What was happening on October 15th 1938? Germany had just annexed the Sudentenland, in Nigeria Mr and Mrs Ransome-Kuti were celebrating the birth of their son Olufela Olusegun Oludotun and in Dufftown a stillman in charge of the the most fiendishly difficult distillation regime in Scotland started to collect the middle cut at Mortlach.
The stillman, well versed in the ways of the clearic, would never have give its future life a second thought at that moment. His interest was whether the spirit was right at that moment, how the coal fires were looking, the routine mechanics of his job. He lived in the present. It’s us as whisky drinkers who now invest that day with relevance – because the spirit he collected has lain in cask for 70 years and has now been bottled by Gordon & MacPhail.
Every sip of whisky we take is in some way consuming the past, the living present of the stillman coupled with the small accretions of time which we perceive as flavour. And what has happened to this Mortlach?
It’s picked up a bright amber colour. Not the opaque hue you expect when you hear the age, or when it’s revealed that the cask is a first-fill sherry hoggie, maybe an old American oak solera cask that’s been cut down to size. The lack of woodiness is remarkable.
Then there’s the smoke which comes across first: sooty, reminiscent of having the lum cleaned, a wee nod to the peatier days of the past and to the coal fires that would have sat under the Mortlach stills. But leave it for a while and the smoke drifts off, leaving not the autumnal notes you’d expect, but a picture of sitting on a log in a sunlit bluebell wood. You’re then flung inside to beeswax polish and apricot jam, marmalade and amber-scented candles. It’s contradictory, non linear, unconventional.
The taste amplifies this. The first sip is all dried leaves and smoke with a background of nougat and walnut but in time there’s an intense bitter cherry, camphor. It’s sweet but savoury while the smoke is now like the exhalation of spent cigar. As it recedes you’re left with wax and nuts.
This isn’t an exercise in ‘old is better’, but an illustration about the ways in which time behaves. “People look into the future and expect that the forces of the present will unfold in a coherent and predictable way, but any examination of the past reveals that the circuitous routes of change are unimaginably strange,” writes Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide To Getting Lost.
We cannot predict what will happen inside a cask or what the forces of the past will bring to bear on the liquid: the conditions over the century that the tree was growing, how the cask was coopered, the sherry that had sat inside it, the vegetation compressed into peat, the mood of the stillman, how many drams he’d had when he made the cut, how high the fires were banked, how cold the water was in the worm and then the microclimate within G&M’s warehouse for the 70 intervening years. We like to think that distillers can control whisky completely. This whisky – and by extension any whisky – shows they can’t. All that they can do is put a structure in place and, like a parent, hope for the best.
Maybe the stillman, in time, might have had an idea of how he’d like his whisky to taste when it finally came out of cask, but that is unimaginable, strange or not. Nothing which happened that day in 1938 could be predicted to unfold in a linear fashion. The annexation of the Sudentenland would lead to war, Cold War and a footnote in history, the Nigerian boy would revolutionise African music and take it to the world, the stillman would be lost and then found. One day’s work in one distillery. Imagine all the other stories.