Tag Archives: Port Ellen

The 1983 Tasting Series #10: Port Ellen

I almost hate putting “Port Ellen” in the title of a blog post; it’s the cheapest trick available to whiskey bloggers. Some twitter bot will retweet your link-tweet; people will click because – OH MY GOD, IT’S PORT ELLEN.

Not to say it’s not great stuff. Of all of the 1983s, it’s one of the most consistently enjoyable distilleries. In my experience, Port Ellen doesn’t pack a lot of surprises, but it does what it does so well. In fact, the only Port Ellen I’ve had that I didn’t like was the PLOWED society bottling.

I’m not going to recap anything about Port Ellen here. It’s been discussed to death elsewhere, even on this blog.

The bottle in the 1983 tasting series was an Old Bothwell release. Old Bothwell doesn’t really exist on this side of the Atlantic. Even then, they don’t seem to be extremely common compared to other bottlers. I don’t really see much mention of them in the usual dens of whisky discussion, and when they are mentioned it seems to be in connection with Port Ellen.

So – the whisky. The nose is unsurprisingly textbook Port Ellen – the familiar, slightly diesel-smelling Port Ellen peat; there’s a little hint of lemon and some malty sweetness. It’s lightly briny, faintly mineral, and a touch floral.

The palate has a nice peated quality to it; slightly rubber with some tar. There’s also black pepper, nice malt and a gentle wood quality to it. It finishes more smoky; rubber and diesel notes on the peat. It picks up a little heat, has a faint lemony kick and then finishes with malt and light woodiness.

I thought this was a super-approachable and nicely done Port Ellen. I enjoyed it a great deal.

The 1983 Tasting Comes To A Close

Now for some reflection and self-criticism.

This is a really boring idea for a tasting.

It’s even more boring to write up.

The thing is, there’s no interesting thing here to hang one’s hat on. It’s a shameless exercise in checking the box of closed distilleries; the least discerning type of vapid whisky  adventurism and the most vulgar form of tourism-as-connoisseurship. While it’s passable as a sort of low-grade “tasting of old malts”, there’s not a lot here to pick apart. With one sample per distillery, bottle choice is everything. Thirty years on, that task is quite demanding. The Glenlochys I’ve tried have been rather similar. I still have no sense of Glenugie (though I have some samples from friends I will try in the future). There’s still a wash of generic character over a bunch of these. Sure, some have distinguished themselves – Port Ellen (as always), Brora (as usual); Brechin retains its title as “distillery most deserving closure”. But there’s a vast middle ground that still is a cipher.

The checkboxes are there, many “hard to find” distilleries have now been enjoyed, but I think as far as an educational exercise or critical analysis, there really was no bedrock to build on in this tasting.

That’s not to say I think the participants of this tasting shouldn’t have enjoyed it if they did. I’d like to be clear on that (if any are reading) – and for whisky tasting in general. I don’t claim to be any sort of authority, or even particularly knowledgeable. I don’t claim my experience is transferrable or more valid than yours or anyone’s. The only validity you have in a subjective experience is what you bring to it and what you take away from it.

Even my more simple exercises – Teacher’s over time; Macallan old verticals and replicas vs modern whiskies have had a very clear basis for comparison and discussion. This is essentially a random grab-bag of distilleries that share a simple coincidence of having been closed. You may as well throw darts at the periodic table of whisky and buy one bottle each from the first ten distilleries you hit and call it a tasting.

That said, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little bit fun.

At a glance:

Port Ellen 1982 Old Bothwell (#2044) 28y 57.5% ABV
Nose: 
Familiar slightly diesel-tinged Port Ellen peat with a great mix of lemon and malty sweetness. Lightly briny, faintly mineral and a touch floral.
Palate: Nice peat – slightly rubbery; a little tar, some black pepper, some pleasing malt, a little gentle wood.
Finish: Smokier on exit. A little rubber and diesel from the peat; a bit of heat, a lemony touch again and then some malt and light wood.
Comment: Super-approachable and really nicely done Port Ellen.  Everything you’d want.
Rating: A-

Son Of The Port Ellen Doubleheader

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.
Rating: A-

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.
Rating: B+

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

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