Mortlach 13-year-old vs Balvenie Single Barrel 12

I am very excited about today’s tasting! Mostly because I’m pairing Mortlach 13, which is a natural cask strength single malt from the refill and virgin oak casks, with a very similar style single malt from Balvenie, which is a 12-year-old first-fill [same as “virgin”] single barrel. Both from Speyside and pretty close to each other in age, maturation process, and style [these particular bottlings, not the other offerings from both distillers]. So this could be a really great side-by-side comparison. And also, I’m excited because I’ve covered both of these whiskies before (Mortlach here and Balvenie here), and this is the first time I am writing about them as the return champions! This is the whole point of this journey – to understand, appreciate, and write about whiskies side by side! I can barely contain myself, but first, music! Now playing: Christian LöfflerParallels.

In the last round, the Mortlach entry for Diageo’s Special Releases for 2021 just couldn’t stand up to the entry-level Glenfarclas. It was primarily because of the bang for the buck [and okay, I’ll admit, the sherry-finished Scotch just tastes a little more scrumptious – it’s all of that sweetness combined with the warmth]. But I couldn’t just let this single malt go – I loved it the first time I tried it by itself, and now, in this particular context, I want to discover its inner hidden depths. I spend some time carefully bringing down the alcohol level of this bottle from its cask strength of 55.9% to somewhere just about 45%. Yes, I add “plenty” of water, a few mils at a time [not just a drop – I need a lot less fire]. The notes that I have witnessed in the past are still all there – the oaky sweetness, woodiness and floral hints, plus maybe just a bit of citrus on the nose. Unwrapped with water, this is a delicious dram, with plenty of “cathedral windows” still streaming on the sidelines. These “tears” and “legs” reveal the higher levels of oak extractives and other oils hidden in the Scotch. There is a texture to this dram, and I am glad to spend another night in the company of the Beast from Dufftown. It’s still a mighty price to pay at £135, considering that a 14-year-old independent bottling from Douglas Laing‘s Old Particular goes at about £88 and that a 20-year-old from That Boutique-y Whisky Company is sold for about £130. So yes, my only gripe with this release is its hefty price – the only cause it’s “special”.

Relative to the Mortlach, the Balvenie is pretty light, a very slight tinge in colour, but mainly in the ABV. For some [commercial] reason, this single barrel is bottled at 47.8%, and although it is sourced from a specific cask, it is indeed diluted. I’ve checked all other numbered casks (they’re printed on the label of each bottle), and they are all at 47.8%. That just can’t be, and so I’m slightly disappointed with the mangling. But it’s Balvenie, after all, and definitely on a list of classics [I’ve got a whole shelf dedicated to the distillery]. This only needs a few drops of water to open up and deliver that direct and perfect dram. Notes of vanilla, zesty oak and shades of caramel from ghosts of bourbon. At less than half the price, for £60 per bottle (and only slightly more than the Balvenie DoubleWood), this is a beautiful Speyside single malt that will likely remain in my collection for a while. But what’s this? On the nose, the Balvenie and Mortlach are the same! Since I’ve brought down the ABV of Mortlach, they even taste nearly the same, albeit Balvenie is still a little lighter. I drink the drams one at a time and back and forth until I’m lost in all of my senses. I’m nearly mesmerized on close they come on the palate, and yet, of course, they’re slightly different. So what do I conclude, what makes one a standout? This is a tough one, folks, but choices we must make.

I taste the Mortlach once again, and there it is, that texture, that umami. It’s savoury and slightly rounder on the tongue, but it is no more viscous than Balvenie. I think that higher ABV, or rather being at cask strength, preserved more character and oils from the barrel. The flavour of the Balvenie is there, but it is slightly thin, and that is not my doing – I think that this dilution down to the consumer’s “acceptable level” is what really slimmed it down. And yes, I want to make a point that at casks strength, you essentially get more whisky [a third more!] at a price. So stated ABV undoubtedly matters. And it’s complexity in whisky that I crave, on which the undiluted single malt continues to deliver. With that, the choice is evident, and I’ll proclaim that the Mortlach 13 wins this round.

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