I waited many a long day to both taste and review a Port Ellen. In point of fact I actually turned down an opportunity to taste this expression a while back simply because I had already beaten up on my palate earlier that eve with a few other Islay malts. It just seemed like a waste. Put simply, Port Ellen is a malt that deserves undivided attention and an unbiased palate. Its pedigree, value (subjective or otherwise) and reputation demand respect.
That being said…this also insinuates a lot of pressure and expectation on PE to deliver and be exceptional. Is it? Well…
At this point I can’t even pretend to hide my bias. I have a junkie’s weakness for Islay malts. Peat is like a vice. Or more accurately, the smoky heft and majesty of these medicinal malts is like a vice. All eight of Islay’s working distilleries have produced whiskies that have charmed the socks off of me. Now let’s look at a dram from a distillery no longer producing.
Amid the economic tumult of the early 80s (1983, to be exact), Port Ellen was the most heartbreaking of casualties. A distillery that simply fell victim to surplus, as United Distillers elected to retain Caol Ila and Lagavulin and let the doors swing shut on Port Ellen forever. Oftentimes when a distillery is closed the possibility of the phoenix act is still a reality. The distillery may lay dormant, mothballed, as time marches on, awaiting a new owner with deeper pockets and bigger dreams. Port Ellen, unfortunately, is history. The distillery that once produced Islay’s most cult and collectible spirit is now a maltings that supplies malted barley to the island’s operational distilleries.
Fortunately, stocks of Port Ellen are still to be found. Oft released as indie bottlings at neutered abv’s, it is a treat to see releases like the Diageo Port Ellens. In this particular case we are looking at a 30 year old whisky at a still impressive 57.7%. This presentation allows us to see Port Ellen in all ‘er glory. And she is lovely.
The nose is typical of Islay. There is a somewhat fragile and ephemeral quality here. Slightly surprising when you consider bottling strength. A most trusted friend (the incomparable Maltmonster) suggested the closest one would get to a Port Ellen would be Caol Ila. I see where he was coming from. The same delicacy I’ve noted in regards to that malt is to be found here as well.
Nose: Melon. Jolly Ranchers. Briny seaside fire. Light waves of chocolate. A hint of something still fresh that adds to that fragility. Almost like a faded eucalyptus. There is a sexy maturity at play here. Age becomes almost a note in and of itself. Citrus. The peat and smoke are soft, but grow with time. Slightly rubbery. Candy notes. Syrupy white fruits. Berries (someone said blackberries?)
Palate: Here is the peat that was subdued on the nose. Lime zest. A neat sweetness. Bubblegum, almost? Herbal, yet spicy. Lapsang souchong tea as it develops. Ash and tar. Smoke is all over the palate. Rubbery wax. Licorice at the back end until it finally ebbs into that tart peaty green apple skin familiarity.
Thoughts: Sweet, but the palate explodes with smoke. Somewhat bittersweet to drink this piece of history, as I’ve acknowledged before. On the one hand, fortunate to have experienced it. On the other…well…when it’s gone…it’s really gone. Did it live up to my (high) expectations? Indeed. Here is the hype of Port Ellen vindicated.
– Reviewed by: Curt
– Photo: Curt