Tag Archives: Closed Distilleries

The 1983 Tasting Series #2: Banff

The 1983 tasting continues! Thanks to everyone who came for the first installment. I’ll be trying to publish these on Fridays or Saturdays, depending on scheduling.

This week we’re looking at Banff. If I’ve discussed whisky with you and we’ve drifted to the subject of closed distilleries, I have inevitably discussed this one with a little more intensity. Banff was my first “drink your age” whisky a couple years back, and I was blown away at the time by the really gentle buttercream vanilla notes on that particular bottle, as well as the wonderful, relaxed nose. Perhaps that bottle would pale with my malt experience since then, but that’s a discussion for a different time.

Over the last couple years in the wake of that tasting, I semi-quietly went on a Banff buying spree – up until recently they were an incredible mix of availability and value for a 1983 distillery. Banff didn’t have the lofty reputation of Port Ellen or Brora (and it can be an unusual if not polarizing whisky), but I liked the ones I’d had, so I thought I would capitalize on the opportunity.

Fast-forward a few years and now Banff is starting to command loftier prices and is a little less common. It’s still one of the most reasonably priced of the ’83s, though I suspect in the next two years, that will cease to be the case.

Banff marks the first regional shift in this tasting. We started with St. Magdalene, the sole Lowland representative; Banff is first of a set of Highland distilleries. Banff has a relatively colorful history, and almost feels like the Swamp Castle in Monty Python & The Holy Grail, plagued through its history by fires and rebuilding. The first was in 1877 when a fire damaged a large portion of the distillery requiring an extensive rebuild, which took several months.

The most notable incident happened in 1941, a warehouse was bombed by a German aircraft. This article (page 9 of the linked PDF) has a really amazing eyewitness account -

The fires (two 100kg. bombs had been dropped) spread rapidly and a rivulet of burning whisky flowed through the fallen walls and into the stream. Being lighter than water, the flaming spirit spread across the width and was carried by the flow downstream. The burning river continued out of sight behind the peat store where a steeper gradient caused turbulence which extinguished the flames.

[...]

… they had saved twelve barrels out of three hundred.

[...]

Next day the Regimental Sergeant Major, the scourge of the troops, supervised an equipment inspection including water bottles. This resulted in several non-commissioned officers being reduced to the ranks and many squaddies being confined to barracks for fourteen days.

Jock Crystal reported that his ducks were drunk, and that some of the Old Manse cows were [unable to stand up].

 That alone would be a colorful enough past, but in 1959 during maintenance on one of the stills, a spark caused an explosion that damaged the distillery and required repairs. Fortunately no one was killed in that accident.

Banff was closed in 1983 (as all of these were) and the still house has been demolished; as almost a tragicomic grace note to its history, in 1991 one of the warehouses was destroyed in a fire. Banff is certainly in the category of “lost distilleries” – any new distillery to bear the name would be built from the ground up with no usable equipment from the original.

Interestingly (and somewhat in response to the question around St. Magdalene), Banff did practice triple distillation for a while, though the process ended in the 1920s.

Enough history for now: what about the whisky?

This bottle of Banff is from K&L’s 2011 bumper crop of exclusive bottles and was one of the stars of that productive trip (though eclipsed by the Ladyburn which sold out way before it arrived, as well as the Chieftain’s exclusive Brora from the same trip). This bottle is part of the Duncan Taylor Rarest of the Rare series, which I’ve had multiple bottles from and can’t think of a single one that I haven’t enjoyed. Alongside Signatory’s cask strength decanters, I’m usually willing to give the Rarest of the Rare a chance if I haven’t seen reviews for a bottle.

This was distilled in November 1975 and bottled in May 2011; cask 3353, at 45.2%. Interestingly a sister cask was released in the summer of 2001 – 3352 – as a UK release.

The nose on this Banff is initially sweet, with some malty notes and a touch of honey. There’s an overall dusting of white pepper and some wood in the background.

It’s got a nice mouthfeel, that bigger, slightly oily kind of whisky. It leads with a fair dose of wood, and has some flintiness to it that’s not unlike older whiskies I’ve had (in terms of distillation date, not time in wood). It’s slightly mineral which just adds a nice dimension. Some of the sweetness of the nose comes through; faint dried oranges and apples. It’s big and bold overall, and the wood creeps up with time.

The finish is warm and with plenty of white pepper; the minerality and a little malt comes along.

It’s a big, bold whisky that hits the spot for me. It’s really enjoyable, and the minerality harkens back to an earlier style of whisky.

This will not be the last time Banff is covered in depth here. As I mentioned, I acquired several bottles. At some point in the future (timing still to be determined), I will go through those as part of a project to do a deeper dive on Banff’s output.

At a glance:

Banff 1975 – Duncan Taylor Rarest of the Rare, K&L Exclusive Cask #3353
Distilled 11-1975, Bottled 5-2001 45.2% ABV
Nose:  Sweet initially with some malty notes and a touch of honey; white pepper all over, a little wood.
Palate:  Nice mouthfeel, leads with a fair dose of wood. Some old-style flintiness to this one, mineral. A little sweet – a faint hint of dried orange and apple. Big and bold. Leans a touch bitter with time.
Finish:  Warm with white pepper, again a slight hint of minerality.
Comment:  Quite big and bold. Really enjoyable. The mineral notes remind me of older (distillation date, not age) malts.
Rating: B+

The 1983 Tasting Series #1: St. Magdalene

The year: 1983.

Then, as now, it was a tumultuous time. The globe had been in the grip of recession, the middle east was unstable, and if you wanted to take a Tylenol to just deal with the headaches day-to-day life brought, you still were a little wary of the recent potassium cyanide poisoning.

And the whisky industry was in the height of the whisky glut. The whisky industry faced its own set of austerity measures: A severe cutback in production, with many distilleries closed. We’ve seen some come back since then, but ten distilleries were shut and are unlikely ever to return, especially with a trend towards consolidating production at mega-distilleries.

Over the next several weeks, I will be looking at a sample of each whisky. I’d planned this tasting a couple years ago (and fortunately at that time many of these were cheaper to acquire). As the time drew near to do this tasting, it seemed wasteful and gluttonous to hoard this whisky strictly to myself. Several friends have gotten in on this tasting and you may hear other impressions from them as this tasting progresses.

The ten distilleries that were lost in 1983 that we’ll likely never see a new whisky from are Banff, Brechin (North Port), Brora, Dallas Dhu, Glen Albyn, Glen Mhor, Glenlochy, Glenugie, Port Ellen, St. Magdalene (Linlithgow). Some of these are relatively common (though increasingly pricey); some of these have all but vanished. I’ve had some of these before and some will be new.

This is not an exercise in flash, superiority, or any sort of whisky elitism. It’s a theme tasting I’ve wanted to execute for a while, and the time has come. My goals for this will be twofold: To have, if nothing else, a “last word” on some of these for myself (accepting that I may already be priced out of future editions), as well as to try and compare these to modern malts as a base of reference. As we know, distillery character can be very distinctive and some distilleries are just one of a kind.

Distillery #1: St. Magdalene – Lowland
Ultimate fate:
Converted to apartment buildings

Also known as Linlithgow (for the town it is located in), St. Magdalene is unique in this tasting as the only Lowland distillery. The bottle representing St. Magdalene is the 2009 Dun Bheagan bottling, distilled in October 1982. It’s 26 years old, and comes from cask 2219. Many reviews of this bottle exist online and, yes, you can still find this bottle for sale.

The nose on this is light and somewhat floral, with a touch of confectioner’s sugar. It’s got a certain white wine sourness to it which dissipates after some time in the glass. It has light wood influence, peppery spice, and some lemony notes emerge. With even more time in the glass, vanilla starts to come out a bit, as does a very faint touch of leather. All in all, a relatively light nose for a 26 year old whisky.

The palate enters a touch bitter from the wood; it gives way quite quickly to a general maltiness and some white pepper. There’s a faintly floral top note and then the heat picks up. Subsequent sips reveal some lemon curd and ginger – actually probably the most distinctly gingery taste I think I’ve ever gotten from any whisky.

The finish is dry initially with a touch of wood, some white pepper and plenty of malt. A little vanilla is there; there’s a hay quality to it and some straight-up barley. It goes to a slightly root-vegetable note at the end, in a long and lasting finish.

This whisky isn’t one I’m particularly crazy about; the sourness on the nose and the questionable cask influence didn’t work for me particularly well. Other bloggers have noted this whisky is one that can be hit or miss from session to session. I can certainly believe it – I wasn’t enjoying the bitter and winey notes, but the lemon and ginger (and overall quality with substantial time in the glass) were nice.. just not nice enough to overcome all the negative qualities I perceived.

What’s like this? Hard to say, because I haven’t ever had anything with quite a pronounced (to my palate) ginger note. I’ll keep looking; unfortunately this one seems fairly unique to me. I’d love to hear what anyone thinks about this one.

St. Magdalene is regarded as one of the better closed distilleries, and I must confess after my first contact with it that I’m not entirely sure I get it. I have at least one other bottle in reserve for the future, so that may be the eye-opener.

Next week, the 1983 series moves to the Highlands.

At a glance:

St. Magdalene – Dun Bheagan 10-82 – 2009 (26y) #2219 50% ABV
Nose: 
Light, somewhat floral with a touch of confectioner’s sugar. Also a bit white wine-like. A little wood, some light peppery spice; lemony notes emerge. Over time more vanilla emerges; a faint touch of leather too.
Palate:  Enters a touch bitter from the wood; gives way rather quickly to maltiness and some white pepper. A faintly floral top note and the heat picks up. A little lemon curd and a touch of ginger.
Finish:  Dry initially, a touch of wood, some white pepper and plenty of malt; a touch of vanilla, a little hay and some straight-up barley. Has a slightly root vegetable note at the end. Quite lasting.
Comment:  This benefits greatly from some time open in the glass. To me it starts a bit sour and weird but the air really brings it into focus. While it does develop nicely, it also doesn’t quite develop enough.
Rating: B-

New Year, Old Distilleries

With the holiday season behind us and my apartment building’s entry way with a thick layer of the debris of abandoned Christmas trees, it’s time to turn our eyes to a new year. For some, this is a time of reflection, a time of anticipation, vows for self-improvement and so forth. I don’t have any blog resolutions, per se, other than a promise to continue my low-grade jackassery and witless, incurious observations that firmly mark me as a member of whisky blogging’s chattering class. In other words, expect very little to change.

This year is going to be one of exploration, in part. Isn’t it always? Yes, but we’re enjoying some new opportunities here in the US. New Japanese whiskies are landing on our shores – the new Nikkas most notably – and I’ve managed to secure some other samples for this year, not to mention the flight of limited edition Yamazakis. From my discussions with David Driscoll and David Girard, it’s clear what a mess getting Japanese whiskies are into the US. Apparently the trade agreements aren’t in place with Japan as they are with other nations, which require a ton of lab analysis to approve a new whisky for import. This is a real shame: Japan has some absolutely top-notch whiskies that would be sure to please the palate of almost any aficionado of Scotch whisky. With the rising prices of Scotch whisky, it’s certainly worth a re-examination of the options available to see if there are substitutes available elsewhere. Beyond that, a little palate globetrotting is always a fun experience.

Anyone who has talked with me in person knows that closed distilleries are a passing passion for me. There’s something exciting about the opportunity to try something that may never be available again. My last year of extensive introspection, exhaustively woven into many blog posts, has only reaffirmed my interest in that experience. So what better to kick of 2013 than a closed Japanese distillery?

We’re talking, of course, about the Karuizawa distillery. I make no attempt to sound like an expert about Japanese whisky; aside from what’s crossed my palate, it’s much more of an unknown quantity to me than, say, Scotland or the United States. From what’s available out there, it’s apparent that Karuizawa stopped distilling in 2001 and closed ten years later. Now, Karuizawas are reasonably easy to find (for Japanese whiskies, meaning you have to import them from Scotland*), but they frequently command £200 and more, meaning you’re looking at $350 for some of those single cask offerings after shipment. Certainly nothing outlandish, but just as certainly part of the price tier where some way to mitigate the risk is appreciate. I’ve had a couple Karuizawas in the past and while I liked them, I wasn’t necessary blown away by them, and not enough to risk $300 on them.  

Fast forward to late 2012: The Whisky Exchange tweets about the availability of the Karuizawa Spirit of Asama bottles. I check the link out, expecting no doubt to find another bottle above my personal threshold in this case, and am stunned. £45 and £50 after VAT is subtracted. I can’t believe it: an affordable Karuizawa. Spirit of Asama is a vatting of 77 casks, at about 12-13 years old (the casks were filled in ’99 and ’00). Though I’ve already got a checkmark by Karuizawa on my “closed distilleries to taste” list (cue the sound of David Driscoll harrumphing at my closed distillery scorekeeping. Sorry, David, I’m gonna do it), a reasonably priced expression is always worth checking out.

Several weeks ago, Serge reviewed these and gave them an 87 (48% ABV bottling) and 85 (55% ABV bottling). Expectations set: these are good but not legendary bottles. After wrestling with the corks – seriously, the corks on these are awful – I finally get the bottles open. My 48% bottle had a fragmenting cork – fortunately, I was splitting this bottle with a friend, so it was going to be decanted anyway.

I finally sat down to taste these recently after the holidays, curious to see what they had in common and what might be different.

The 55% was my baseline, being closer to a natural cask strength for the many casks involved. The nose on it immediately revealed thick sherry with an accompanying slight sherry funk to it. There was some underlying wood but it didn’t overpower – though it did show some age and seemed fairly tame. The top end had orange zest; it was slightly figgy with some red fruit and leather.

The palate was very leathery with tons of sherry. It had a fairly good dose of white pepper, some moderate heat as well. A little fig and plum gave some depth to the body and some thick molasses stickiness filled out the bottom end. A nice, rich palate (though I confess of late I find that heavy leathery note a little less alluring than the incredible nutty flavors you get from some sherry-matured whisky).

The 55% Asama finished warm, and had a bourbony, slightly citric top note that leaned towards orange zest. It gave way to a big sherry and fig combo, with a familiar musty, woody finish I’ve seen on previous Karuizawas (at times, I’ve thought this to be not too dissimilar from what a slightly dusty melon rind would taste like). Not bitter at all, but just a bit old.

The 55% Asama bears a massive sherry influence, and is certainly one of the least expensive Karuizawas I’ve seen, while still having something in common with the pricier versions.

The reduced bottling appears to have come from the same batch of casks. How does it compare?

The nose is slightly musty sherry, with an unfortunate straight alcohol/solvent note. It’s got light wood, a touch of oranges, and some dried fruit.

The palate is leathery again, with sherry, a very mild dose of white pepper (this has almost none of the heat of the 55%), and gentle heat. It’s slightly figgy with a far off molasses quality to add some depth, as well as a little light wood.

The finish is led by wood, and starts slightly warm like its higher proof brother, with a clean sherry note and a touch of citrus zest. Unlike the 55% which goes a bit more musty and dusty on the finish, the 48% settles on dried fruit.

The 48% is a little gentler, but to my palate by comparison it almost seems timid and somewhat flat. It’s not a bad whisky by any stretch of the imagination, but it just seems to need a little more life to it.

Of the two, I prefer the 55%. You can reduce it to 48% if you’re so inclined (Serge was successful in this experiment), or you can have it at full strength and enjoy a little more zip. The 48% is unquestionably more restrained and easy-drinking, but I just prefer the 55%.

Fortunately, both of these whiskies are still available at The Whisky Exchange for the reasonable prices mentioned above – the 48% is £45 ex VAT and the 55% is £51 ex VAT (I don’t get any affiliate money for those links, so click and enjoy and don’t worry about putting any of your hard earned money in my pockets – your hard earned money solely goes to TWE on these).

* From above: A note popped into my mailbox this past week from Royal Mile Whiskies noting that they will be unable to ship to the US. Apparently the UK’s CAA has reclassified alcohol and as of today, RMW will be unable to ship to the US. This is a shame as Royal Mile has had some superlative single cask releases, most notably a stellar ’87 Glengoyne. Here’s hoping this is a misinterpretation and things will proceed as normal. Tim and Billy of TWE seem cautiously optimistic in this thread at the WWW forums - we in the US can only hope their interpretation is correct and we will soon see a return to normalcy. Otherwise, a major source of excellent whisky will be closed off to the US in short order.

Once again, here’s wishing you a happy new year. I have enjoyed the comments and interactions that Scotch & Ice Cream brought in 2012, and I hope to continue to entertain and interest in my own peculiar way again through 2013. Won’t you join me?

At a glance:

Karuizawa “Spirit of Asama” 55% ABV
Nose: 
Thick sherry presence upfront that’s ever so slightly funky. Wood beneath it but it’s not overpowering, just a bit old and tame. A light orange zest hint on the top end. Slightly figgy with some traces of red fruit, a touch of leather.
Palate: 
Leathery upfront, tons of sherry. A fairly good dose of white pepper, moderate heat. A little fig, a touch of plum. Just a slight hint of thick molasses. 
Finish: 
Warm at first, with a little bourbony, slightly citric top note reminiscent of orange zest again. A big sherry/fig combo, giving way to a fairly familiar musty, woody finish I’ve gotten off previous Karuizawas. 
Comment:   
Very heavily sherry-influenced. It’s one of the less expensive Karuizawas you’ll find and still has something in common with more expensive versions. 
Rating:
B

Karuizawa “Spirit of Asama” 48% ABV
Nose: 
Slightly musty sherry, a touch of a straight alcohol/solvent note. Light wood, a touch of oranges, some dried fruit. 
Palate: 
Leathery with sherry, very mild dose of white pepper, light heat. Slightly figgy and with a far-off hint of molasses. Light wood creeping in. 
Finish: 
Wood leads, slightly warm at first with a clean sherry note and a touch of citrus zest. Settles in on dried fruit.
Comment: 
A little gentler, seems a little timid and flat. A good whisky; just needs a little more life. 
Rating:
B-

Glencraig 30y and Glencraig 15y

I’ve written about independent bottlers before, and they remain one of the best ways to try whisky that is either never released to the public, or to taste the whiskies produced by now-silent distilleries. They are also a great way to try the stranger whiskies that came out of the “distilleries within distilleries” of a few decades ago. The only ways that really are better or more cost effective are to have extremely wealthy friends, a time machine, or a loose moral code surrounding the ins and outs personal property.

For those not familiar with the “distilleries within distilleries”, there were a few distilleries that set up additional equipment to produce different styles of whisky a few decades ago. The Girvan grain distillery produced malt whisky from ’68 to ’75 and it was labeled as Ladyburn. (K&L had an exclusive Ladyburn cask released last year; it’s long gone.) Miltonduff and Glenburgie added Lomond stills and their output was labeled as Mosstowie (’64-’81) and Glencraig (’58-’81). Currently, two distilleries have Lomond stills – Scapa (though it’s been heavily altered) and Bruichladdich (who used it to produce the Botanist gin). One of the most thorough discussions on Lomond stills and what they are can be found at Celtic Malts, which I will make no attempt to duplicate here.

The first Glencraig I’m going to review is one of the Rarest of the Rare releases from Duncan Taylor, which is the series of releases that features closed, lost, or otherwise non-functioning distilleries – such as Glencraig, Glenugie, Banff, etc. I have only had a couple whiskies from this collection and they have all been good; two of the three are rather similar and towards the lower ABV and were of a slightly gently malty, lightly vanilla character. The K&L Banff is another one of these and it’s anything but gentle and malty. It’s an indie that I have no problem buying from.

This Glencraig definitely fits the gentle and malty character – a nice, easygoing malt that works in the heat of summer (as it was when I first tried it) or in the winter as a lighter whisky. The nose is light, fruity and gently malty with subtle buttercream vanilla. There’s a slightly piney and lightly solvent note, which kind of slides over to shiso after a minute. There’s a light dusting of white pepper as well.

The palate is moderately heavy, malty and gentle all around. As from the nose, you get some light vanilla, moderate heat brought by the pepper notes, and mint and shiso notes. The whisky finishes quite quickly and is mostly malt and gentle spice, with a tail end of light mint.

This one is just a simple, easy-drinking, enjoyable whisky. It’s hard not to like. While it doesn’t score particularly high on my scale, it’s still very enjoyable and worthwhile. To me, this is one of those whiskies that proves that a B is still a really good whisky – it’s not one of those ones that causes you to go catatonic and fall back into the carpet a la the Trainspotting heroin overdose scene, but it’s still totally enjoyable.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have a 15y Glencraig, bottled by the SMWS in 1994. Distilled in ’79, this is SMWS 104.2 (sorry, I don’t have a society name for it). This is an entirely different beast: 61.5% ABV, but the nose doesn’t have that high-proof prickle. It’s got a nice, slightly earthy malt with a liberal dusting of white pepper. Shiso and mint figure slightly in the high notes, along with some slightly overripe fruits. A light oiliness balances the fruitiness.

The palate is great – it’s warm, rich and tart at the outset, with oily and earthy notes coming up strong and going tarry after a minute. Against this is a maltiness which shows a quick flash of apple skin, but then returns to the more industrial, tarry notes. There’s some light pepper character to it throughout. The finish is equally big – peppery with cinnamon; malty and grainy, which fade to red delicious apples for a second. The whole thing is held together by the tarry notes.

Whereas the 30y Glencraig is gentle and shows some age and experience, the teenager is brash, bold, and powerful. Honestly, I would have guessed the younger one to be an early 80s Brora or perhaps a Springbank at first impression. It’s a real powerhouse whiskey and one that has caused Glencraig to command my attention now. While it’s unlikely you’ll see 104.2 outside of auctions at this point, it’s definitely highly recommended. Definitely much closer to a Trainspotting moment.

At a glance:

Glencraig 30y – Duncan Taylor Rarest of the Rare, distilled 3-1974, bottled 10-2004, cask 2926, bottle 319 of 341. 40.1% ABV
Nose:  Light, fruity, gentle malt, subtle buttercream vanilla note, hint of pine & low solvent. A touch of shiso and pepper.
Palate:  Moderate mouthfeel, malty, gentle. Light vanilla, moderate heat, slight pepper, small bits of mint and shiso.
Finish:  Relatively quick, malty. Gentle spice. Lightly minty.
Comment:  Reminiscent of the Cask 3414 of the Banff Rarest from Duncan Taylor (31y, distilled 11-74) –  gentle & maltly. Pleasant.
Rating: B

Glencraig 15y – SMWS 104.2 – distilled 1979, bottled 1994. 61.5% ABV
Nose:
A nice, slightly earthy presence of malt with a fair amount of white pepper and some shiso on the nose. A bit of vanilla presence and some ever so slightly overripe fruits, balanced ever so slightly by very light oiliness. 
Palate: 
Warm, rich and tart immediately on the palate, with the oily and earthy notes coming up strong with a slightly tarry note. It’s balanced by a maltiness which segues quickly into a bit of apple skin and then returns to the more industrial notes. Light pepper present throughout. 
Finish: 
Big and powerful, peppery with a bit of cinnamon as well; malty and grainy notes lead and then fade slightly into red delicious apples. The tarry notes provide the bed it all rests on. 
Comment: 
This is massive and very well put together. The finish lasts and lasts and gets everything in just the right proportions.
Rating:  
A-
Sincere thanks to Chris for the 104.2 Glencraig. Phenomenal.

Port Ellen Doubleheader & Indie Bottlings

Recently, I traded samples with my friend Timon as part of a mini Port Ellen head-to-head tasting. Both were reasonably old – 25 and 27 years old – and both were independent bottlings.

For a moment, the independent bottling part of that is an interesting topic worth exploring. If you’re more educated on whisky, you can skip ahead – but if you’re curious, let’s discuss the world of independent bottlings.

Independent Bottlings

What many don’t realize is that a fair amount of whisky on the shelf in a good liquor store is not bottled by the producer. That is to say, you can buy a Macallan (for instance) that was distilled by Macallan, but is not being released by Macallan. There’s a lot of wiggle room on the hows and whys of an independent bottling (was it matured at Macallan or was it matured in the bottler’s warehouse; how did the bottler come into possession, etc) but they are largely uninteresting and in a broad sense not terribly important. What is worth knowing is that independent bottlings offer some really unique offerings that you won’t be able to experience from the featured distillery.

The most obvious difference is in age statements: again using the example of Macallan, you will see the usual 12, 18, 25 and 30 (as well as 10, 15, 21 and 30 on the Fine Oak) on the shelves. However, independent bottlers offer a range of ages – younger 10 year old whiskies; unusual ages like 19 or 22 years, etc.

Another point where the independents can branch out is in the type of cask used. Again to continue with our example and focusing on the sherry matured Macallan line, every Macallan you buy that has been released as Macallan will have been matured in oloroso sherry casks. Independent bottlers may use the distillate for their own purpose and mature it in other casks – bourbon casks, fino sherry, PX sherry, and so on. This lets you taste the spirit in ways you likely haven’t before.

Some bottlers may perform additional finishing (or Additional Cask Enhancement as Murray McDavid prefers to call it) which may involve placing the aged whisky in an unusual cask for a few months to impart some additional character in taste, texture, etc. This is a topic that will be covered in the future. I’ve seen Laphroaigs matured in Bordeaux wine casks and Mortlachs in Sauternes casks (notably Chateau d’Yquem).

Independent bottlers also generally offer single-cask offerings. This makes things interesting – the market is constantly changing as a single cask may only yield 200-300 bottles for the entire world. Each cask is different and can impart a unique flavor to its contents. Even if you had two independent Highland Parks of the same age, if they come from different casks you will likely detect noticeable differences in their flavors and aromas. This is because the independent bottling market is not concerned with preserving a consistent, predictable experience – unlike the distillery. Sometimes this is great and exciting, sometimes it falls flat. The uncertainty makes it more interesting.

Finally and most interestingly, independent bottlers provide the most affordable way to try older whiskies, including whiskies from closed or demolished distilleries. Decades of stock may exist when a distillery is closed, and that stock is worth many thousands of dollars – it’s not going to be thrown out just because the distillery is closed. So at this point in time, you may be able to try a 30 year old, single cask offering from a distillery closed in the early 80s (when many were closed) for a price less than an 18 or 20 year old offering from a functioning distillery. In many cases these can be absolutely amazing whiskies as well.

And it’s not just scotch: There’s a healthy trade for American independent bottlers. This is a more touchy, opaque practice in the US than in Scotland, but suffice it to say there are substantially less distilleries than your local bourbon shelf would lead you to believe.

Port Ellen

Port Ellen is a name that has an almost mythical status in scotch nerd circles. It’s a distillery that was part of the broad range of distillery closures in the early 1980s. It also happens to be one of the better ones. Some distilleries leave no mystery as to why they were closed (I have yet to taste an interesting North Port). Others, such as Port Ellen or Brora (and I would personally argue, Banff) feel less clear.

While Port Ellen is highly sought after and almost revered, it’s also not rare – not as rare as Brora and certainly not on the order Kinclaith, Ladyburn, Ben Wyvis or Glen Flagler. However, it’s generally a really good whisky which is as good a reason as any for it to stay in the upper echelon of distilleries to this day, nearly 30 years after its closing.

Port Ellen still produces malt for the distilleries on Islay, but the distillery itself has not produced whiskey since 1983 (and is partially demolished, according to Wikipedia). This video from Youtube takes you on a tour of the Port Ellen Maltings:

Warning: Extensive Scottish ahead.

My friend Timon and I found that we had two recently opened bottles of Port Ellen so we decided to swap samples alongside a larger swap and pit the bottles head to head.

Port Ellen 25 year old Old Malt Cask Bottling (distilled 11-82, bottled 1-08)

This bottle is part of the Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask series. The Old Malt Cask series tends to issue bottles at 50% ABV from a single barrel. They also don’t color or chill-filter bottles in the OMC series. This series is very common and there are some good bottles to be had from it.

This Port Ellen had a nice nose – a bit of mustard initially, peat and grass, and a slightly dry malt note. It was lightly briny as well. A little drop of water made this open up to reveal a little more musty and farmy character and a nice bright shiso note.

The palate is classic Islay – thick and oily, and due to the strength it starts to warm up and expose the malty flavors as well as a bit more brine and some gentle peat. Water brings more of a distinct rubbery note, some lighter tar notes and white pepper.

The finish didn’t bring much new to the table – warm with peat and light earthiness and a touch of brine. Overall, it was a good, easy drinking, gentle Port Ellen. Good, but there are better Port Ellens to be had.

Port Ellen 27 year old McGibbons Provenance Bottling (distilled Spring ’83, bottled Spring 2010, cask 6101). 

McGibbons has less of a strong identity as a independent bottling line. It’s also owned by Douglas Laing. Douglas Laing’s site says this collection “highlights the particular distillation of the seasons through Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter”. This line is not exclusively single-cask bottlings.

The nose on this Port Ellen was a little tamer to me – moderately peaty, lightly waxy fruit notes (like apple skin but not quite specific enough to be apples). There was also some definite maltiness and very very light brine. It wasn’t a powerhouse nose.

The mouthfeel was fairly average and malty with some moderate peat. It had a little pepper and some mustard, and a bit of hay – it was a bit dry and grainy overall. The finish was probably the best part – gently warming, a little mustard and shiso notes, huge maltiness and some peat. It was still a little dry and had some wood influence.

The McGibbons Port Ellen was not particularly complex – mostly malty with some dry grain notes – but the finish just had something extra that really made this an enjoyable whisky. (This sentiment also seems to be shared by the LA Whiskey Society)

The Verdict?

I had to concede defeat in this one. My Port Ellen, the OMC offering, was classic Islay but little more. There was a certain lightness and almost effervescence to the McGibbons bottling that was just more enjoyable. It may not have been as complex, but it was just more enjoyable overall. So hats off to Timon, he wins this round. We’ll have a rematch in the future.

At a glance:

Port Ellen 25yo Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask. Distilled 11-82, Bottled 1-08.
50% ABV
Nose:
Green with a hint of mustard; peat, grass, a slightly dry note of malt. Light brine. With water it opens to reveal some slightly musty, farmy notes, a lighter, sharper green note vaguely like shiso.
Palate: Thick and oily, warming up with maltiness and brine, and some gentle peat. With water there’s more of a rubber note, some light tar as well as some white pepper.
Finish: Still warm on the finish, peat and light earthiness, brine.
Comment: It’s tasty, it’s gentle, it’s a nice mix of peat and malt. It’s good but there are better Port Ellens out there.
Rating: B

Port Ellen 27yo McGibbons Provenance Distilled Spring ’83, Bottled Spring 2010, Cask 6101 46% ABV
Nose: Moderate peat, lightly waxy fruity notes, some maltiness. Very very light brine.
Palate: Medium mouthfeel; malty; moderate peat – a little bit of pepper and some mustard; a touch of hay, slightly dry.
Finish: Warming, with a slight mustard-and-shiso note, big malt, gentle peat. A little bit of dryness and wood.
Comment: Not long on complexity but totally enjoyable.
Rating: B