Region: Speyside, Scotland.
Stills: 3x Wash 3x Spirit
Capacity: 3.7 million litres per annum
Mortlach distillery is a distiller of Scotch whisky in Dufftown, Moray, Scotland. Founded in 1823, the distillery is currently owned by Diageo. The whisky is a key component in several Johnnie Walker bottlings.
Established in 1823 by James Findlater at the wake of the Excise Act, Mortlach distillery was founded on the site of an older illicit distillery, becoming the first legal distillery in Dufftown, the heart of Speyside, the epicentre of Scotch Whisky production in Scotland. The saying goes that ‘Rome was built on seven hills, Dufftown built on seven stills’ – at the time these were Mortlach, Balvenie, Dufftown, Glendullan, Glenfiddich, Convalmore (silent) and Parkmore (closed). It was the only distillery in Dufftown for over 60 years, until in 1887 Glenfiddich was founded. In fact, the founder of Glenfiddich, William Grant, worked at Mortlach distillery for 20 years previous to this.
Back then the output was about 50 gallons per week and it was generally sold direct off the still in 9 or 10 gallon casks to the very few well-to-do local gentry who could afford it. The price was about 9\-per gallon duty paid. There were few roads of any consequence and delivery was usually by pack pony over the rough hill tracks.
In its early years, between 1823 and 1853 the distillery passed from owner to owner, at one point even becoming a brewery. However the fate of the distillery changed when, in 1853, George Cowie joined the distillery with the then current owner John Gordon. Previous to joining the distillery George was an engineer during the Golden Age of Victorian Engineering. Enlisted by two of Scotland’s greatest Victorian civil engineers – Thomas Grainger and John Miller – George was set to work developing vast segments of Great Britain’s railway infrastructure; he will have had a hand in the development of railway bridges, viaducts, tunnels and stations during this key period in Britain’s Industrialisation.
The Cowie Dynasty
In 1867 George Cowie became sole owner of the distillery, took the distillery from strength to strength and started up its global reputation as the whisky for flavour epicureans. Under his esteemed leadership, the liquid lived through a golden age; referred for a depth and strength of flavour other whiskies could not offer, it was reported in the Elgin Courant in 1868 that “There is not perhaps a distillery in Scotland that has so many private customers as Mortlach from whisky spirits are sent not only over the three kingdom’s to families, but to America, India, China and Australia, in all of whisky Mr Cowie has customers who prefer his distillation to all others”
Having married Margaret Mitchell in the summer of 1860 at Mortlach Church, in 1861 they had a son – Alexander Mitchell Cowie. Sharing his father’s relentless ambition and quest for knowledge, Alexander originally found his calling in medicine, graduating as a Bachelor of Medicine from the University of Aberdeen before moving to Vienna to further his studies and broaden his horizons. Just like the whisky, Alexander found himself travelling the empire, finally settling on the far reaches of Hong Kong. However, in 1896 when he found out his father was falling ill Dr Alexander returned to Dufftown and took control of the distillery, heralding a new chapter in the story of Mortlach. Like his father the art of building was in his blood; he set about continuing the Cowie dynasty. Calling on his scientific education and analytical mind, he paved the way for the creation of a unique distillation system, the 2.81 distillation process. Working with the famous distillery architect of the time, Charles C. Doig, the distillery was expanded in 1897, the 2.81 distillation process was put into place and they added the railway siding known as the ‘Strathspey line’ linking it directly to Dufftown. The distillery also received electrical lighting in 1898 – one of the first in the area.
This unique and astonishingly complicated distillation process, which commentators have attempted to explain as ‘2.81 distilled’, produces a whisky so flavoursome that whisky commentators have referred to it as the ‘Beast of Dufftown’ – a bold, rich and powerful spirit tamed for years in the finest oak casks.
Alexander’s leadership and pioneering work on whisky creation and production were soon recognised in the leading role he played in Scotland’s esteemed malt whisky world. As Chairman of the North of Scotland Malt Distiller’s Association, Alexander represented the interests of over 40 distillers and was responsible for continuously pushing the boundaries of what was possible through a rigorous programme of innovation and testing. In fact, in 1907 Dr Alexander stood up in front of this board and said he was the proud owner of a ‘thick’ whisky – something that is true today.
In a golden age of Victorian expansion and improvement, the Cowies were typical of those generations of engineers, scientists, surveyors and entrepreneurs who shaped the world in which they lived. They challenged the status quo and looked boldly beyond the horizon in a constant drive to better themselves, the world around them and the whisky that they produced.
In 1923 the distillery was bought by John Walker and Sons who then owned just one other distillery, Cardhu distillery – their spiritual home – which goes to show just how valuable they knew it was to some of their finest and most treasured blends. As such, for decades since then Mortlach has been considered a secret weapon amongst whisky blenders, going into some of the world’s most treasured and beloved blended whiskies. With its thick, rich, robust character the whisky provides backbone, body and character in the blending world. It’s also highly prized by whisky lovers across the world – highly sought out but, in the past, hardly found. That was until in 2014 the distillery was given the limelight and recognition it not only deserves, but one that it truly has earned with the launch of 4 new luxury single malts.