. Thus, hot water is continuously sprinkled over the malt grist to wash the starch out of the grain.

As the process continues, the water temperature is continuously increased, until it arrives at 88°C. At the end of the mashing process, 54,000 litres of ‘wort’ are ready to be fermented in the washbacks.

Washbacks

At Mortlach there are six washbacks made of Oregon Pine with a volume of 54,000 litres. When the ‘wort’ is filled into the washbacks, it is first cooled down to 16° C, as controlling the temperature means controlling the speed of the fermentation. The wort is fermented for about 50-60 hours to get a strong, spicy wash. The final result is a 7% ABV wash. It’s now time to distil! 

Distillation Process 

As we already mentioned, the distillation at Mortlach is somewhat different than in most Scottish malt distilleries. Mortlach has a total of 6 stills (three wash stills and three spirit stills) all of which are of different shapes and sizes. The new make for Mortlach Whisky is blended from various double and triple distilled spirits, resulting in the famous 2.81 times distilled Whisky. 

The first pair of stills operate together, resulting in a classic double-distillation.

The second and third Wash Still also produce an intermediate Spirit. This is then transferred to the Wee Witchie, a special small Spirit Still (if you look carefully, you can see a little witch on it!).

Normally, after the distillation in Wash Still, the tails of the distillate are not collected, only the pot ale. In the case of Mortlach, however, these tails are distilled in the Wee Witchie together with various other heads from other stills, a process called ‘dud run’.

In the Wee Witchie, a triple distillation happens and is mixed with the double-distilled raw spirit from the other stills. This special combination of all three spirit streams, copper contact, and worm tub condensers results in a surprisingly sulphury, meaty spirit distilled 2.81 times. 

Another key element that makes the whisky produced at Mortlach so intense, is the fact that has no modern heat exchanger condensers but uses traditional worm tubs to condense the new make spirit. In these worm tubs, there is less copper contact. Indeed, the copper in contact with the spirit has a catalytic reaction that usually makes the whisky softer and rounder. At Mortlach, the lower amount of copper makes the whisky much more intense! 

Now is the time for the new make to rest!

Warehouse

Mortlach has five traditional “dunnage-style” warehouses. Traditionally, the distillery used Sherry casks in the maturation process. Nevertheless, more recently Mortlach has also begun to use ex-Bourbon white oak casks as part of its maturation process. A good way to spice things up even further!

Mortlach Whisky Production in a Nutshell

Let’s talk about whisky now!

Every whisky fan knows that Mortlach whiskies are a rather robust and heavy style of single malt. Some describe its richness as meaty and savoury.

Gordon & MacPhail, “Flora & Fauna”

For a long time, it was possible to taste Mortlach whisky as a single malt only through  Gordon & MacPhail, the independent bottler company. Indeed, the independent bottler released the licensed single malt as “Flora & Fauna” bottling, at an age of 16 years. Some original bottlings came onto the market in 1996 and 1998.

But fear not. In 2002, the distillery released its first official bottling: a 19-year-old ‘Manager’s Dram’. 

Following this, in 2004, a Mortlach 32-year-old was released, and in 2009, also a 12-year-old.

Today, the distillery’s official range of bottlings is made up of a ‘Rare Old’, ‘Cask Strength’, 18-year-old and 25-year-old. Other expressions of note include premium historical bottlings in the Rare Malts series and Diageo Special Releases, plus a special release in Diageo’s Game of Thrones and Prima & Ultima collections!

Of course, in addition to these official releases, there have been a number of independent bottlings of Mortlach (including us!).

But where can you find Mortlach whisky in blends? It is actually a major component in many of Diageo’s Blends, including Johnnie Walker’s Black Label’. Next time you taste it, try to distinguish the unmistakable richness of Mortlach whisky!

Have you ever tasted a Mortlach Single Malt? Share the article on your social media and tag us to let us know your opinion about it!

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*the featured image on the cover of this article is from whizzky.net

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