Once more Tom van Engelen has written a post reminiscing about booze with a dram in hand. This time his train of thought got sparked by an old bottling of Port Ellen!
Once I knew a man who thought it would be something to import single cask whisky from a renowned independent bottler and sell it to enthusiasts in The Netherlands. He was sadly 10 years ahead of the pack and it did not launch. When I discover his remaining boxes I could not believe my eyes and senses: Littlemill 8 years old, Rosebank 8 years old, lesser known names and also… a Port Ellen 16 years old from 1980 (my birth year). I had tasted and enjoyed many Port Ellen by then, as they were still affordable per glass. But this one triggered me. Not that I became a raving Port Ellen fan, but there was a sense of nostalgia drinking stuff from a closed distillery. And Port Ellen, among those whiskies, was the most legendary.
Flash forward to 2009 when I first set foot on Islay. Anyone who had gone before me or followed after must have been love-struck with the first sight of the whitewashed walls with those impressive letters on them: P-O-R-T-E-L-L-E-N. Passing by the buildings, walking around them, in later years even a visit to the maltings, you couldn’t help but feel in awe of whisky history at your feet.
And then this most legendary of legends simply opens up again. Great news? I am not so sure. This has nothing to do with the quality, which I suspect will be more than fine with Georgie Crawford overseeing the operation. But how about the heart of the matter? How it feels inside? Port Ellen will no longer be lost. We have asked for it for many years and now that the dream comes true… I find myself not wanting it anymore!
I was triggered to revisit the Port Ellen 1980 again after reading a less enthusiastic review by a fellow who’s opinion I value highly (red. Interestingly, Tom doesn’t point to my own review…). But first, something else, because one does not simply start drinking PE at 62% abv. I decide to take this warm-up dram.
Lagavulin Feis Ile 2018, 53,9%
Very deep and layered but a camp fire at the beach with a lot of peat in it is most dominant. Underneath traditional liquorice.
Extremely alcoholic spicy even though I have tasted higher abv Lagavulin. Nice dark tones of wood, chocolate and peated coffee.
More subtle than expected. Doesn’t bite at all and is smooth and warming.
87/100 points for a fairly unbalanced Lagavulin.
Water does nothing for it. The rather complex description of the 3 cask types used to create the output of 6000 bottles did not result in a “sum greater than it’s parts”. But still, standard Lagavulin high quality of course.
Then, on to the reason of writing this blog. I wished to pair it against another Port Ellen but I discovered my sample drawer does not contain them anymore. Of this one only 3 cl now remain. And a full closed bottle, ahem! (Yes, that is my picture on Whiskybase.)
Port Ellen 1980, bottled by Cadenhead’s in 1997 at 62%
It were the years of light peat. Rob Stevens of De Whiskykoning once let me sip an unpeated Laphroaig (also Cadenhead) from 1981, and the Kildalton Ardbegs are legendary.
Well, there is certainly a peaty element to this one, but also impressions of what you should expect in a Springbank. Chalk, pebbles on the beach. Just a different beach, on the shores of Islay. To me, this is a classic scent, not the frontal stuff you find in some young expressions from Islay these days. This is different. Fresh and mature at the same time. Early Autumn. Dry leaves on muddy ground.
Sweetened liquorice and that chewable wood I bought in the candy store long ago. Very balanced. After a moment the high abv starts to sting and I swallow quickly.
Rather fast, goes down easy, this is where this PE falls short. But with water there is some recovery and I enjoy the warming burn that is reminiscent of tastes and joys from another era. I appreciate that the spirit has centre stage here, the wood is very submissive.
88/100 points with bonus points for a wonderful balance, which is not often a given in a single cask bottling.
I love this one, and sipped it many times over the past 15 years. You might say I understand the meaning behind this one a little deeper than other whisky. Now, the question is, what will we get in the new Port Ellen? I fear for diminishing reputation for this one more than with Rosebank and Brora, those other resurrected giants. Time will tell.
About Tom van Engelen
I’m a writer in a variety of fields and have a soft spot for whisky, mainly malt, mainly from Scotland. In other times I enjoyed a stint as editor-in-chief of one of the first whisky magazines in the world. When not sipping a good glass I like to write some more, read, watch 007 movies or listen Bowie music. I’m engaged to Dasha, I have a sweet daughter and I live somewhere between the big rivers in the middle of The Netherlands.