Tag Archives: Independent Bottling

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

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
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. 
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. 
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. 
This is massive and very well put together. The finish lasts and lasts and gets everything in just the right proportions.
Sincere thanks to Chris for the 104.2 Glencraig. Phenomenal.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (+ 4 whiskies)

Sooner or later as a whisky aficionado, you’ll encounter these strange green bottles with numbers and weird names – e.g. “17.29: Handbags And Popcorn”. You’ll eventually find out who bottles these: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

The SMWS (and since I am in the US, I will be referring to the American branch, conveniently SMWSA) is an independent bottler that sells only to current members of the SMWS. Its bottles are single-cask releases, which means the supply is limited to a couple hundred bottles of any one expression. Additionally, they don’t filter or color their whiskies, so you’re getting the ultimate whisky-geek experience – an undiluted single-cask bottle.

What makes the SMWS unlike other bottlers, beyond the members-only policy, is the removal of all distillery names from packaging. Unless you’ve got a reference guide, past experience, or know your distillery trivia, you don’t know what distillery produced the whisky in your bottle. To use the above example, “Handbags and Popcorn”, the identifier is 17.29. That means it’s the 29th cask bottled from distillery 17. What’s distillery 17? Well, all we know is that it’s “Orkney’s lesser known distillery.”

Normal people would then refer to a guide to find out what distillery it’s from, which may influence their purchasing decision. Since I just finished reading a super whisky nerd book, I will save you the time and tell you that Handbags and Popcorn comes from Scapa distillery.

However, that takes some of the fun out of it. I think the truest reactions come from blind tastings and that remains one of the more fun ways to experience whisky – free from any sort of impression other than the drink itself. Short of being part of a whisky club which may conduct them (or having a willing but long-suffering family member aid you in the depths of your obsession), the SMWS provides one of the easiest ways to indulge in blind tasting, if you dare.

I’ll back up a second. I joined the SMWSA recently after seeing a string of fairly well-reviewed and generally interesting bottles. It’d been on my list for a while as something to try so I thought there was no better time than the present. Joining is a snap and takes only a few minutes online.

After a few days you’ll get your membership kit in two parts. First, you get a general info packet – your membership card (mostly useless to those in the US unless you want to tuck it in next to your expired Blockbuster Video card and your wallet-size fraternity membership certificate laminate and prove yourself a mega-nerd), a copy of the society magazine, and a few recent Outturn pamphlets. These pamphlets list the latest casks bottled that the Society has for sale, and publishes their tasting notes. Society tasting notes have a style all their own and it may be hard to develop a picture of the whisky described until your palate has matured a bit. It’s all packaged in a small folder.

The membership packet...

The second package is the more fun one – four 100mL Society bottlings, a membership handbook (OK, maybe less exciting), a blank tasting notes book that also is a combination miniature bible and Russian phrasebook, and a lapel pin. God knows my lapels were shamefully unadorned prior to this – and who doesn’t enjoy that important feeling of belonging that only a lapel pin can offer?

The ultimate sense of belonging...

But remember: this package has whisky. No lapel pin can bring that down.

It HAD whisky, until some idiot blogger DRANK IT ALL!!

My four samples were:

  • 5.31 “Morning Has Broken”
  • 76.82 “Gunpowder Green and Lava Rock”
  • 29.99 “Power and Scorched Earth”
  • 77.25 “Mouth Numbing Handbags”

The notes for these four will be posted at the end of this entry. I’d heard that Society bottlings could be variable, so this was my first litmus test. I was impressed that even the 23 year old bottle was still in the high 50% ABV territory. My impression (full notes below) was that these were all good bottles – one was aB+ (5.31, which I really liked a lot); the rest were all Bs.

I’ve since purchased a couple bottles which you will see reviewed here in the months ahead. As for now, I’m pretty impressed by the society’s offerings. The blind element lets you browse and buy what tickles your fancy based on descriptions, rather than determining which whisky is packaged in the most seaworthy container. My plan is to buy without knowledge of the distillery and not find out until after I’ve completed my tasting notes (as I did with this batch.)

SMWS 5.31 “Morning Has Broken” 11y 57% ABV
Fairly spirity; unsurprising at 57%. Nice, solid malty and cereal notes underpinning lighter notes that are slightly lemony and floral notes. Young fruit – a pear, maybe a granny smith apple in there too. Lightly honeyed. A bit of a sugary note that smells like sugar cookies or sugar icing.
Very strong malt presence that also has some cereal and bread with it. Ripe pears, golden delicious apples (and a whisper of Fuji apple), honey, lightly lemony. Nice heat on the palate, warming to a reasonable point but not overwhelming.  
The malty note goes much more towards baked biscuits. The apple notes drop down in favor of pears; slightly honey and lemon notes continue. The heat subsides quickly and after a short while, golden delicious apples come up a bit again. Light wood influence at this point. A bit of cinnamon on the finish.
This has such a nice, full, rich body of malty notes that really ground it. The estery top is held completely in balance and while it’s warm it’s not overpowering. A great mix of malt and fruit. 

SMWS 76.82 “Gunpowder Green and Lava Rock” 15y 56.7% ABV
Medium malty notes; a bit of green tea and some white wine. Very light white pepper, some hay and some honey. Water opens the nose up a bit but doesn’t bring much more. 
Sweet initially and with a good malty presence; just a quick hint of toffee up front. Quite warm on the palate with pepper and cinnamon. A bit of hay and some damp cut grass. Wood and a slightly musty scent of old books. Rich and full mouthfeel. Strong texture – chewy. Extremely light fruit – a bit of apple; a bit of pear. Light oak influence throughout.
Pepper carries into the finish, with honey and grain beneath it. A little of the mustiness from the palate, some malt as well, and the oak continues.  A hint of mint on the very far end of the finish accompanied by paraffin. 
This is a pretty enjoyable, big, bold malt. Really full-bodied texture. The heat is strong but totally manageable. That said, there’s nothing very distinctive about this that would make me want to own a full bottle – it’s somewhat anonymous. Ultimately though, there’s nothing here keeping me away from future Mortlachs. 

SMWS 29.99 “Power and Scorched Earth” 20y 59.6% ABV
Nose:  Strong sherry influence initially, with a bit of toffee behind it, absolutely dominating a faint wisp of peatiness. Very slight medicinal notes, a hint of band-aids. A suggestion of lemon and honey, a touch of white pepper and the faint scent of biscuits baking. Faintly ashy.
Palate:  Quite massive sherry note to this one, very syrupy mouthfeel. Heat builds slowly. Lightly medicinal and slightly rubbery. A little waxy fruit note early on. A little toffee and some extremely, extremely faint malt. Slightly raisiny.
Finish:  Plenty of heat, drying slightly but still showing a very strong sherry influence. Slightly rubbery; slightly medicinal. Medium waxy apple skins emerge on the finish and a small bit of smoke. Extremely long lasting finish with a strong sherry texture to it.
Comment:  I could hardly fathom Laphroaig being overpowered, but here it is. This malt is good enough, but the sherry is so ridiculously overpowering that it’s just over the line into unbalanced.
Rating: B
Distillery: Laphroaig

SMWS 77.25 “Mouth Numbing Handbags” 23y 57.2% ABV
Nose:  Nice, a little spirity at first but it’s also slightly floral – almost like a rye at first versus the usual more-flowery floral notes you get in many Scotch whiskies. Substantial white pepper, a bit of toffee. Lightly leathery, slightly grassy. The rye notes fade down after a couple minutes and vanilla comes up.
Palate:  Malty upfront, with nice white pepper. A bit leathery again but not overpowering. Slightly salty, reasonable wood influence. A bit of hay, slightly musty. A little apple tart note – nice integration of the fruit and grain notes. Some pear along there with it, but again more as a tart.
Finish:  The apple and pear notes come to the fore immediately with malt and slightly old, dusty wood behind them that’s never bitter. Sits nicely on the tongue. A bit hot – cinnamon instead of white pepper.
Comment:  Unusually bourbon-influenced nose, but really nice all the way through. Good mix of elements.
Rating: B
Distillery: Glen Ord

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
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