All whisky drinkers are on a journey. You may be just starting out and discovering the world of whisky via some casual drams of Johnnie Walker, or you may be an über-enthusiast who doesn’t get out of bed for anything less than a Macallan 50yo.
I’d been giving this some thought lately, as I’ve seen and read a bit of chatter on various whisky forums and discussion groups that hinted at there being some sort of series of conquests or achievements that you’re supposed to tick off as you continue your whisky journey. It’s almost as though you’re expected to graduate from blends; transition across to mass-produced single malts; upgrade to limited edition releases; stop by Islay to collect your Peat Badge; gain a promotion to take on cask-strength whiskies; and then make the leap into the industry as either a brand ambassador, a blogger, or set up your own distillery!
Of course, I don’t support or endorse such an observation for a moment, but I can’t deny that there does seem to exist some unwritten, barely-whispered gates or “checkpoints” that some folks feel you need to pass through if you want to assert or display a heightened sense of creditability as a whisky drinker. And by “checkpoints”, I mean drams. In other words, there are some whiskies you probably need to have tasted and conquered if you want to demonstrate you’re taking this caper seriously. And it seems like one of those whiskies is Port Ellen.
It’s almost like a club within the club: There are those that have been fortunate enough to try a Port Ellen, and there are those that have yet to experience the pleasure. And, for those in the latter camp, the irony is that the chances – or affordability – of being able to try a Port Ellen for the first time get harder with each passing year.
For the uninitiated, let’s get the basics out of the way first: Port Ellen is a rare, mystical unicorn that was last sighted on the Isle of Islay. It imparts magical powers to anyone who touches it, and its breath smells like a chimney filled with smoke and the Atlantic ocean. Well, judging by some of the absolute nonsense that I’ve seen written and heard said about Port Ellen, you could be forgiven for thinking the above was accurate.
No, the truth is far more boring: Port Ellen was just a regular distillery on Islay that closed in 1983; one of many distilleries owned by DCL that closed that year during one of the industry’s worst downturns. DCL (Diageo today) also owned Lagavulin and Caol Ila, and Port Ellen was simply seen as inefficient surplus at a time when belt-tightening and rationalising was required. Despite what some would have you believe, Port Ellen was not a remarkable distillery, nor did it have a reputation of producing Islay’s best whisky. It’s often overlooked that distilling on site stopped in 1929 and did not recommence until a major overhaul in 1966/67. As such, the Port Ellen that this generation knows today comes from a small distilling window of 1967-1983 – a mere 16 years! Its legend has grown with time and distance from its closure, and as its increasing rarity drives up both prices and mystique, many make the incorrect link that its price tag is directly related to its quality.
That’s not to say it’s a bad whisky (no, far from it – Port Ellen made good spirit and I’ve tasted some excellent drams). But as everyone scrambles to try and get a sip of its spirit before the last maturing cask gets bottled and sold for the price of a small country’s GDP, many have overlooked or lost sight of what’s really going on here.
I meet and chat with many people who’ve just recently tried their first Port Ellen, and they convey a sense of disappointment or of being underwhelmed by the experience. “I didn’t find it particularly smoky” is often the lament.
And that’s where a bit of whisky knowledge and some common sense needs to be applied. Let’s cover some Whisky 101 basics with a few short bullet points:
- Most malt whisky peaks at 10 to 15 years. Depending on the quality of the cask, a minority of whiskies go on to achieve spectacular levels of quality at older ages (25, 30, 40 years old, etc). Most whiskies, however, will start to be overwhelmed by the oak if they’re matured beyond 20 years old. They can become dry, tannic, overly woody, and lose all balance.
- The longer a whisky sits in oak and matures, the more influence the oak has and the further you’ll move away from the original character of the spirit. In short, the older the whisky is, the less it will taste of the original spirit or reflect the distillery’s actual character.
- The peatiness of Islay whisky decreases with time and maturation. If you want maximum peat and maximum smoke in an Islay whisky, then you want to be seeking out young drams. The peatiness and smokiness in an Islay dram diminishes rapidly once you get north of 20-25 years.
If you’re good at joining the dots, you’ll have picked up already that current new releases of Port Ellen, or releases that were bottled recently in the last 5-10 years or so are going to fall foul of the main issues outlined above. Having been closed in 1983, any Port Ellen bottled in the last five years will be at least 27 years old, and the most recent releases being put out this year will be at least 32 years old. Even older if the cask was filled prior to 1983!
What this presents us with are some very inconvenient truths:
- Any recent bottling of Port Ellen won’t really give you a good insight into what Port Ellen’s spirit or true character was really like.
- Any recent bottling of Port Ellen won’t be particularly smoky or peaty. (Yes, there will be hints of peat, but don’t go expecting something akin to an Ardbeg or Laphroaig).
- Chances are, some current or recent bottlings of Port Ellen whisky may not even be a particularly good whisky! There’s a good chance it would have peaked and should have been bottled 10 or 15 years ago, and it’s actually now on the wane. It might be over-oaked and have lost all balance and complexity.
Do not misinterpret my thrust here: I’m not disrespecting the distillery, nor criticising any of the recent bottlings that have been released by either Diageo or the independent bottlers who’ve put them on the market. I’m merely pointing out that recent and current Port Ellen bottlings carry very significant price tags, and you need to know what you’re signing up for. Or, alternatively, if you’re lucky enough to score a dram, don’t be too harsh or judge the distillery on your one experience if you found the dram underwhelming.
All of this came to my mind just last week when I was privileged enough to spend some time with a young Port Ellen. Courtesy of an event I was organising for The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Sydney, I was able to acquire an SMWS bottling of Port Ellen. SMWS bottling 48.3, to be precise. It was distilled in 1981 and bottled as a 10yo in 1991. Being a Society bottling, it’s obviously from a single cask and was bottled at cask-strength (64.7% !!); non-chillfiltered; and without caramel. It was purchased from a retailer in the UK, and by the time I’d paid for freight, local taxes and duties, plus suffered the whack from the Australian dollar’s appalling exchange rate right now, the bottle cost $1,950 to land and hold in my hot little hands. For overseas readers, that’s £995, or €1,390, or US$1560. So, no, not at all cheap. But, importantly, it’s a fresh Port Ellen – it’s 10 years old; not overwhelmed or diminished by oak; and of the many Port Ellens I’ve tried (around 15 or so), it’s certainly the youngest and certainly the best example I’ve tried that will give insight into the distillery’s true character. It had a screw-cap seal, and no discernible ullage in the bottle. So, in the words of Eric Idle’s Arthur Name character…what it’s like?
Nose: Sharp, acrid peat, but not at all on the dry side. Biro ink, but there’s a maritime note that actually is more like squid ink. There’s an underlying sweetness (black jube lollies?), and some very soft barley malt lying under that. It’s an aromatic smoke, perhaps like a particularly fragrant cigar. It is, without doubt, one of the more complex and fragrant Islay noses I’ve encountered for a long time. After about five minutes in the glass, the peat and smoke are still wafting out of the glass in a deliciously dank plume, but there’s now an intriguing fruit-note in the mix (peach or pear?), together with sourdough bread.
Palate: Again, sweet malt, and a wee bit of burn from the 64.7% ABV. But it’s overshadowed (happily!) by really thick, dense, heavy peat and smoke. The colour on this is extremely light, and I suspect it was a second or maybe even third-fill cask. As such, there’s very little oak character (again, the high ABV hints at a less active cask), and you feel you’re really tasting the spirit here, instead of the wood. The palate is sweet; the mouthfeel is extremely oily; and the peat is almost chewable!
Finish: It’s an understatement to say the finish is powerful, and I acknowledge that a portion of that is simply due to the high ABV! However, the footprint left on the tongue is sooty, smoky, slightly dry, and exceptionally long. In fact, even by peat-monster standards, the finish on this lingers on forever.
Comments: This is a spectacular whisky. True, there is very little oak influence, so the spirit has to stand on its own two feet. And it stands tall and proud! Best of all, it’s unique – it’s quite unlike any other Islay I’ve tried recently. Courtesy of being on the SMWS panel and selecting which whiskies the SMWS brings into Australia, I’m in the unusual and privileged position of getting to taste an incredible amount of cask-strength, single cask, Islay whiskies. I’d conservatively estimate that close to 50 or 60 different SMWS Laphroaigs, Caol Ilas, Port Charlottes, Bowmores, Kilchomans, Ardbegs, and even heavily peated Bunnahabhains have passed my lips in the last 12 months (not to mention an unmentionable number of OB Islays), and I can honestly say that none of them have tasted anything like this young Port Ellen. That’s not to say this Port Ellen was generally better (or worse) than any of those aforementioned drams. It’s just that it was unique; a different experience; and one that extended the spectrum of flavours I’d become accustomed to over years of drinking Islay’s usual suspects.
And, for most of us, that’s what tasting a Port Ellen should be all about. It’s not to partake in idolatry and uphold Port Ellen as some mythical and mystical beast; nor to put recent bottlings beyond criticism out of respect for the dead. Rather, it’s simply to taste another expression from Islay that is different to the rest, and to appreciate what one particular distillery in the south-east corner of Islay was producing up until 1983. My request, however, is that we all understand and appreciate what we’re getting if and when you taste a recent Port Ellen bottling. I’d suggest you’re no longer really getting an insight into what Port Ellen was like.