Adventures of a malt junkie
Port Ellen Tasting.
It is quite a drive to the tasting and in the car; I let my thoughts wander about Port Ellen. Closed for 22 years, and now the most hyped whisky around. Hopefully I will find out tonight if it is righteously so. After all, everything we can buy now from Port Ellen is at least 20 years old, how can one form an objective opinion about a distillery that only has 20 Y olds? 20Y olds that were going to be used as blending fodder in the first place. What is it that makes connoisseurs go mad about Port Ellen anyway? Besides, what is all this commotion actually worth for someone like me, a malt fanatic that buys anything to open it up? After all, the stock of PE is shrinking while at the same time the prices are rising. Today a bottle costs minimum 100€ and something tells me there wont be Port Ellen anymore over 5 years for people like me. People that prefer tasting it instead of owning it; People that enjoy it instead of counting their bottles in frustration. I am one of the youngest in this whisky generation and over 5 years the next generation will only know PE as the most expensive Islay malt there is. Over 5 years I will tell them that PE is a bit overrated and over 5 years, they will call me old, one of those guys that drank Port Ellen. However, that is then, now I am still young, now there is still completely overpriced PE for every lunatic with more money then brains. So why not enjoy an evening of decadence with a selection of 7 PE bottlings.
We enter the tasting room with a mixture of euphoric and melancholic feelings, glad at one side that we can actually taste these rare bottlings, sad that it will be the last time we do so. I know the host and speaker of the evening relatively well, and everyone seems in good shape. The evening starts well with the speaker telling me he finally got the caramel I have been asking fore for 2 years; my evening is already a success.
Whiskies are poured and we are seated, the very first thing we smell is lavender… For those people that don’t know so already, my wife is crazy about lavender and she likes to spray herself and half our furniture with the stuff. Especially right before a tasting. Chocolate milk and milkshakes are also in high demand on tastings. Any idea how many of our neighbors smelled vanilla in their whiskies? Nevertheless, it’s my wife and I love her very much, this is just what she does.
My neighbor is the first to sample his whisky and starts chewing in a manner that the entire room knows just how sticky the finish is. The man before me makes sure he cannot be accused for owning a mind of his own and joins in, possibly even louder. I find it hard to come up with a more irritating sound then that of ruminating cattle while you are concentrating on the nose, so in an attempt to ignore this noise I throw myself on the whiskies.
Port Ellen 21 1978 OMC
Nose Soft yet obvious peat. Sweet and floral, violets, flowers, floral tones are slightly dominating. Very delicate, feinty with leather and leathergrease. Very complex and well balanced. hint of citrus.
Taste Spirity, feinty, leather and tar. Very full flavored. Slightly peaty, oily taste with malt and peat in the background. Lots of feints in the foreground. Fruity midd-favors with kiwi and exotic fruit.
Finish Long and fat, oily. Very nutty with a bitter hint probably due to the oak and age. Peaty in the aftertaste. Very long, slight hint of salt. Grainy malt followed by bitter oak and nuts.
Opinion Complex but suffers from the age. Nose promises delicacy with floral tones but the taste and finish are completely different. Some off-notes in the finish.
Port Ellen 23 1979 Wilson & Morgan
Nose Sweet and enormeously fruity. Slight hint of sulphur. Melon, juicy fruit. Warm feinty bass tone underneath. Sweet strong upper tone.Hint of meat. No trace of peat though. Excellent simply because it is so different.
Taste Dry, pronounced sherry with dried fruit and dry oak. Sherry is dominating the taste. Balance between sherry and oak, sweetness and bitterness. Slightly dried fruits but from the dry kind, dates and figgs. Makes an attempt to become sweet, but fails.
Finish Slightly winey and pronounced sherry. Hint of bitterness at the end. Oak makes an obvious appearance with some bitter caramel on top of it. Only after 10 minutes a smoky undertone arises and remains present.
Opinion Incredible unique nose for an islay. And a very dissapointing taste and finish. Completely dominated by a balance of oak and sherry. In other words, very two dimensional and unbalanced.
Port Ellen 24 1978 Douglas Laing for The Whiskyshop
Nose Special, uncommon nose. Slight hint of plums. Fino sherry. Something sour. Slightly feinty with mild hints of dried tea, somewhat sweatish. Subtle hint of cashew nuts. Hint of coriandre and citrus. Floral with heather and grass.
Taste Spirity and sweet. Vanilla opens up immediatly. hint of young wood, sweet malt. Lime but gentle. Spicy. complex with multiple layers. Floral in the back with flowers and some heather. Also smoky in the undertone. Obvious fino sherry influence yet not as sour as usual. Sweeter then expected.
Finish hint of young new wood. Slight hint of smoke. Oak is slightly dominating. Crispy, malty, cookies. Very pleasant.
Opinion The most fresh Port Ellen I encountered to date. Lots of citrus, lime, lemon, coriandre in balance with sweet malt and vanilla. Complex, well balanced. Unexpected and suprisingly Fino influence with plums at one side and nuts at the other. Overall remains sweet.
Port Ellen 20 1982 Scotch Single Malt Circle
Nose Meat, mild brown sugar. Peat but never pronounced. Balanced nose with sherry and some peat. No overpowering aroma's, hints of feints ,leather, tar and asphalt. Hints of dark honey. Beautifull balance between peat and sherry. Mushrooms, earthy, moss.
Taste Spirity, Sherry influence, dry, very well balanced. Peat and sherry in balance. Sweet with a gathering of sweet malt, honey and oloroso sherry. Nice heavy undertone with peat and feints. Slightly phenolic with a medicinal ring to it.
Finish Long, peat makes an obvious appearance and is of high quality. Peat and sherry hand in hand. Chewy sweet malt with tones of honey and vanilla. Hints of dry oak emerge but never disturb the balance.
Opinion Sweet, mainly sherry and peat but never really dominated by it. Overall quite impressive.
Port Ellen 22 1982 The Plowed Society
Nose Candy, sweet, deffinatly bourbon. Very feinty, buttery, fruity with a hint of banana. Peated. Something is very wrong here. Seems alot like raw spirit. Even somewhat sickening after a while. Slightly floral but after the addition of water. Hint of citrusfruits with lime.
Taste Smoky and peaty. Refined green and sharp peat. Earth tones. Sweet but due to the alcohol, some sweet malt too.
Finish Smoky, long, thin yet pronounced green young peat. accompanied by feinty flavors. Liquerice and some sweet malt.
Opinion Needs a hell of alot water to become drinkeble. Without the addition of water it is extremely feinty. With water citrustones emerge and more malt presence. Either way this is seriously dissapointing. As if they mixed raw spirit with the matured whisky.
Port Ellen 21 1982 OMC
Nose Rubber in the front, tabacco. Fruity underneath. Hint of sulphur, feints dissapear reasonebly quickly, leaving you behind with the sweet fruity sherry. Undertone with meat. Subtle hint of smoke and floral notes. Aniseed and liquerice. Very complex with dark fruit, sweet malt and a spicy undertone with just a hint of smoke.
Taste dry, obviously Oloroso influence. Drying but then sweet with lots of fruit, grapes, apricots. Smoky undertone with a subtle hint of aniseed and liquerice. Sherry is slightly dominating.
Finish Very long, Mild peat emerges now. At the end nutty unroasted peanuts. Sherry is much softer now but lingers on for a long time. Liquerice. Brown sugar and light caramel. Slightly smoky. Also dry oak appearing here.
Opinion Reasonebly well balanced; Although it seems two dimensional there is lots of complexity lurking underneath. Sweet malt hand in hand with caramel. Sherry hand in hand with oak. Overall good, be it not more impressive then the usual first fill sherry bottlings.
Port Ellen 22 1978 Rare Malts Collection
Nose Somewhat special nose. Winey, sweet sherry (Amontillado?) and nuts. Hint of winevinaigre but light. Very soft spicy, subtle hint of vanilla. Hint of dried tea, very light citrus with a subtle smoky ring to it.
Taste Well balanced and full flavored. Sweet with vanilla, sugar, grist, barley-sugar, spirity and complex. Malty and still containing lots of flavors. Spicy undertone.
Finish Medium length, hint of young oak emerges. Slight medicinal tone, phenolics. Sweet sherry touch with soft fruit lingers on for a long time. Very special undertone appears to the surface packed with feints and heavy floral tones. Very complex.
Opinion Malty and peaty. Top layer isn't really complicated but holds a very interesting undertone packed with subtle nuances. Peat is here but ever so gentle.
Only 3 of the 7 rates in the 90’s. For the price and reputation of PE, I expected 5, one is even plain weak. Now the host speaks the same words that I have heard a thousand times before: It’s a disgrace Diageo closed Port Ellen! Honestly, I have heard this just about enough and I made up my own mind about this.
First, every PE we know now is at least 20 years old. Who can claim that it was a good whisky at the age of 10?
Second, PE was only distilled and used as blending fodder, meaning it was completely inconsistent because they used the needs for the blends. This explains the variety in peating levels in different bottlings.
Third of all, Although a few are spectacular and rate amongst the best I tasted, the majority I sampled was disappointing, having in mind that PE is a slow maturing spirit according to the speaker, it should be peaking now, why would it have been better when they closed PE?
Fourth of all, they closed it to clear the way for Lagavulin, or so they tell us anyway. I think we can all agree that Lagavulin is a superb whisky. If they had to close one of them, who dares to say they had to close Lagavulin instead?? The 12 and 16 wich are standard bottlings seem superior to the bulk of PE bottlings. Moreover, these are not even single casks. Add to that that nobody knows how a 12 year old PE tastes like and you have to be very arrogant and ignorant to say they had to keep PE and close Lagavulin.
Fifth and last, there have been closed far better distilleries then Port Ellen without all the fuzz and crap around its closure. Take Brora and St-Magdalene for instance, both IMHO vastly superior to the over hyped Port Ellen but then again, they are not islays…
I agree that any distillery that closes is a shame. However, I do not agree however that it is ten times worse if it is an Islay. Having that in mind, I must conclude that PE is a hype on top of another hype. Much like Macallan was in the days that Speyside was the favorite whisky region.
At the end of the day, it was a good evening with many lessons to be learnt. Although the tone here may be pessimistic, for any malt enthusiasts this was an experience to savor. In addition, I am grateful to the generosity of our host.