Meet Mortlach, An Extraordinary Single Malt Whisky And Scotland's Best-Kept Secret

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Elizabeth Riley Bell is a Scotch whisky expert and the author of The Smart Guide To Single Malt Scotch Whisky. As any whisky expert is to do, Bell is currently traveling through Scotland and will be filing stories about her adventures in the land of rain and peat.

Beefy, elegant, rich and complex. No, not the description of the latest movie heart throb, but rather Mortlach, an extraordinary single malt whisky. Its existence is a best-kept secret, and at the heart of this whisky is a diminutive woman — a "Wee Witchie" to be precise.

Mortlach single malt is one of the principal malts used in the blending of Johnny Walker's rainbow colors of whiskies. But such is the importance of it in the Walker blends, that very little of it is bottled as a single malt. Occasionally Diageo, the owners of Johnny Walker, will release a specialty bottling, but independent bottlers provide most of what is available in the stores.

Mortlach single malt positively explodes with flavors. It is often described as a beefy, meaty whisky that alludes not only to its robust full flavors but also to an aroma that is reminiscent of beef bouillon. Against this background, the nose develops into notes of sherry and dark molasses, tamed with lemon peel and citrus zest. These characteristics then give way to flavors of dark fruits (figs, prunes and plums) and chocolate oranges with a background floral note of lavender. It is balanced, complex and lingering, and with a dash of water, the texture is creamy and mouthfilling.

Sean Phillips, the distillery manager, describes Mortlach as "the Jewel in the Crown, one of the best drams made." He is the guardian of the Mortlach flavor profile, and one of the few people who understands the complicated distillation process and the role of the "Wee Witchie."

Six copper stills fill the still house and have the resemblance of siblings. They have a similar design but each differs from the others in size — no two stills are alike. The first in line is spirit still No. 1, known as the ""Wee Witchie."

During distillation, the middle cut of the alcohol produced is considered to provide the best part of the spirit coming off the still. The first and last parts of the run (known as the heads and tails) are considered undesirable and are thrown into the next batch to be redistilled. At Mortlach, the stillman saves the tails from two distillations. Then he runs them through "Wee Witchie" and pops the entire result into the next batch of distillation. It serves the purpose of increasing the alcohol strength; and like a hearty beef bouillon added to a soup, it pumps up the meaty aromas of the spirit.

"Wee Witchie" has a significant role in the flavor profile of Mortlach, but she does not act alone. Phillips remarks that the final flavor piece happens across all six stills and is bolstered by the use of worm tubs instead of copper condensers, which are found in most other distilleries. While "Wee Witchie" may be only a part of the flavor profile, she is clearly the power behind the Mortlach throne. This power will increase in 2014 when Mortlach expands to double its present size. "Wee Witchie" will have a twin sister, and perhaps Scotch enthusiasts may have more Mortlach single malt.

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