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Friday, 6 March 2015

Port Ellen 25yo (Signatory) Whisky Review!

In the world of rare whisky, one distillery stands out as the 'holy grail': Port Ellen. The name is spoken in hushed tones, and the whisky is revered and worshipped by whisky enthusiasts, who may have never laid eyes on an actual bottle, let alone tasted some.

Why? Mainly because it has been closed since 1983. Yes, over 30 years ago. Which means that all the Port Ellen whisky in the world is at least 31 years old (actual age, not maturation time). This also means that once it's gone, it's gone. Every time someone enjoys a dram of Port Ellen whisky, there is one dram less of Port Ellen whisky in the world, never to be replaced. The site of the former distillery is now home to Port Ellen malting's, supplying malted barley to many different distilleries.

There are plenty of distilleries which closed down decades ago, so what makes Port Ellen so special? Well, mainly the fact that it is (generally) excellent whisky, being a very complex, peated Islay whisky. And also because Diageo (owners of the remaining stock) have been releasing a 'new' Port Ellen every year since around 2001. In line with the above points regarding age and dwindling supply, the prices (and demand) have been going more insane with every release. For example, last year's official release of Port Ellen retailed for approximately $4,200 Australian dollars.

Yes, it was 35 years old, and yes, it was bottled at cask strength (like all releases to my knowledge, to Diageo's credit). But $4200 is a massive amount of money. Enough to buy hundreds of bottles of very good single malt whisky (among many other things), or one bottle of Port Ellen 2014 release. As a point of interest, this price was almost double that of the previous release, despite both releases being bottled at the same age.

This usually means that Port Ellen whisky is the domain of collectors, or very well-to-do drinkers, while the average whisky enthusiast generally misses out. All is not lost, however, as there is an alternative to these official releases. Enter the independent bottler's! Although hard to find, and still expensive, the independent bottling's of Port Ellen are priced much more reasonably.

I have been lucky enough to receive a sample from one of these bottles in a swap (slainte Matthew!). A 25 year old Port Ellen single malt, bottled in 2007. It was matured in a sherry cask for that quarter of a century, prior to being bottled at a cask strength of 58%, by Signatory independent bottlers. Yeah, this is pretty special...
Port Ellen 25yo sherry cask, 58%, Signatory bottling.
Distilled in 1982, bottled in 2007. Cask strength, no added colouring. Limited release of 526 bottles, cask number 2844.

(tasted neat)
Colour: Amber-orange

Nose: Big fruit & sherry, oloroso, slight nutty sweetness. Some leather & salt, hints of gentle smoke. Barley sugar lollies, some slightly under-ripe tropical fruit. 

Texture: Big, oily & viscous. Very nice.

Taste: Lovely earthy peat, big sherry influence - spicy and fruity. Pleasant gentle smoke adds depth, well-done toffee with slight bitterness. 

Finish: Long, but surprisingly light. Fruit & smoke alternate. Very well balanced, drying slowly as it fades.

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: Ignoring the price & scarcity, this malt is a good one. In other words, if you can find it & can afford it, go for it! After all, any Port Ellen whisky is a piece of whisky history, and it's not coming back! 

Having said that, I can't help but feel that the sherry cask has had too much of an influence over those 25 years. We know that older whiskies lose a great deal of peat influence and smoke during their slumber, and there was still a nice drop of smoke in this one, but I didn't get much of the dusty leather that Port Ellen is known for either.

I'm mainly comparing this one to the only other Port Ellen I've tasted (and seen, for that matter), which was the 4th release from Diageo, tasted at a whisky festival. It was ex-bourbon cask, so is obviously going to be different, but it was the same age and nearly the same strength. I wasn't blown away by that one, especially considering the price, but this independent bottling is much better value for money. I find myself wishing for a Port Ellen with a mix of sherry and bourbon cask maturation, maybe even a cask finishing? But that's not likely to happen. Nobody can afford to experiment with this stuff, financially or morally. 

A huge thanks to Matt for the sample, a tasting of any Port Ellen is not something to be taken lightly, and not something that is likely to happen again.