Worth the Wait: 1991 Mortlach 20yo Cask-Strength (Signatory)

Music: The Tragically Hip, “Long Time Running”

I have definitely been waiting way too long for this one. I purchased this bottle, and had it imported by a friend in early December of 2011 when he came to stay with us for part of the winter break. Over a year later, a meeting with my two dearest friends finally permits it to be opened. I’ve met with them a few times each, separately, in the last year, but geography and time has kept the entire group apart all year. At the first opening, the bottle was a bit oaky and a tad sulphury, but once the bottle had settled down, it was a true winner. I also had the pleasure of introducing someone to a whisky that was distilled before they were born. A young lass of about 23, she was born about 9 months after this whisky was casked.

As it goes, I am sitting here on a wonderful February evening, enjoying a sliver of this wonderful stuff. With the bottle half gone, it’s almost saddening to know that the worldwide stocks of this wonderful cask (577 bottles) will be ever closer to depletion. It has already disappeared from most, if not all shop shelves that I am aware of.

Calibrator Malt: Robert Burns Single Malt (Arran)

Nose: Age, if you can say you can smell age. It’s rich, and has a complexity of years spent contemplating its existence in a barrel. Toffee and brown sugar, and malt all over. Bread and olive oil, like the the 19yo un-chillfiltered of yesteryear. A wee bit of sweet corn relish and brine. Slight peat and sherry, and a little bit of hickory. Comparatively, when you think that a decent entry-level malt like the Robbie has a nice strong malty nose, you are immediately set back by the unbelievable complexity and weight of the Mortlach. Going back, the Arran seems mild and thin. It’s not that the Arran is bad, it’s that the Mortlach is just that good.

Palate: (undiluted) Sweet and tangy. Oak, raisins, rubber bands (in a strange, but good way). Water it down, about five drops, and the tangy melts to sweet. This is a real malt. What I mean is that the notes at the forefront are a rich, soft, malted barley and oak. In that way, it is remarkable. A malt that tastes exactly what you’d expect a malt would taste like, unaltered by finishes and gimmicks. The re-fill sherry butt means the sherry isn’t as present, and that’s a good thing. Raisins, espresso, bright chocolate, and fresh cut grass. Truffle salt. The alcohol wears away, and though you’d expect the velvetly mouthfeel would disappear, it really doesn’t. Sure, it softens, but it really gets into every crevace of your mouth.

Finish: Malt, bittersweet chocolate and black pepper. A bit of menthol, and then a really brilliant watermelon note on the end that lasts forever. It’s a really deep, complete warming, and that’s saying something: it’s -20C tonight.

Grade: A+

This. Is. Amazing. You really feel this whisky in your chest. It’s hefty, and entirely complete. Not a dram for “newbies”, though. Many interesting notes in this one that don’t immediately lend themselves to the popular notion of sherried whisky. The best whisky I’ve had to date, and it made me re-evaluate my ranking system. Because I’m so coarse in my grading, the A+ isn’t equivalenty to say, a 100/100 on ATW or at ralfy.com. It is simply the grade that says, “that’s it, folks. I can’t think of anything better they could have done with this whisky.” I love the Ardbeg line-up, but having had this Mortlach, it makes me wonder if they could bring some more maturity and balance to the Corryvreckan and the Uigeadail. They’re still stellar, but this whisky, in all its brilliance, makes me see the cracks in the mortar with my favourite ‘A’ whiskies.

And that, my friends, is what makes an A+ here at “Whisky, Empirically”.

“It’s been a long, long, long time running… it’s well worth the wait.”

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An Unintended Experiment

To celebrate the winning of a much-sought-after award, I poured myself a dram of my 19yr Mortlach (Signatory, UCC). After a quick sip, I add a splash of water, and let it sit for 10 minutes in my Glencairn with the ginger jar top on. But then the wife gets home (quite late) and we get to talking. The dram sits 20 minutes. We lay on the couch, recounting the day, and I almost forget about it. The dram sits an hour. I then sit down with it, and upon first nosing, it’s sweet. Not the savoury baked good I had expected, nor the olive oil. Instead, it’s a beautiful caramel-coated cookie, with some salty, coastal notes. Strange, but only in that it’s unexpected. I assure you it’s delightful. Then I take a sip. It’s sweet.Very sweet. Almost like a Fig Newton. Also an undertone of peat. I don’t know where this came from, or who switched my Mortlach with a scotch soaked cookie, but thanks! While I do enjoy the savoury bouquet and spread that I normally get from this Mortlach, today’s dram was a welcomed dessert dram.

I’m still wondering what caused this major fluctuation in nose and palate. I guess we’ll have to see what the next dram is like, some days down the road.

Update: Never came across this nose and palate again with this dram. Quite a head-scratcher.

1991 Mortlach 19yr (Signatory Un-Chillfiltered Collection)

After such success with the Ben Nevis 17yr Signatory, I thought about wading further into the Signatory UCC. We’ve got a few other offerings here at the LCBO, and I decided to “go big” with the Mortlach, spending an extra $10. There isn’t much out there about this one, but I decided to give it a go anyway, as Ralfy had raved about a 19yo Signatory cask-strength Mortlach in one of his reviews. “Meaty” he said… and I was sold.

I must admit, before the tasting notes, that my initial experience with this whisky was a disappointment. I had never had a whisky with this nose and palate before, and so it just struck me as off. After revisiting it a week later, I finally got it.

Nose: There is an immediate whiff of sweet sherry, but that dies off with some time. After letting it open up, you get a baked good, and it reminds me very much of the Auchentoshan Valinch in that respect–only without all the peachy sweetness. It’s very savoury. When you dig deeper, the baked good is actually bread, slathered with olive oil. That olive oil is actually quite noticeable, and I really like it. To sum up the nose, it’s not the “British dinner” I was expecting… it actually strikes me as Mediterranean.

The nose is also gives off hints of oak, and in the right moment, a hint of candied cooked carrots.

Palate: Thick, buttery, incredibly smooth. Mostly savoury, freshly baked bread. Malt, toffee and prunes.

Finish: Very mouth-drying, medium-long finish, and warming. Sweetness, spices, oaky with a pleasant ‘toasted’ taste at the end.

Grade: B+

I tried not to let my hopes factor into the grade of this whisky, and I think I was fair on that. It’s a meaty whisky, but I mean that more in a robust sense, than actual meat. The finish could be a little longer, and the palate could be more complex, but all-in-all, a whisky to own a bottle of for the experience. (But if you’re in Chicago, or somewhere cheaper, why not go for the cask-strength version?)

Initially I was disappointed, especially given that for the same price, I could have purchased an Aberlour a’Bunadh (which is 5cl larger) but in the end I’m happy with the Mortlach. It fits a different speysider mood. It’s creamy, buttery, and oily without being a heavy sherry-bomb. One thing I can say for sure is that it has intrigued me enough that I probably will search out a cask-strength Mortlach.