As distillery nicknames go, there are few more evocative than The Beast of Dufftown. The distillery is so-called on account of the “meatiness” of its spirit, however the moniker gets that point across and then some, conjuring up images of Mortlach as some bad-tempered and ferocious creature, snarling from the shadows of the Dufftown lair from which it rarely emerges. Independent bottlers such as That Boutique-y Whisky Company have had fun with such ideas, presenting the “beast” on their labels as a sort of nightmarish, beer-bellied Dragon-Troll hybrid, terrorising the town. For all its hellish imagery though, the affection is clearly present, and independent companies have earned their right to such frivolity over the years. There is a deserved reverence for Mortlach single malt nowadays, however its modern single malt brand is less than a decade old. In the 20th century, it was almost exclusively through independent bottlers that the market was offered rare sightings of the beast, unrestrained in all its glory.
All metaphorical grandstanding aside, Mortlach was anything but underappreciated by its owners. On the contrary, it was one of the prize assets of the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), and remains so to its modern iteration, Diageo. The distillery was built in 1823 by James Findlater, Donald Mackintosh and Alex Gordon, and was first of the famed “Seven Stills of Dufftown” to be licensed to make whisky. George Cowie bought into the distillery in 1851, and it was under the guidance of his son, Alexander, that the production regime which results in the unusual 2.81 times-distilled spirit was introduced. This, coupled with a deliberately copper-starved environment within the stills result in the famously weighty single malt that provides an ideal base for blended Scotch.
So prized was Mortlach by one blender in particular, that it bought George Cowie & Sons in 1923. That company was John Walker & Sons, who subsequently became part of DCL two years later. A sprawling conglomerate, DCL was Scotland’s blended Scotch empire and the parent company of John Dewar & Sons, John Haig & Co and White Horse to name only a few others. They licensed the distilleries in their portfolio to these blending companies, and Mortlach was handed immediately back to John Walker & Sons. So important was it to the Johnnie Walker blends, that little Mortlach single malt could be spared for bottling. Strong historical links between George Cowie & Sons and the US saw some bottles cross the Atlantic in the mid-20th century, before its presence domestically increased slightly as the single malt market began to bubble in the 1970s and 80s. However, with the distillery overlooked for DCL’s Ascot Malt Cellar and subsequently United Distillers’ Classic Malts, these remained limited.
The crucial role of Mortlach in the provision of many blends has meant that casks have long been available to third-parties, many of whom increasingly saw the value in bottling it by itself. Undoubtedly the most important of these was Gordon & MacPhail. The Elgin-based independent bottler is synonymous with the distillery, and acquired an official license from DCL to bottle Mortlach along with Linkwood and Talisker using the now-iconic “eagle labels.” It used this for the first time in the 1960s and, although no longer as an official label, continue to use it today. The increased visibility of Mortlach single malt was bolstered by early champions of the category in Italy. Edoardo Giaccone picked casks for his exclusive Connoisseurs Choice bottlings in the early 1970s, and Silvano Samaroli included one in his inaugural releases in 1979. By the end of the following decade, the distillery had become a staple in the catalogues of legendary companies like Signatory Vintage and Wm. Cadenhead, and it remains a justifiably sought-after inclusion in those of their increasingly numerous contemporaries today.
While the quality of the Mortlach spirit has spoken for itself over the years, the freedom of expression granted to it by independent bottlers can never be forgotten, particularly Gordon & MacPhail. Their early relationship with the distillery has enriched their warehouses with spectacular vintages over the years, including many from prior to and during the second world war. These, paired with the affinity of Mortlach spirit for sherry cask maturation has seen Gordon & MacPhail offer up a bounty of luxuriously-coloured whiskies with often incredible age-statements. These bottles became increasingly sought after, building an element of prestige around the Mortlach name. When the overwhelming approval for the 16-year-old distillery bottling launched by United Distillers in the 1990s was added to the mix, the result was a perfect cocktail that saw Mortlach transformed in the 21st first century to distillery not just appreciated by Diageo, but celebrated by it.