Need to Know

How Mortlach Is Flipping the Script on the Scotch Whisky Experience

By engaging design talents around the world with one-of-a-kind collaborations, the heritage distiller is continuing to make its name synonymous with craft, process, and impeccable taste.

Luca Nichetto's hand-blown Murano glass decanter, SEI, which was commissioned by Mortlach and debuted at Frieze L.A. Photo credit: Braden Summers/Mortlach.

On a recent night in November, the New York City outpost of swanky London social club the Ned hosted Felicia Ferrone and a crew of well-wishers to celebrate the American glassware designer’s latest launch. Ferrone made waves this year with her inaugural showings at both Shoppe Object and Maison & Objet, and for good reason: her hand-formed creations are regarded by some tastemakers as today’s heirloom-quality glasses of choice, with endorsements from the likes of Kelly Wearstler and Carolina Herrera. 

That evening, Ferrone debuted her Cowie collection of handmade Scotch glasses, cleverly designed with a stem to keep body heat from impacting the spirit’s flavor profile. The launch marked the fifth collaboration of Mortlach by Design, the Scottish distiller’s yearlong campaign to collaborate with leading industrial designers in pursuit of creating the ultimate whisky-tasting experience leading up to the brand’s 200-year anniversary. Ferrone named her collection after George and Alexander Cowie, the father-son team who established Mortlach as the oldest legal distillery in Dufftown, a bucolic village in the Speyside region of the Scottish highlands.

Felcia Ferrone's Cowie whiskey glass.

Ferrone joins a prestigious roster of previous Mortlach by Design collaborators, which represent a cross-section of the industry’s foremost creative talents. These include prolific Italian designer Luca Nichetto, who debuted a hand-blown Murano glass decanter called SEI at Frieze L.A. in February. A few months later, at NYCxDesign, the multihyphenate Joe Doucet unveiled Tropos, a sinuous metallic wingback chair that even Ettore Sottsass would consider a conversation piece. There, the in-demand material experimentalist Sabine Marcelis also revealed Shift, a cubist glass bar cart whose rich brown and honey hues mimic the tint of Mortlach spirits. 

Aside from the accomplished creatives behind them, each commission shares a connection to the distillery’s heritage but with the benefit of a modern perspective of the cultural landscape. Take 2.81, a light installation by Chrissa Amuah, who has launched textile collections with Bernhardt and shown at Design Miami. The Ghanaian talent unveiled 2.81 at Toklas, a London restaurant whose Mediterranean-inflected cuisine has earned auspicious reviews and is located near Somerset House, a decommissioned royal palace-turned-cultural center with celebrated art galleries.

Left: Shift, created by Sabine Marcelis; Right: Tropos, created by Joe Doucet. Both were launched by Mortlach at NYCxDesign. Photo credit: Mortlach.

Each piece, while undeniably contemporary, draws inspiration from Mortlach’s 126 year-old distilling process. Unlike other Scotch whiskies, Mortlach is neither double-distilled nor triple-distilled. Under Alexander Cowie, it became—and to this day, remains—the world’s only distillery to use a 2.81 distillation process. Compared to a simple triple distillation process, fewer cuts are taken from the spirits produced by each still. At certain points, Mortlach instead runs the distillates with rich, malty, and floral characteristics back through its stills to build the flavor profile of each batch. This process gives each cask, regardless of how long it’s aged, a more robust body and viscosity than Speyside whiskies are traditionally known for. 

“Distilling this way makes absolutely no sense in the modern era. This spirit style is very unique and anything like it has disappeared everywhere else,” distillery senior manager Andrew Millsop said on a recent tour of the facility. “When we talk about Mortlach specifically, it’s really difficult to understand how all the different parts of the distillery fit together. Nobody else makes anything like it.”

As Mortlach approaches its bicentennial year, it continues to focus on uniting heritage craft and tradition with a future-facing perspective. Earlier this fall, the distillery tapped former journalist-turned-curator Hugo MacDonald to showcase the parallels between prominent Scotland-based craftspeople and the whisky-making tradition. Earlier this year, MacDonald and his husband, architect James Stevens, opened the doors to Bard, a design showroom in the Scottish port district of Leith. It’s the only space of its kind dedicated to showcasing the wares of Scotland-based makers and designers. At the official opening festivities, their 34 designers had the chance to celebrate with MacDonald, Stevens, and the rest of the Bard team over cocktails and Scotch provided by none other than Mortlach.

Chrissa Amuah introduces 2.81 at its London debut. Credit: Shelby Ito.

Stateside, the distillery has leaned into its bicentennial to court an audience with a keen eye for craft and process. SEI, Tropos, and Shift were each displayed prominently at the 2022 Cooper Hewitt Design Awards ceremony—of which Mortlach was a main sponsor. Its recent launch of a 30-year distilled Midnight Malt whiskey took over Fotografiska’s Chapel bar, where a star-studded crowd of notable aesthetes from Trevor Noah to MoMA’s venerable design curator Paola Antonelli learned about the meticulous distillation against a backdrop of David LaChapelle photography. At Miami Art Week, the distillery further cemented its support of international makers and creatives by hosting a dinner to fête design visionary Mark Grattan and his Leopard Skies collection at Design Miami, in all its chrome and velvet glory. Cristina Grajales, whose eponymous New York gallery represents Grattan, renowned interior designer Bill Sofield, and Michelle Wilkinson, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, were among the rolodex of creative powerhouses at the dinner. 

Celebration plans for the distillery’s 200th anniversary are still under wraps, but Mortlach is clearly building a community for those who best understand there are no shortcuts to perfection—and who better than artists and designers?

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