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.
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 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)
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.
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.
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.