In 2011, I did a head-to-head of two Port Ellens – both really nice but not world-beaters. The McGibbons Provenance 27y from that taste-off was certainly the winner. Late last year, I said a likely goodbye to new Port Ellen purchases due to market inflation, and recalled my favorite Port Ellen (and possibly favorite whisky), a 12 year old MacArthur bottling from the early to mid 1980s.
A few weeks ago, a fun opportunity presented itself to try the very bottles I’d written off as my breaking point for individual purchases – K&L’s single cask pick,bottled by Sovereign, and the official 12th release Port Ellen from Diageo. There was a debate in LAWS to see which might be desired for an upcoming event, so the decision was made to simply have a taste-off. Through a comedy of errors, I wasn’t able to make it to that event, but had quite large pours reserved.
In the days that passed, it became clear that this was a hotly debated topic among LAWS; it was basically deemed too close to call. Would Sku and I mind terribly if our samples were blinded?
Would I mind? Hell no, I’d love it!
These two are both old whiskies – 30 year for the Sovereign K&L and 32 for the Diageo bottling. The K&L is vastly more limited, being from a single cask, with a bottling run just slightly more than 5% of the total Diageo run this year.
Now, I’d had a very small taste of the Sovereign from K&L, and my impression had been that it was rather middle-of-the-road at the time. This was however based on quite a small sip and it was nothing I’d ever feel comfortable assigning a score to or standing very firm on my assessment of. As a result I never really mentioned it. It was certainly nothing that I could place in my taste memory in a tight lineup of Port Ellens.
I started with Sample “A”. It was lighter than expected and to my nose, surprisingly fruity for a Port Ellen. It had a little waxiness that was not exactly, but not far off what I associate with older Clynelishes. There was a little lemon and a touch of pear. Some sweet maltiness floated around, and there was a lot of well-developed, seasoned oak. It didn’t seem astonishingly peaty and leaned a little more sweet – not unexpected; peat can have a pronounced fall off after 20 years in the barrel.
The palate was oily and spicy, with a touch of white pepper, a fair amount of oak, some waxy wood polish character to it, dried apple skin, and some faint, roof-of-the-mouth smoke in the background.
The finish had some of the tarry/diesel notes I commonly associate with Port Ellen, and then surprised with a brief zing of mint. There was a fair bit of wood and a waxy apple note.
Good, not the best I’ve ever had, but good. Saving some for later given the split decision nature floating around.
Sample “B” went into a clean glass.
The nose on B was lemony-sweet with some nice malt and a little hint of leather, with a touch of diesel.
The palate opened with a really great creamy mouthfeel, and a fair bit of wood. There was malt underneath and some white pepper, with a late hint of pears again. There was light peat, and it was more of a shading on everything else than a main note – in a way reminding me of older malts from the mainland in the 50s and 60s. After a while it gave way to more malty sweetness.
The finish had some light smoke and a faintly industrial quality. There was a bit more of the pear taste; it was a surprisingly clean finish.
Again, a good whisky; not the best I’ve had but definitely in the ballpark. These two were different beasts and played on different aspects of Port Ellen. I gave my palate a rest and revisited later with dueling pours again. The differences stood out much more at this point and I had a better sense of the two.
Whisky “A” had quite a bit of waxiness to it and I just kept thinking “old Clynelish”. It’s not the same thing, but it had a similarity I couldn’t deny. There was tons going on and it was really dense. It was also pushing the limits of its age; having perhaps a fading vitality, but the spiciness kept it interesting and it gained momentum as it went on.
Whisky “B” was a more straightforward affair, showing some of the underlying spirit characteristics that can be masked by peat even in 25 year old whiskies. It was not an overly-complex whisky, but a stunningly easy drinker. It reminded me in ways of the better whiskies from decades ago, with smoke integrated nicely without overwhelming things.
I could see the difficulty in deciding and why this was a split decision. In all honesty in my opinion, I think I could go either way on these, but to me the complexity of whisky “A” was ever so slightly my favorite. “B” was fantastically drinkable but a variation on a theme I’d had before. “A” was good and dense, if slightly tired in its old age.
The bottom line, I think, is that if you have this kind of cash available and you have your heart set on either one of these bottles, you won’t be disappointed. They’re a little better than average for a Port Ellen.
This morning, I got an email from Sku with his preference. It seemed, unsurprisingly, that we split evenly on the blind tasting, with his preference being Whisky B. This just goes to show how evenly matched these whiskies are: some die-hard whisky lovers in LAWS who have sampled far and wide are pretty much evenly split on these two. As for me, given the choice, I think I’d pour a little of Whisky A.
So what are they?
Whisky A: Port Ellen 12th Release (Diageo Official) – 52.5% ABV 32y
Nose: Light and surprisingly fruity for a Port Ellen. A little waxiness that’s not far off Clynelish. A little lemon, maybe even a touch of pear. Some sweet malt, a fair amount of well-developed, seasoned oak. Not a lot of peat. Sweet in general.
Palate: Oily and spicy, a touch of white pepper, a fair amount of wood, some waxy wood polish kind of notes, dried apple skin, and a little faint background smoke.
Finish: A little smoke with a hint of tarriness and diesel, a little quick hint of mint for a second, a fair bit of wood and the waxy apple note.
Comment: This, for all the waxy notes initially, makes me think Clynelish. It’s definitely on the far edge of what’s vital, but a little spice keeps it interesting. Picks up nicely as it goes on.
Whisky B: Port Ellen 30y, Sovereign, K&L Exclusive. 51.90%
Nose: Lemony-sweet with some nice malt, a little hint of leather. A touch of diesel.
Palate: Creamy mouthfeel, a fair bit of wood. Some malt underneath, a little white pepper. Some pears start to come through late. Light peat, almost more of a shade than a main note. After a while a little more malty sweetness.
Finish: Some light smoke and a faintly industrial touch. A bit more of the pear-type note; quite clean.
Comment: Quite a gentle Port Ellen; a really great mouthfeel.