Port Ellen is not just a brand for most whisky aficionados across the world, it is an emotion. It is, therefore, only befitting that a homage be paid to one of the grandest whisky traditions known to mankind. The Port Ellen distillery from Port Ellen, Islay, Scotland may be lost to time, but its reverence lives on.
A Splendid Timeline
Alexander Mackay founded the Port Ellen distillery way back in 1825 and it used the water from the Leorin Lochs. Ownership changed hands in 1833 when Mackay went bankrupt and John Ramsay acquired the distillery. Ramsay, a Member of Parliament, saw the immense potential of Scotch whisky in the US. The Port Ellen distillery continued to remain within the Ramsay family for almost a century, moving on to James Buchanan & Co and John Dewar & Sons in 1920. By 1930, the distillery stopped producing whisky, but continued its malting business. Though by 1966 the distillery was given an extensive facelift and whisky production was restarted, Port Ellen went out of business in 1983 owing to market saturation. Diageo, Port Ellen’s current owners, have injected £35 million into the revival of the distillery, and expects to bring Port Ellen back into operation by 2020.
While the whiskies produced by Port Ellen have always been a hallmark of quality and character, their demand shot up especially after the distillery’s untimely closure. The reputation of Port Ellen has grown among whisky connoisseurs, who believe that the liquids produced at the distillery between 1966 and 1983 are some of the finest single malt Scotch whiskies of the time. This notion has primarily gathered steam since 2001, when Diageo started releasing Port Ellen bottling from the bygone era. Due to this sudden spike in interest, the remaining bottling of Port Ellen are pursued with great allure. Hence, Port Ellen whiskies are now revered collectors’ items, priced and adored highly.
To talk of Port Ellen’s legacy and not discuss two of the gems produced by the distillery will be a cardinal sin. It is also important to talk about these aldermen whiskies to provide a perspective to the emotion that is synonymous to Port Ellen.
Port Ellen 37-year-old 1979, Special Release 2017 is as magnificent as an Islay Scotch whisky can be. The oldest released Port Ellen expression, this 51% ABV delight is the elder statesman among single malt whiskies. Diageo released less than 3,000 bottles of this blend last year, and hence, one shall be fairly lucky to get one. At £2,200, this beauty comes for quite a price.
Peaty kipper notes, soft fruits and gentle ember smoke make a vivid nose for this whisky. The palate is sweet and smooth, with generous notes of vermouth and toasted almonds, giving it a very subtle taste and texture. It has a smoky, aromatic finish, with a touch of earthiness. On the whole, it champions the quality of the bygone era of Islay.
Port Ellen 34-year-old 1982, Xtra Old Particular is another golden oldie from hallowed pastures of Islay. This 2016 release comes from a one refill hogshead cask, this radiant, naturally coloured Scotch whisky, which is not chill filtered and bottled by Douglas Laing. It also packs a punch with its 48.5% ABV. This rare whisky comes with a price tag of £1,225.
There is a vibrant, complex nose to this whisky that consists of notes of blackberry, fresh leather, barbequed meat, honey, chocolate and sweet barley. The palate is refined, with subtle notes of charred pineapple, toffee and almond, with ember notes of earthy oak. The finish is diligently rich, with notes of tobacco, rosemary and caramel.
Port Ellen symbolizes all the right reasons of a connoisseur’s pursuit of the lost world of regal Islay single malt whisky. Sensations are seldom judged, and hence, it grossly unbefitting to use the word ‘verdict’ when appreciating the grandiose of Port Ellen. What Port Ellen also stands for is variety. While there are whiskies from bourbon and refill casks, there are variants that come from sherry casks as well. The inherent complexities of Islay whiskies are all there and Port Ellen’s phenomenal qualities make whisky lovers long for a piece of this glorious, lost world. As I said, Port Ellen is an emotion.