Mortlach Distillery was founded in 1823 and was the first distillery to be built in Dufftown, which would in time become a major distilling centre – “Rome was built on seven hills, and Dufftown stands on seven stills”, runs the old rhyme. According to local tradition, it was built on the site of an illicit still that drew its water from a famous spring called Highlander John’s Well.
By 1938, the distillery was owned by John Walker & Sons of Kilmarnock and operated by Scottish Malt Distillers, the production division of the mighty Distillers Company Limited. It was an impressive site, described in the Wine & Spirit Trade Record (1923) as “a veritable village”. It had two still-houses: “in one there are three old-fashioned stills…in the other there are three larger stills, installed in 1897”, all direct fired by coal and all equipped with worm tubs. It had its own maltings – “four gigantic malt floors, and the largest mash tun in the district” – and its own railway siding.
All this changed when the distillery was modernised and largely rebuilt in the early 1960s, but the uniquely complex distilling regime practised here was retained.
As in 1938, there are six stills, but they are of different sizes and shapes, and the regime is not quite triple distillation; actually it’s 2.7! Crucial to the equation is No.1 spirit still, known as ‘the Wee Witchie’, which is charged three times in each run.
The resulting new make spirit is among the richest and heaviest in the industry, and takes ex-sherrywood maturation to perfection. Such casks are now less common, but before 1946 most of the casks filled by the industry were of this kind, including the one used for this venerable Mortlach.
Until about 1960, when Gordon & MacPhail built their own bonded warehouses in Elgin, the cask was matured on site at Mortlach in the distillery’s “substantially built warehouses” of the traditional dunnage pattern.