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Mortlach: what's in a name?

  • Fans of nominative determinism would have you believe that nomen est omen, to give the Latin term or – in Greek – όνομα ορίζοντας. The idea is that, sub-consciously, you gravitate to pursuits that fit your name.

    Clearly, this theory has its limitations – as far as I know, the Chief Engineer of this parish has no burning desire to become a roadsweeper – but it also has its charms.

    Are distilleries sometimes governed by this phenomenon? I think so. For me, the very sound of Mortlach’s name conjures up shadows of primeval threat and a sulphurous subterranean stench. Think of H G Wells’ morlocks in The Time Machine and you’ll get the idea.

    As you will when you taste the whisky. The ‘beast of Dufftown’ is a famously powerful dram of enormous intensity and old-fashioned heaviness – like being trapped in a Bovril jar and striking a match to find your way out.

    That very robustness makes Mortlach, when paired with the right cask, a malt of huge potential longevity, as evidenced by the release of Mortlach 75 Years Old by Gordon & MacPhail, the latest in the company’s Generations series and The Oldest Whisky in the World.

    Gordon & MacPhail cask records from 1939Humble beginnings: Cask 2475 was filled in 1939, 75 years before bottling

    The liquid is remarkable – after an initial sawmill buzz on the nose, it shifts and changes with all manner of elusive perfumes – and I found myself identifying a feral edge to the manifold flavours as classic Mortlach.

    But what is classic Mortlach? Perhaps more importantly, in the case of the G&M whisky, what was it? Read the accompanying book by Charlie Maclean and Alexander McCall Smith and a complex, semi-paradoxical blend of continuity and change emerges.

    Mortlach’s official history begins in 1823, but illicit distillation predated this legitimacy; its kit was removed by John and James Grant little more than 20 years later, to fit out Glen Grant at Rothes. Was there an identifiable Mortlach character even then? Was it lost? Recovered or rediscovered?

    Or did it come when the distillery sprang to fame in the later 19th century under John Gordon and then George Cowie? More likely it emerged from the revamp and expansion of the distillery under George’s son, Alexander.

    This introduced the complex, Heath Robinson distillation regime that persists to this day: six stills, including the tiny ‘wee Witchie’, a spirit that’s distilled, er, 2.81 times, cold worm tubs. Sulphurous, meaty, classic Mortlach has remained unchanged for over a century. Except it hasn’t.

    Go back to the 75-year-old. That whisper of smoke – does it owe its existence to the fact that, in 1939, Mortlach’s barley was malted on site and dried over a mix of peat and coke? A practice which stopped in 1968?

    What about that luscious, concentrated apricot character (you can almost feel the juice trickling down your chin)? Does the historic use of brewers’ (rather than distillers’) yeast play any part here?

    Or is it down to the fact that, until 1946, distillers were prohibited from fermenting and distilling at the same time, resulting in typically longer fermentation times and the consequent promotion of fruitier flavours?

    We could go further: what impact did resting the copper have on pre-1946 Mortlach spirit (if the stills were only running, as seems likely, three days a week)? Not to mention the fact that the distillery was rebuilt in the 1960s, with the stills converted to mechanical stoking and then steam.

    That these questions remain all but unanswerable only adds to their fascination. What we’re left with – that last drop of precious, 75-year-old liquid sitting at the bottom of the glass – is a whisky that performs an elusive and paradoxical role.

    It simultaneously fits our mental template of classic Mortlach – and makes us question exactly what that character is, and how it developed.

    The link with nominative determinism – even the connection to The Time Machine – seems apt.

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