So Long, Port Ellen

I knew the day would come that the closed distilleries started pricing themselves beyond what I was willing to pay. Sure, Ben Wyvis and Kinclaith had long been outside that, but those were easy enough to disregard – I’ve never heard anyone raving about that one legendary Kinclaith that they wish they had just one more pour of.

Port Ellen, on the other hand, has been the go-to example of a closed distillery that is almost always good to great and generally in a fairly predictable profile. If you like it, the odds are that you’re going to find plenty of Port Ellens that really work for you. And, for the longest time, given the realities of the situation, the price has been fairly reasonable. After all, the distillery has been closed 29 years; most whisky being released under the name has seen three decades or more in oak, and the stocks dwindle while awareness continues to rise. It’s a perfect storm for price increases.

Fortunately for producers, we happen to be in a period of increased demand for the stuff, and it seems like no price is too much to ask. Last year, Diageo’s official release of Port Ellen was hovering around $500 – definitely high, but it didn’t require an inordinate amount of back-bending to plausibly justify.

Oh, what a difference a year makes.

After a year of seemingly endless one-offs, exclusives, and special editions (which still seemed to find audiences and sell through), we’re truly in Cabbage Patch Kid season: the end of year seasonal releases. Diageo, the Van Winkles, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Parker’s, Jefferson’s One-Horse Open Sleigh Aged, etc. While these are normally tricky to come by, this year the insanity is already boiling over and we still have a solid two months left in the year. The best example? Thomas H. Handy, the criminally underrated member of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection sold out in under five minutes at The Party Source’s sale. I’m sure Jim Murray’s stamp of approval didn’t hurt, but even last year you could casually walk into your favorite liquor store even into January and grab a bottle. The party’s over, it seems.

This time around, the producers seem to be charging a premium on what the market can bear. I remember the critiques last year – Port Ellen was instantly snapped up and sold on the secondary market for $800 – that said that Diageo should jack prices up to stop the speculators. They did – oh, how they did.

If you were fortunate enough to find a Port Ellen release this year in the UK, you would have been paying over a thousand dollars once all was said and done. I don’t know about you, and perhaps it sounds a bit rich coming from the guy who’s bought a couple expensive Macallans (never again), but I was definitely out of the market at $1000.

A couple days ago, K&L announced their last cask of the year – a Port Ellen! I was excited and ready to spend – I figured it’d be $400 absolute maximum. The announcement did the usual bit of story-weaving, but there was clearly an undercurrent on the economics both in the announcement and in David’s writing over the last couple weeks. Their $300 (retail) Ladyburn from last year, as Driscoll noted, would have cost $900 wholesale per bottle. The punchline of the announcement was that the K&L exclusive Port Ellen, a coup for any shop trying to cement itself in the upper echelon of whisky retailers, was going to cost $600 a bottle.

I was out of the market immediately.

It’s nothing to fault K&L or Diageo for that matter – people are as mental for Port Ellen as they are for Pappy – but this does seem to mark a point where Port Ellen is moving out of “splurge bottle” and into the price category dominated by the very wealthy. No doubt the next five years (perhaps next year, being the 30th anniversary of the closing), will bring us an oligarch-focused release that cracks into the vaunted five-figure barrier. Obviously it’ll need a special decanter and a wooden box, but the supply chain is clearly firing up in the “deluxe whisky decanter” and “deluxe whisky decanter velvet-lined box” cottage industries.

This was a point of reflection for me, and it seems that the Port Ellen I own at this point is the last Port Ellen I’ll buy. Maybe there will be some sample swaps, and maybe something will catch my eye at some point, still at a more reasonable price, but for all intents and purposes, the new release purchasing is over for me. Funny; I’d have thought it would have been Brora first.

Instead of being bothered by it or by running out and laying my hands on every Port Ellen I could find, I decided to recall the absolute best Port Ellen I’ve ever had. I fortunately had a small amount of it remaining, and this sort of “farewell” seemed like a good opportunity to revisit it.

This particular Port Ellen was an older bottle from James Macarthur – you’ve seen them, they’re usually sitting in the semi-anonymous lower shelves and are all too easily confused with the various mystery malts. This particular Port Ellen was bottled at 12 years old, at 62.7% ABV.

The nose on this one is a great mix of lightly tarry notes, a little light leather, lemon and young malt. It has a faint minerality to it, as well as a little faint pepper prickly quality. It opens up and evolves while it breathes, revealing fresh Red Delicious apples, white pepper, hints of tangy barbecue sauce. Eventually you even get into lighter fruits – peach and apricot with a touch of a briny quality. All of this still happens with that great Port Ellen peat happening.

The whisky has a nice, full, and rich mouthfeel. There’s a moderate heat to it even though at 62.7% it could be off to the races and super hot. There’s moments of wood here and there, but it’s not out of balance. White pepper and chili oil form the basis of the heat; light lemony notes run around the heat. There’s a malty sweetness and tarry smoke as expected, and some organic earthiness, with a gently insistent ashiness. There’s a really enjoyable mix of sweetness, heat, and a little ash to keep the palate interesting.

The whisky finishes on tarry smoke, a pronounced lemon note which seems to have a quick Earl Grey tea chaser. It’s got a touch of malt and dry wood, and it dries further to barley with a little lemon at the tail end.

My words feel like they don’t do this one justice. Honestly, if I could have no other whisky for the rest of my life, I’d be OK if I only had this one. It’s got such a great balance of tastes.

Apparently there’s another version that was released before this one which was more heavily sherried which got a ridiculous rating like 98 from Serge. I’d love to try it but the fact is, these Macarthur bottles are exceedingly uncommon and seem to only show up as minis on the secondary market in Europe. If you want one, you’re going to have to be prepared to hunt and pay.

Who knows where things will go from here. I’m still pretty convinced prices are going up for some time yet; I wish I could keep pace and enjoy things like these new Port Ellen releases, but they’ve now gone out of my range. So, the day has come to say goodbye. Any future Port Ellen reviews you see here are likely from bottles I have on hand, unless I specifically call out “a great deal on Port Ellen that I recently found…”. Given the current climate, I don’t expect to be writing those words anytime soon.

At a Glance:

Port Ellen 12y James Macarthur 62.7% ABV
Nose:  A great mix of lightly tarry notes, a little leather, lemon, young malt. Ever so faintly mineral. A little prickle with faint pepper. A faint touch of fresh Red Delicious apples in the background. White pepper and a little light, tangy barbecue sauce. Over time, lighter fruits evolve – hints of peach, apricot. Faint brine.
Palate:  Nice, rich, full palate. Moderate heat despite the high ABV. A little wood on the body; white pepper, a touch of chili oil, some light lemony notes. Malty sweetness and some tarry smoke. A slightly organic earthiness, but there’s still a gently insistent ashiness.
Finish:  Nice tarry smoke, a definite lemon chaser, and perhaps a bit of Earl Grey tea right behind that. Lightly tarry, a touch of malt, a touch of dry wood and barley. Lemons pop up again after a bit.
Comment:  Honestly, this would be the one whisky I’d have if I could have no other. A great balance of all the tastes.
Rating: A

8 thoughts on “So Long, Port Ellen”

  1. It seems like The Whisky Exchange still has a rather deep stock of Port Ellen. I’m almost tempted by this one as it gets a rather good rating and would only set you back a couple of hundred dollars, which isn’t a shocking price for a 28 YO.

      1. I feel like that just goes to show how much the current furore is about collecting, rather than drinking the whisky. When you can get a highly rated IB for 1/5 the price of an OB, it’s about having rather than enjoying it. I’d rather enjoy what I can get than agonize over what I can’t.

          1. Probably not for long. As David pointed out, Diageo is buying up as many casks as they can find (unsurprising if they’re running out – no other way to keep the PE gravy train going), which will restrict IB supply as well. But when that day comes, there will still be Caol Ila, which, as Oliver Klimek pointed out, can be just about as good when aged to a comparable degree.

          2. I don’t get that lemon & chamois thing with Caol Ila – but I really did with the 2006 Kilchoman – although with water and time the Kilchoman had whipped cream and more sweet than I ever get with Port Ellen. Still, that lemon sweetness and big peat punch made think that maybe Kilchoman releases may satisfy my Port Ellen monkey bone down the road. Ultimately though, each distillery is unique. Lets mourn, celebrate, and then move on…

          3. Very funny you menton that, Josh. I was talking with Andy @ LAWS a couple meetings ago and said (having tasted this previously) that I thought that Kilchoman had more than a hint of young Port Ellen on it. Andy stopped, put his drink down, smiled broadly and said that was something that he’d mentioned to Anthony Wills and gotten an affirmative response on the intent. I will say this particular PE is sweeter than I’d ever encountered, but it’s also 7 years younger and doesn’t have that big oak punch to it. Without a long track record of young PEs it’s hard to theorize what the younger profile is. I agree though that Kilchoman is closer to my guess based on what I’ve read and hyper-limited experience than my experience with young PE.

  2. I recently picked up a couple Rosebanks for a future occasion but I’m a bit disappointed that I’ll never get a taste of Port Ellen (until I see the prices that is). Guess I’ll just have to stick with Rosebank from now on as my preferred closed distillery (until the prices inevitably go up).

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