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Hi, this is one of our (almost) daily tastings. Santé!

May 27, 2024


Feis Ile Special

A Short Vertical session of Port Ellen

The recent reconstruction and reopening of the quite sublime Port Ellen Distillery has, as expected, reignited the debate about the quality of the original Port Ellen whiskies, the real reasons behind the 1983 closure, and the necessity of some very long ageing – it is true that the 40-year-old or older whiskies we have tasted recently have been exceptionally high in quality.

High-ranking member of crew at Port Ellen Maltings,
2005 (WF Archive). Did they already know that
the distillery would be rebuilt one day?

For my part, I have always found the younger Port Ellens I have tasted to be excellent, including the straightforward 10-year-olds at 40% ABV from Signatory Vintage and their affiliated brands. The two Rare Malts, aged 20 and 22 years, had also effectively convinced me (they left you no choice), but as you know, the WF House spares no effort. Therefore, I propose we do another small vertical tasting of young Port Ellens, all versions we have never officially tasted before. Say four or five? Then let's do it, while I strongly doubt we will be able to do this again for a very long time (you'll tell me I said the same thing last time). Happy Feis Ile!



Port Ellen 12 yo (40%, Douglas Murdoch & Co., +/-1992)

Port Ellen 12 yo (40%, Douglas Murdoch & Co., +/-1992) Five stars
We adored the 13-year-old at 40% vol (WF 91), which was a 1979. No vintage on this one, but it was certainly a version that predated the era when everyone started to take an interest in Port Ellen. So, we'll taste this one casually. Colour: white wine. Nose: magnificent, in the spirit of some G&M CC, with a kind of tenderness but no caramel immediately detectable. Wonderful notes of lamp oil, an old shipwreck, sweet brine, then ink, old books, and the interior of an old 1960s car. Not a Rolls, more like a little Renault with a mix of leatherette, various plastics, and years of accumulated cigarette smoke. Remember? Not so long ago, one might have also said a Parisian taxi. Then, finally, anchovies in brine. Mouth: it's fantastic, and not as weak as one might have expected, though you almost want to redistill it to bring it up to 50% vol. Or has anyone ever tried adding neutral medicinal alcohol to boost the strength of a spirit? Not me. Sardines, oysters, tar, old papers, grapefruit, smoked oysters… Finish: medium length but perfect salinity and a maritime tarry side that has become very complex. Comments: we expected a little less, but in truth it's just totally adorable. One day, we'll find out more about 'Douglas Murdoch'.
SGP:466 - 92 points.

Port Ellen 13 yo 1983/1996 (43%, Istituto Enologico Italiana SpA, Verona)

Port Ellen 13 yo 1983/1996 (43%, Istituto Enologico Italiano SpA, Verona) Five stars
It says Istituto but I suppose that's a charming typo. The old distillery's last few months of existence, possibly the best according to tasters, but this at a young age. Rare and very interesting, to say the least… Colour: white wine. Nose: incredibly tense but gently tarry, with touches of almond milk and pistachio, again anchovies in brine, sweet liquorice, then turpentine, linseed oil, oil paint tubes… In short, the workshop of an artist (not someone who just uses spray paint and stencils, mind you). Mouth: oily, massive, seeming, let's say 48% vol, more brutal than the Murdoch, rougher, wilder. There's still glue and varnish, after all these years! Otherwise salt and lemon, some notes of tinned mackerel, and of course the proverbial tarry side. The palate is a tiny bit below this time, but it remains superb. Finish: not very long, but it has a slight Jamaican rum side that is very, very lovely. There are even little notes of banana and pineapple. Comments: a fine selection from the famous oenological institute, which is actually a wine and spirits shop in Verona, located in a large Renaissance cellar. Over 2,000 references, I think we'll go for a visit, though I doubt we'll find a bottle of this magnificent young Port Ellen there.
SGP:565 - 91 points.

We have another 1983, aged 13 years, but this time it's cask strength...

Port Ellen 13 yo 1983/1996 (57.2%, The Cooper's Choice, Vintage Malt Whisky Co., VA.MA, Italy)

Port Ellen 13 yo 1983/1996 (57.2%, The Cooper's Choice, Vintage Malt Whisky Co., VA.MA, Italy) Five stars
The Cooper's Choice has produced some real gems, especially for Italy. Port Ellen, Coal Ila, Lagavulin… In short, a matter of top-level contracts. We used to love trying to hunt down these bottles in the trattorias… Colour: very pale white wine. Nose: it's still powerful, rather without any actual cask influence, more on linseed oil, printer's ink and even more rubber than usual – if one can speak of 'usual'. New Wellingtons, garden hose, new tyre… With water: carbon, graphite, carbolineum. Mouth (neat): well, imagine this. You blend young Caol Ila and young Lagavulin, 50/50. You add a few drops of lime juice (forget the daiquiris), then let a dozen rubber bracelets macerate in it for a few days. And there you have it; the rest was already in the Caol Ila and Lagavulin. With water: of great beauty, on tar, seawater, sweeter lemon and clams. Finish: extraordinary, with perfect coherence. Comments: an entire ocean in your glass, including shipwrecks and oil spills from the past. Diabolical.
SGP:666 - 93 points.

Let's move on to a 15-year-old...

Port Ellen 15 yo 1981/1996 (62%, Glen Scoma, Germany)

Port Ellen 15 yo 1981/1996 (62%, Glen Scoma, Germany) Five stars
Just like some funny ones by WM Cadenhead's at that time and later on, this one was 'matured in oak wood' according to the label. Nowadays, they would say 'aged for 13 years in second-fill American oak bourbon barrels from the Ozarks that previously contained Pappy Van Winkle, then finished for twenty-two months in a Spanish Galician oak butt seasoned with oloroso sherry from Bodega Tradicion.' Glen Scoma was a range from Scoma, one of the oldest and most reputable whisky merchants in Germany; I think they are based in Lower Saxony. Colour: pale gold. Nose: perhaps the most lemony so far, also the most herbal (cut cactus, grass, zest) and the most on high-quality green teas. Touches of varnish and petrol as usual, chalk, but little tar or rubber this time. So, no burnt tyres, but at 62% vol. the profiles can be very different, or blocked, let's see… With water: no, little change. Clay, fresh bread, lanolin, melted candle… Mouth (neat): it's truly distinctive, with an unusual fruitiness, reminiscent of Mexican sweets (that's what comes to mind) and, above all, a lot of shellfish and other seafood. It feels like tasting cockles and razor clams drizzled with lemon and garlic. Surprising and excellent. With water: more classic but we stay very close to fresh bread. Fresh bread that might have been smoked with beech wood or something like that. Finish: long, more saline, waxy… Comments: at these high strengths you need a lot of water and a top-notch pipette to find the ideal balance.
SGP:566 - 90 points.

Another 15 years…

Port Ellen 15 yo 1981/1996 (62.6%, The Whisky Connoisseur, Cask Master Selection No.3, cask #1391)

Port Ellen 15 yo 1981/1996 (62.6%, The Whisky Connoisseur, Cask Master Selection No.3, cask #1391) Five stars
Once again, the absence of filtration is advertised on the bottle but there is no mention of the type of cask. Was that even mentioned in the distillery books? We know many distilleries were keeping perfect records in the late 19th century already, but we've also met engaging old managers who used to not care much around the year 2000. Basically, according to them there were only two types of casks in the whisky business, 'European wood' and 'American wood'. As for The Whisky Connoisseur, they have become famous for their incredible Largiemeanochs (Bowmore). They were often bottling malts under alternative names, perhaps to pique the interest of early collectors, and they were also producing many miniatures and selling through mail order. Colour: white wine. Nose: very close to the Glen Scoma, it's probably a sister cask, but this one is more on varnish, acetone… Nevertheless, it is absolutely superb and very distinguished. Very fine notes of almond milk and orgeat syrup. With water: wet chalk with lemon juice and a touch of salted and smoked fish. Plus those famous notes of new tweed in a tweed shop (obviously, S.). Mouth (neat): oily, powerful, very peaty this time with lots of salted citrus and even a hint of mezcal. With water: superb salinity, grapefruits, green apples, chalk, paraffin… Finish: long, a bit more 'normal', with even a bit of fresh barley peeking through. A touch of tar and, ta-dah, limoncello. Comments: it's truly superbly superb. Magnificent tension, we are once again in the territory of the greatest white wines.
SGP:566 - 92 points.

It is quite clear that one cannot simply taste ten, a hundred, or even five hundred single casks from a distillery and declare that the overall production level was superlative. By definition, at that time, only the best casks were supposed to be selected for bottling, amidst the vast stocks intended entirely for blending. In the meantime, and apart from a few slightly failed finishings, it doesn't seem to me that I have ever tasted a truly disappointing Port Ellen, either old, middle age or young. . However, we could now add one or two older PEs, but some that were not yet sold during a period when the distillery had truly acquired its total cult status. In other words, still somewhat "normal" Port Ellens, bottled in the early to mid 2000s... Let's dig…

Port Ellen 27 yo 1978/2006 (54.8%, Douglas Laing, Platinum Selection, Old & Rare, sherry, 396 bottles)

Port Ellen 27 yo 1978/2006 (54.8%, Douglas Laing, Platinum Selection, Old & Rare, sherry, 396 bottles) Five stars
They had quite a few stunning Port Ellens at Douglas Laing, especially some exceptional 'sherry' versions. They still do, eat Hunter Laing's too, but of course, the stocks must have dwindled like snow in the sun. This is a full sherry cask maturation we have here. Colour: dark gold. Nose: we know that peat and sherry can clash, but here there's no messing about, even if new aromas are created, unknown in both Islay's cleaner peated whiskies and in true sherry. Lots of dried meats, biltong, some curiously fruity tar with cherry notes, and above all, incredible old balms and ointments full of camphor, menthol, eucalyptus, and something indefinable. Fumitory, burdock, restharrow, gentian… Those sorts of things. A formidable aromatic territory. With water: very old balsamic vinegar from Modena. In short, it's a Ferrari of malt whisky (pff, too easy, S.) Mouth (neat): it's extreme. An old palo cortado VORS that someone has smoked with diesel, fir wood, and peat. This PE is a bit mad. With water: the old palo cortado returns, with tons of bitter elements, wood, bitter vegetables, roots, Italian bitters… It reminds me a bit of sipping Underberg neat, but of course, we're not in the same league. I love these punchy but nevertheless quite rock and roll bitters. Finish: extremely long, almost eternal. Lots of paraffin in the aftertaste, we almost touch a very, very light soapy and leathery note, which is more amusing than annoying. Comments: just sublime, as expected.
SGP:667 - 93 points.

Well, I hadn't planned to go this far, but since we're here, let's have one last one from a rare vintage...

Port Ellen 30 yo 1975/2005 (56.9%, Signatory Vintage, Cask Strength, hogshead, cask #159, 206 bottles)

Port Ellen 30 yo 1975/2005 (56.9%, Signatory Vintage, Cask Strength, hogshead, cask #159, 206 bottles) Five stars
I've tasted barely ten 1975s (I mean PEs) over the years, it's indeed a very rare vintage. What to say, except that it was the period when the new Caol Ila was coming online, Brora was in good shape, and the demand for heavily peated malts from the group's blend brands, including Johnnie Walker, was being met again, at least in theory. Note that this was also the time when Port Ellen Maltings had just been completed the previous year. Colour: pale gold. Nose: indeed, this seems to be a lighter, fruitier PE (citrus, green apples) but also a very dynamic one due to that fresh and zesty fruitiness. It's like fine lace, with touches of fresh sugar cane juice and honeysuckle. Smoked almonds. A very distinguished and precise Port Ellen, we could say. With water: citrus, fresh mint, seawater, very, very discreet rubber. Mouth (neat): indeed, a different style, very lively, lemony, brimming with fresh herbs including wild bear garlic. Then magnificent leather and tobacco, fir honeydew, lime… It almost feels like biting into some physalis. Touches of small shellfish and slightly overripe plums after that. It's smoky, of course, but not overwhelmingly so. Very delicate for a Port Ellen. With water: a real marvel. Almonds, Oolong tea, smoked salmon, and there it is, a bit of coal tar and mineral oil. Finish: quite long but still rather delicate. A slight impression of cork in the aftertaste, but I'm sure that's not that, let's call it a herbal tension. Comments: I think one might also have mistaken it for an Ardbeg of the same vintage or nearby vintages. Yes, honestly. It's a great whisky.
SGP:566 - 93 points.

Some real grouped fire today, but I'm absolutely not surprised. Very pleased with this little vertical tasting of 12 to 30-year-olds. Happy Feis Ile!

(Mucho gracias Basti, Geert, KC and friends)

More tasting notesCheck the index of all Port Ellen we've tasted so far







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