In 1823, in the wake of a new Excise Act, Mortlach is founded on the ideal site of an illicit distillery. It is the first legal distillery in what will be Speyside’s whisky capital, Dufftown.
While Mortlach is still in its first decade George Cowie, born just seven years before the distillery, begins to work for two of Scotland’s great civil engineers, Thomas Grainger and John Miller. In the golden age of early Victorian engineering he goes on to help develop vast segments of Britain’s railway infrastructure; bridges, viaducts, tunnels and stations.
George applies his precise, systematic approach to another great challenge - production of fine single malt Scotch whisky. In 1853 he returns to his native Speyside and accepts a partnership at Dufftown’s Mortlach distillery, which enters its fourth decade able to call on his expertise.
Once again near the place of his birth, and nearing middle age, George finally puts down roots. He marries Margaret Mitchell in Mortlach Kirk. Their first son is soon born: in time, Alexander will have his part to play.
In 1867, aged 51, George becomes sole owner. Mortlach enters a golden age, during which sales begin in London. Revered for a depth of flavour others cannot offer, it becomes a malt whisky of choice for blenders.
“There is not perhaps a distillery in Scotland that has so many private customers as Mortlach, from which spirits are sent not only over the three kingdoms to families, but to America, India, China and Australia, in all of which Mr Cowie has customers who prefer his distillation to all others”
Sharing his father’s ambition and quest for knowledge, George’s son Alexander finds a calling in medicine. After graduating as a Bachelor of Medicine he moves to Vienna to broaden his horizons, returning to practise as a House Surgeon at a major new London hospital. Travelling the Empire as assuredly as his father’s whisky, after two years he moves to fast-expanding Hong Kong, where he again registers as a medical practitioner.
Early in 1896 Alexander returns from Hong Kong to assume control at Mortlach, opening a new chapter in its story. Late that year, after a long and illustrious career, his father George dies at the age of 80. Alexander increases the number of stills from 4 to 6 - the 2 new stills are larger than the original 4.
Alexander becomes an esteemed figure within the malt whisky industry and is elected Chairman of the North Scotland Malt Distillers Association, representing over 40 distilleries in the region.
Aged 62, Alexander retires, selling Mortlach to the famous John Walker & Sons of Kilmarnock, and so opening a new chapter in its history. It was only their second distillery purchase, so testament to Mortlach’s vital importance to leading blenders. Very soon Walker and other blenders amalgamate to form the Distillers Company Limited (DCL) and Mortlach comes under the control of a subsidiary, Scottish Malt Distillers, from 1930.
Prohibition is repealed in America and whisky sales grow. Mortlach, much of whose malt whisky now goes into some of the world’s finest blended whiskies, is also now sold as a Select Reserve single malt in luxury stores such as Macy’s in New York.
On Christmas Eve 1940, Alexander Cowie dies at his home in Glenrinnes and is subsequently buried after a well-attended funeral in Mortlach Kirk. Tributes remember him for his contribution to public life, warm generosity and leadership of Mortlach distillery.
To satisfy demand, some of the distilling apparatus is renewed and buildings are altered and added to. The rest of Alexander Cowie’s distillery and pattern of operation is left untouched, including the outside wooden worm tubs used to cool and condense the spirit, now found in just a handful of distilleries.
Mortlach continues to play an important role in some of the world’s finest blends under its new owners United Distillers (now Diageo), and limited releases are once again made of its single malt, which can be rediscovered as a 16 year old.
Fostering the pioneering spirit of its greatest founders, Mortlach enters yet another new era, as the liquid is re-born in four unique expressions. Plans are announced for an extension to the current distillery in order to bring this remarkable malt to more whisky aficionados the world over.