Mortlach Rare Old
This recent No Age Statement (NAS) bottling by Mortlach (pronounced MORT-lek or MORT-lack) generates a lot of strong feelings out there in the blogosphere.
Mortlach is one the classic malt distilleries owned by Diageo. Independent bottlings of Mortlach have long been highly prized by whisky enthusiasts, due in part to the perceived quality and distinctive flavour profile of this distillery’s offerings (often described as “meatiness”). And also for their rarity – the vast majority of Mortlach’s output is poured (pun intended) right into the Diageo’s ever-hungry blended whisky juggernaut.
There was much enthusiasm therefore when Diageo announced in early 2014 that they were to release several new expressions under Mortlach’s own name. That enthusiasm quickly soured when enthusiasts saw the price lists and the lack of age statements. Fancy-looking bottles and names like “rare old” for the entry-level expression also work against you with the cognoscenti. 😉
The Mortlach Rare Old gets a very middling Meta-Critic score in my Whisky Database, at 8.54 ± 0.41 on 9 reviews. There is some range in opinions on this dram – which is something I like to explore further in these dedicated commentaries.
Having sampled the Rare Old (and enjoyed it), I picked up a bottle. My experience in sharing this one with guests during tasting sessions has been instructive – as it closely matches what I’ve seen in online commentaries.
Simpy put, while some people like it, others are repulsed by what they described as an extremely bitter afternote in the finish. Repulsed is putting it mildly – one person described it as “vomit” in her mouth, and looked like she was about to contribute just such a sample to the table. Others were left scratching their heads, not detecting any sort of issue with the finish, or just finding a mild bitterness to it (as I do).
What I think is going on here gets back to the source of that signature “meatiness” of Mortlach’s flavour. Meatiness is sometimes also described as the sensation of a struck match at the back of one’s throat. That is a clear tip-off is to what is going on here – sulfur compounds.
Sulphur is very potent biological trigger signal – typically indicating something very, very bad. But our ability to detect it is highly variable, and dependent on our genetic make-up. There is a very large body of evidence on the link between the ability to taste sulphur (especially in thiourea compounds) and people’s dietary choices. The sulfur-detecting effect can be so pronounced that it is also commonly used in schools to demonstrate the principles of Mendelian polymorphisms (e.g., do you remember getting to taste a piece of paper soaked in PTC? How did you find it?)
Here is a good scholarly article that discusses in some detail why some people can detect these sorts of things in their food and drink and others can’t: Genetics of Taste and Smell: Poisons and Pleasures (Reed & Knaapila, Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2010; 94: 213–240).
I guess I’m “lucky” in this regard (or not, since it is generally good to avoid sulphur compounds). Personally, I find the Mortlach Rare Old to be reminiscent of some of the better Canadian rye whisky blends out there. I can definitely detect those classic rye flavours (e.g., baking spices, especially cinnamon and nutmeg) and characteristic rye sweetness (which I would describe as marshmallow-like, but that’s just me). And while I am not a fan of the bitterness in the finish, I don’t find it to be anything too aversive.
If you’ve tried this expression, I’m curious to hear what you think of it. Feel free to leave a comment below!