Mortlach was the first distillery to be built at Dufftown and, until Glenfiddich got going in 1887, it was the only one. It was licensed practically before the ink on the 1823 Excise Act was dry and the distillery built around a well that had been previously well drawn-upon for illicit production. The distillery was a stop-start operation for some time and when J. & J. Grant of Glen Grant bought it they removed the distilling equipment and left it silent. During this time the barley store was used as a place of worship by local members of the Free Church of Scotland until their new church was built in the town. Next, it became a brewery, then finally a distillery again with fine new equipment, and the whisky was given a brand name, ‘The Real John Gordon’, referring to the owner.
Mortlach was a family business with faithful workers. Old Sandy Collie put in 57 years’ work at the distillery.
The next proprietor, George Cowie, was a surveyor for the railway companies and later became the provost (mayor) of Dufftown. A distillery employee called William Grant worked at Mortlach for just on 20 years before handing in his notice in 1886. He had decided that he knew enough about distilling by this time to strike out on his own and over the following year he built his own distillery which he called Glenfiddich.
A railway siding linking Mortlach with Dufftown station was created in 1897, electric light went in the following year and a hydraulic lift system was installed in the warehouses for lifting casks and assorted loads to the upper floors. They have only just been removed. By 1923, Mortlach had developed to the point of becoming almost a complete village. The Cowie family sold out to the owners of Johnnie Walker whisky and Mortlach is still in the hands of successors United Distillers.
A new distillery was built in 1964 but the exterior, including two different kinds of (now decorative) pagoda heads, has retained its look of a turn-of-the-century complex. The floor maltings were used until 1968. The stills at Mortlach are unusual in that they are of different sizes and, although there are three of each type, they are not paired off. In the 1890s three stills were already in place and, in 1897, when capacity was doubled, this meant six individual stills, not three pairs. This has had to be maintained, as to do otherwise would probably have altered the character of the spirit. There is a rather complicated procedure of making different combinations of distillate from each of the stills and using two spirit safes. It is thought to be the reason for the full-bodied character of Mortlach whisky. Worm-tubs are still used to condense the spirit and they are positioned on a large dais outside the still house. New Lauter mashtuns were installed in 1996.
Mortlach is lightly peated but has extra depth and roundness. The aromas and flavour are smoky, spicy and rich with a dry edge to innate sweetness. The official bottling is at 16 years and 43% vol. but a host of alternatives are available from independents, underlining the regard in which the malt is held. These include stated-age versions of up to 22 years old and intermittent vintages from the 1960s and 1930s