Luc Timmermans’ company Thosop released a couple of interesting Port Ellens lately, selected from the Old Bothwell stocks. This Port Ellen 1983 (cask #221) is a sister cask of the previous cask #220 bottled by Thosop a couple of months earlier.
Port Ellen 26 yo 1983 (53,5%, Old Bothwell for Thosop 2009, cask #221)
Nose: a nice mixture of iodine, salty smoked fish, leafs and seaweed but softened by a thin layer of fruit. Lemon candy. Sugared almonds. Juicy yellow apples. Hints of vanilla cream. Water shows a kind of biscuity side. Wonderful how it balances between this fragrant fruitiness and a peaty coastalness. Very classy. Mouth: a bit sharper now, much more peat and herbs. Lemon. Water brings out earthy smoke and hints of liquorice and ginger. Finish: long, with an excellent dryness and a bunch of salty notes.
A beautiful Port Ellen with a terrific nose. Among the best ones bottled by Thosop so far, I think. Sold out. Around € 150 at the time.
This Port Ellen 1978 (6th release – 2006) was part of an Islay sampler pack as well. The 20cl version is filled at 54,3% whereas the full bottles are filled at 54,2%. I don’t think the differences are substantial.
The 6th was the most limited release by the way (4560 bottles).
Port Ellen 27 yo 1978 ‘6th release’
(54,3%, OB 2006, 20cl)
Nose: quite shy at first and rather simple. Lemon and coastal notes, but it doesn’t seem to open up or show more layers. With some hand warmth, a certain fruitiness does come out: yellow apple, some melon. It seems slightly more sherried than the other two (hints of prunes). Very gentle. Very lightly grassy. Mouth: less coastal than the other two and certainly less salty than the 3rd. Spicy hints of nutmeg and pepper. A nice layer of honeyed sweetness, but in the end it seems to fall between two stools. It’s not as sensual as the 7th release and not as powerful as the 3rd. Finish: slowly fading, holding the middle between earthy peat, pepper and softer vanilla notes.
On the nose, you could name this “the fruity one”. With a little help, it shows beautiful fruity notes that are not to be found in the 3rd or 7th release. Yet, on the palate it’s more like “the undecided one”. Not bad at all, especially when assessed on its own, but it suffers from the direct comparison and it’s less expressive than the other two. Around € 275 but quickly rising.
ps/ Please mind that the 6th release gets quite a high score in the Whiskybase community. In the end, it’s all a matter of personal preference of course. What’s undecided for one person is balanced for the other.
Buying an Islay Collection pack is a popular way to get hold of an official Port Ellen bottling without braking the bank. However, these 20cl versions don’t contain the same whisky, and most of them are bottled at a different strength. In this case, the 20cl bottle contains 54,7% alcohol instead of 53,8% for the 70cl bottles. The reason is that they’re probably bottled at a different moment in time.
Port Ellen 28 yo 1979 ‘7th release’
(54,7%, OB 2007, 20cl)
Nose: this one seems to be more floral, with much more vanilla. A great balance between the coastal notes (tarry ropes, seaweed) and candied notes. Big big vanilla. Lots of almonds and marzipan. Sweetened lime juice. Whiffs of mint. I adore this combination, it’s like peated candy. Mouth: this is the most complex Port Ellen in this trio. The candied notes remain, but they’re mingled with herbal notes (ginger, soft pepper), liquorice, Lapsang Souchong… Rather delicate peat. Some notes of cocoa. Finish: long, a tad more coastal now. Dry hints of oak and walnut skin.
A nice crescendo, starting soft and feminine (close to the Port Ellen 9th release in that respect) but growing stronger on the palate. Outstanding composition and one of the best (explicitly) peated drams I’ve come across.
My personal favourite because of the wide flavours and the stunning nose. Still available in some places. Around € 275.
Ah, official Port Ellen releases… They’re expensive but usually very good. Quite solid as an investment as well (a first release will fetch almost € 1000).
The annual releases are always 1978 casks for pair release numbers and 1979 casks for odd releases. These 1970’s Port Ellen casks are becoming rare these days – most independent bottlings are from 1982 or 1983. I personally have the impression 1970’s casks show more complexity although exceptions exist of course.
So far, nine annual releases have been made available and this year there should be a 10th release which will probably be the last one. For now, I did a direct comparison of the 3rd, 6th and 7th release. I already published my notes of the excellent 9th release in the past.
Port Ellen 24 yo 1979 ‘3rd release’
(57,3%, OB 2003, 9000 btl.)
Nose: this is the sharper, flinty / mineral kind of Port Ellen, although it’s not an extreme example. It has a slightly pungent profile that I associate with wet limestone, lemon and cut grass. Ethereal hints of nail polish as well. Quite some alcohol. It misses the feminine side of vanilla that softens the 7th or 9th release. Evolves on antiseptic, diesel oil and candle wax. Walnuts as well. Faint farmy notes in the background. Hardly coastal. Water makes the grassy and ethereal notes stand out. Mouth: strong attack with sharp peat and lemon juice. Quite salty now, a bit too salty even. Some peppery notes (the spiciest of the three OB’s I’m comparing). Water brings out the oak and adds grassy notes. Finish: long, smoky, quite dry and salty.
I would call this “the grassy one”. Its mouth-feel is hotter than the other two (could the extra 3% really make such a difference?) and you feel a certain powerful roughness, even at 24 years. It shows more peat than the other two which could be a plus for some people. An extra point for the farminess. Extinct.
Another sherried 1980’s Port Ellen, tasted side-by-side with yesterday’s Port Ellen PE1. One my fellow blogger Johan had a lot of trouble with, despite its solid reputation among reviewers (Whiskyfun 94/100)… a solid 92/100 at first, but a mere 75/100 a few months later. In his second tasting (from the same bottle by the way), he couldn’t get over the sulphur notes. This should be interesting!
Port Ellen 21yo 1982
(50%, Douglas Laing OMC 2004, DL ref. 414, full sherry, 420 btl.)
Nose: the sherry is just as bold as in the PE1, but this time the gunpowder and matchstick notes are much more prominent. I can see the sulphur but I wouldn’t call this an off-note, it’s more like a peated Karuizawa, if you know what I mean, with fire crackers and hints of rubber again. Nothing dirty for me. It lacks a bit of the chocolate fruitiness, although there is still some red fruit marmalade which gets bigger with a drop of water. Tobacco. Hints of meat sauce and balsamic vinegar, more so than in the PE1. Much more leather as well. Mouth: interesting. The PE1 showed a big peat blast on the palate, but this Port Ellen stays quite elegant and soft. Some smoke, lots of herbal notes. Liquorice. Tobacco again. More fruit than PE1 (quite unexpected I must say). Never judge a dram only on the nose! Overall less punchy though, and less typically Islay. Finish: medium length, nicely holding the middle between the smoke and the sherry.
In the end, it’s clear this Douglas Laing version doesn’t show the complexity and the juicy fruits of the PE1 version, but it’s still a very good sherried Port Ellen in my eyes (if you don’t mind the matchsticks). Extinct – it fetches around € 350 at auctions. Thanks for the opportunity, Johan!
ps/ This bottle was released (and reviewed by most people) before the wave of excellent Karuizawa bottlings we saw during the last few years. Maybe this Port Ellen was praised for being unique at that time, but if you’re looking for notes of gunpowder and fresh matchsticks, I think Karuizawa does a better job (e.g. Karuizawa 1985/2009 cask 7017).
Elements of Islay is a series by The Whisky Exchange (actually their sister company Specialty Drinks Ltd) presenting single casks of Ardbeg, Laphroaig and other Islay distilleries. They are bottled in 50cl bottles with a code that reminds us of the Mendelejev periodic table.
Sherried Port Ellen is a difficult exercise sometimes. Heavy peat or heavy sherry quickly dominate each other, but when the balance is right, fireworks arise! This was the first Port Ellen in the Elements of Islay range, and it won a silver medal at the 2009 Malt Maniacs Awards.
Port Ellen Pe1
(58,7%, Elements of Islay 2009)
Nose: wow. And a few minutes later: WOW. Dark chocolate with a fruity centre. Hints of cecina (cured and smoked cow meat, typical of León in Spain). Well balanced between sweet, smoked and savory. Wonderful how big fruit (apples, raspberry) and dry peat go hand in hand. Hints of rubber and tobacco. Cocoa. A few medicinal notes and seaweed. Soot. Very complex. With water: juicier (fresh plums, more berries). Mouth: oily attack, now the peat and smoke take the lead – a bit too much maybe. Hints of sweet almonds and lemon, but they’re too easy for the big wave of peat. Slightly sharp peat with a salty edge of liquorice. Some pepper. With water: a tad minty with hints of tobacco. Finish: long, dry and smokey.
A perfect example of a successful marriage between peat and sherry. Around € 130 at the time, but sold out. A new Port Ellen PE2 is expected really soon, so keep an eye on the TWE website if you’re tempted.
Let’s start with the most limited Port Ellen of the bunch. The Whisky Exchange released 60 bottles of Port Ellen at the 2009 Whisky Show in London. It was sold out in no-time.
Port Ellen 1979
(54,1%, The Whisky Show 2009, 60 btl.)
Nose: well balanced with a few flinty / coastal notes and wonderful marzipan / vanilla notes. Leather. Cold ashes. Some lemon balm. Vanilla custard. A few drops of water amplifies the fruit but takes away some complexity. Hmmm, simply wonderful. Mouth: firm attack on lemon and smoke. Gets more mineral and a lot sharper after a while, before showing a kippery, salty side. Some almonds. Water makes it smoother and seems to add balance. Finish: long and quite coastal. Peated anchovies. Lemon.
What a terrific nose. And a great palate as well, although it’s a little less spectacular and a bit sharp / salty. A nice selection by TWE.
Port Ellen is one of the most enigmatic distilleries. Part of this is due to the fact that it’s closed since 1983 of course, and the number of available casks is rapidly diminishing (although I have the impression bottlers may be exaggerating this to increase the price).
If you think about it, the story of Port Ellen is quite tragic. Most of its production was used for blending purposes, and because younger Port Ellen was not always of exceptional quality, nobody thought it was special as a single malt. Little did they know that after 20 or 30 years of maturation (which was useless for blends, certainly in that era) Port Ellen becomes quite unique.
Maybe the best Port Ellen is already gone. The youngest casks are 27 years old, some of them are probably getting a bit tired, and 1980’s Port Ellen (which we see most often nowadays) is a bit less interesting anyway. Still, let’s enjoy every single drop that’s left. I have some very interesting samples of old and new Port Ellen waiting to be reviewed.