May 122016
 

Port Ellen (Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask) Cask #3887 27 y.o.IMG_1483

50% abv

Score:  89/100

 

These little forays into Port Ellen nostalgia are about to become a lot more scarce than they have been in the past.  I think I may have three or four more malts from this closed little piece of heaven to review in the next…well…whenever, but after that the well ’round here is really running dry.  I do know of an opportunity or two in the future that may change this, but serendipity has to be on my side.  Crossing my fingers.

Anyway…this one was tasted (again) at a recent Dram Initiative event I hosted.  If you’re not ‘in the know’, the Dram Initiative is our local whisky club, named for that esoteric little conclave from Lost.  We like wordplay, and definitely like the more cerebral aspects of modern civilization (such as programming that actually had script and plot, as opposed to halfwit celebutantes and Jersey shore inbreds).  But I digress.  Suffice to say, the club put on one hell of an event for the 80 plus members in attendance.  Eight Port Ellens spread over a couple hours of history, sentiment and shared opinion.  This 27 year old indie from the Laing brothers was the second last of the eve, and, incidentally, the second favorite of the masses.

It’s a quintessential Port Ellen as far as I’m concerned.  Very typical of the distillery’s profile, and very much on ethat helps perpetuate the PE mystique.  I’ve said it many times before (but not sure whether or not I’ve done so here on the site): Port Ellen is a whisky that matures well.  Late 20s are a great (I’d argue optimal) age for this distillery.

Nose:  Citrus, and quite a bit at that (lemon and lime this time).  Vanilla.  Salt water.  Slightly herbal (hints of green tea).  Biscuity, with some nice fruit notes (orange and berry).  Chocolate.  Freshly milled grains (seems ‘dry’ and dusty).  Expected peaty, smoky notes are an afterthought.

Palate:  Very typical Port Ellen profile.  Great arrival.  Delicate.  Citric.  Quite oily.  Tastes of subtle white scone or biscuit.  Tart fruit notes.  Smoky and peaty.  Granny Smith apple skins.  Toothpicks.  Leaves behind salt licorice.

Thoughts:  Right in my wheelhouse.  A great outing from Port Ellen that wears its years well.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 4:32 pm
Apr 192016
 

Port Ellen (Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask) Cask #3915 24 y.o.IMG_1452

50% abv

Score:  88/100

 

On the eve of an unprecedented Dram Initiative Port Ellen tasting (well…couple eves away actually) I thought it would be apropos to post a few notes on one of the expressions we’ll be sharing with 80 of our closest mates.

As this one is from nearly a decade ago now, we’ll not get too longwinded.  With an outturn of only 476 bottles, chances are not too many will have had an opportunity to try this Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask selection.  That being said…we preserve these things for posterity and to add to the written lore of Port Ellen.  The more details captured now, the better the record in years to come.  That’s sort of the way I look at these jottings anyway.

Slightly atypical of Port Ellen, but not too far off the path, this one still retains the signature fragility and citric tarry-ness, but instead of a background of soft fruits starting to make their presence known through age, this one rests more on the phenolic encumbrances of all things Islay.  Namely…seashores, smoke in the air, medicinal nuance and the remnants of fire.  Oh yeah…and a hefty noseful of warm rubber welly boots.

Not a top tier PE, but a lovely dram irrespective and certainly a treat to try.

Nose:  Lemon.  Rubber, tar and ash.  A touch of creosote.  Medicinal top notes.  Smoke and earthy notes.  Pepper.  White chocolate.  Not a lot in the way of fruits.  Oceanic.  Dust (as in in old books).  Wet rocks.  Barley is easily detectable.  Peat and smoke.

Palate:  Whoa.  Much more smoke now.  Dry and ashy.  Still rubber.  Now licorice.  Some dry, bitter citrus zest.  Oak.  Lemon on charred scallops.  Underripe green apple.  A little emergent fruit now.  Peaty, earthiness.  Smoke grows and lingers, almost like toasted wood.

Thoughts:  Fruity notes do eventually emerge, but this is not a fruity dram.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:13 am
Mar 042016
 

Port Ellen 12th Release049

52.5% abv

Score:  94/100

 

Nearing the end of this run of Port Ellen OB reviews.  One more after this (the 5th release), but I may hold off on that one in favour of sharing notes on a few others.  We’ll see.

Anyway…there’s a reason I saved this one for the back end.  I was sort of edging toward it as nearing the apex of the line (those I’ve tried anyway).  Notice I said ‘nearing’.  Basically, we saved the best for last.  This and the 5th are bloody mind blowing.

We’ve spoken much of Port Ellen in the past couple weeks, so let’s keep it short here.  This is another 1979, but bottled in 2012 this time.  32 years young, and still vibrant and radiant.  The gorgeous soft fruit notes that collide with the aromas of ‘all things Islay’ makes for not so much a rollercoaster ride, but a gently rolling, ebbing and flowing of subtle changes.  It’s the tart grapefruit notes on the palate, though, that had me salivating.  Mixing melon and grapefruit with ‘old whisky aroma’ (OWA) is a rare treat and absolutely harmonious.  In short…love this whisky.  Immensely.  Port Ellen has an incredible hype behind it.  This is why.

Limited to a mere 2,964 bottles, and generally sold with a price tag that is in and around those same numbers now.

Nose:  Melon.  And more melon.  Watermelon, to be exact.  Fishy, seaside notes and damp grass (if any of you have been to Islay, imagine sitting up on the Battery behind Bowmore distillery).  Soft milk chocolate.  Oily, even on the nose.  Warm leather.  Lemongrass.  Soft and creamy.  Pepper and peat.  Smoke, of course, but far off and ‘home-y’.

Palate:  Chocolate.  Beautiful, rich grapefruit and grapefruit pith notes bring tartness to the balance the sweet.  Oak is strong and sharp, in a good way.  Lots of lemon and citric notes.  The smoke grows with diffusion.  Drying at first, but then juicy and mouthwatering.

Thoughts:  Beautiful balance of sweet and sour.  Tart and tangy.  One of the top three Port Ellen I’ve ever tried.  Utterly magic.

*Sincere thanks to the anonymous gent who kindly poured this, and several other, Port Ellen for me at a recent gathering.  Unforgettable.  Slainte.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:38 am
Feb 262016
 

Port Ellen 11th Release056

53.9% abv

Score:  93.5/100

 

We’re creeping up a little here in terms of age and quality in this run of Port Ellen annual releases.  At the same time, the outturn is shrinking.  This release was limited to 2,988 bottles, dropping down below 3,000 for the first time in the series run.  That should tell you something about the scarcity of remaining Port Ellen stocks, one of the industry’s best kept secrets (and part of what allows extravagant and unquestionable pricing policy).

But that’s just metadata and speculation.  Let’s leave that for other writings and just stick to the ‘porn-esque’ fantasy highs of simply basking in all the magic that makes Port Ellen special.

This 11th release is unquestionably one the best expressions of the distillery I’ve yet encountered out of the dozens of PEs I’ve been lucky enough to taste.  It doesn’t quite reach the stratospheric heights of the 5th or 12th release, but I think this one may rest in a bronze position.  The independents are a little more hit and miss, but the distillery bottlings are remarkably consistent and, as you can imagine, are mostly variations on a theme (a perfect theme…something like Miles’ ‘Kind Of Blue’).  This one is no exception, and fits perfectly into the PE mould.  I’ve not yet tried Port Ellen 1-4 or 7, but until I do let’s just say this one is my third favorite.

The soft and delicate nose, as is almost always the case with Port Ellen, is given a strong counterpoint with how much oomph is packed into the palate.  This isn’t so much an imbalance as it is a contrast that shows the inherent beauty in each separate facet and the stunning whole they achieve together.  At 32 years old (1979 distillate, bottled in 2011) this one still has a lot of vibrancy in it.  Hopefully we’re not approaching the end of these remarkable old malts.  I’m dying to know what a 40 or 50 year old Port Ellen tastes like.  Perhaps that’s my grail malt.

Nose:  Oh, wow.  What a gorgeous nose.  Grassy.  Roman nougat.  Oceanic winds.  Lemon meringue pie.  Lime.  Earthy and smoky.  Pastry notes.  Smells like Gramma’s pantry.  Subtle and appealing farminess.  Chocolate.  Cranberry scones.

Palate:  Peat and ash.  Smokes oysters and lemon.  Lemon zest too.  Salt.  Burnt seafood.  Licorice.  Over-steeped tea (in the manner it dries along the sides of the mouth and tongue.  Fruit skins.

Thoughts:  Strong oaky back end seems very much in line with what I’d expected.  Sublime older Port Ellen.  One of the best I’ve ever tried.

*Sincere thanks to the anonymous gent who kindly poured this, and several other, Port Ellen for me at a recent gathering.  Unforgettable.  Slainte.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 1:42 pm
Feb 182016
 

Port Ellen 10th Release058

54.6% abv

Score:  92.5/100

 

Apologies.  I’ve been slower getting these Port Ellen reviews posted than I’d hoped.  February is a bit of a messy month.  Bear with me.  Still a couple more to go.

This 10th Annual release from the good folks of Diageo came second (in terms of tasting order, not ranking) in an absolutely stunning range of Port Ellen I was fortunate enough to try recently with a group of friends.  I’d read incredible things about it, and this particular expression was one of the ones I was most looking forward to trying.  I think, by the end of the night, I ranked it slightly lower than I figured I would, but let’s face it…this is like comparing Ferraris.  We may have our favorites, but they’re all pretty damn spectacular.

Most of these official releases (all, up to and including the 14th) are either 1978 or 1979 vintages.  This one, being the tenth in a series that started in 2001, was a 1978 and was bottled in 2010, making it a 31 year old.  The outturn was a mere 3,000 bottles, all of which were quickly scooped by the collectors and connoisseurs.  The retail back then?  Hmmm…just breaking four figures I think.

I should note before jumping into tasting notes that the nose on this PE was stunning.  A gorgeous soft profile that lived up to what all good flavour experiences strive for: a balance of sweets and sours, but also boasting an individuality that makes it entirely recognizable for what it is.  Beautiful old Port Ellen.  The palate is a little different, but still…wow.  Just wow.

Nose:  Milk chocolate.  Soft peach.  Smells of old books.  Citrus, but mostly grapefruit (one of my favorite aromas in whisky).  Faintest pink bubblegum.  “OWA” (old whisky aroma).  Sugar cookies.  Wooden buckets of sea water.  Peat and smoke are simply background dressing here, adding complexity and character.

Palate:  Grassy and herbal, with smells of green tea.  Chocolate again.  Pepper and brine.  A squeeze of lemon.  The peat explodes with a bite after a second or two, in a bigger fashion the the nose would lead you to believe.  Leaves a smokiness behind that is only hinted at on the nose.  Long finish.

Thoughts:  Softer than the 9th release, and a rather different animal, I think.

*Sincere thanks to the anonymous gent who kindly poured this, and several other, Port Ellen for me at a recent gathering.  Unforgettable.  Slainte.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 7:49 am
Feb 052016
 

Port Ellen 13th Release042

55% abv

Score:  93/100

 

2013’s official Port Ellen release.  I’m not sure what this one retailed for when it hit the open market, and quite frankly not really interested in hunting that information down, to be honest.  The reality is that it’s now long gone and well beyond what I’m willing to pay for a bottle anyway.

Having said that, a friend of mine who has a warm heart for sharing, a passion for great whisky and really good taste was kind enough to pour this for me just days back.  This and several others which we’ll cover in the coming days actually.  As you can imagine I was diligently taking notes, as were most others in our little collective.

I’ve been questioned about the value of these high end malt reviews before, as in theory they really only pertain to a very small and extremely specific audience.  I spent quite a while mulling over that line of thought before ultimately dismissing it.  I think, because there are very few individuals that will actually get their hands on whiskies like this, that it’s absolutely important to share details.  Otherwise there’s a very small data set regarding these malts that exists in the wider whisky world.  The more information, the better, aye?

Anyway…this is one of the oldest PEs I’ve tried, having spun ’round the sun 34 times since its 1978 birth.  And age is definitely a huge factor in the end product’s character.  Earlier Diageo Port Ellens boasted much more heft, prickling vibrancy and bigger smoke.  This is an exercise in austerity.  Not sure which I prefer, to be honest, but I can tell you this one is a classic beauty.  Islay with age is magic.

Limited run of just 2,958 (highly coveted) bottles.

Nose:  So soft.  Everything is fading and settling into mature austerity by this age.  Nice toasted notes.  Smoke, but not big billows.  Vanilla.  Soft lemon.  Fruit cocktail in syrup.  Mild milk and white chocolate.  Nice warm farmy, barnyard aromas.  Peat and briny, seaside notes.  A slight sourness of fruits.

Palate:  Lemony and very oily.  Much smokier here than the nose belies (and we like that).  Green tea and a general herbaceousness.  Tastes very mature.  Quite soft, all told, for 55% Islay malt.  Hay.  Fruit candy sweetness.  Soft white fruits.

Thoughts:  Gorgeous.  Rich, big and elegant.  Port Ellen in all its inherent singularity and complexity (if that makes any sense).

*Sincere thanks to the anonymous gent who kindly poured this, and several other, Port Ellen for me at a recent gathering.  Unforgettable.  Slainte.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:15 am
Feb 042016
 

Port Ellen 15th Release037

53.9% abv

Score:  92/100

 

As of January, 2016, this is the most current Diageo Port Ellen annual release.  And it is a doozy.  Though not necessarily in the ways you might expect.  Let me explain…

As we’ve discussed here a few times, Port Ellen closed 33 years ago this May.  It had been distilling from 1967 through 1983, after having been shuttered from 1929 up until that point in the mid sixties.  Simple math tells us that the entire supply of Port Ellen that our generations have seen hit the market was from a 16 year production window.  That speaks volumes (pun aside) about how much Port Ellen may still be napping in Diageo’s warehouses (very little, I assume).  Also telling is the fact that all previous annual releases were either 1978 or 1979 distillate.  This 15th release is an ’83.  Hmmmm…what?

It’s long been rumoured that Diageo has been sourcing back PE casks from some of the independent bottlers.  The name most often mentioned is Douglas Laing.  Whether there is truth to the mutterings is not likely something that either party is willing to disclose, but it is whispered that Diageo exhausted their own stores and have subsequently restocked via buybacks.  Hence…a 1983 release this time.  Coincidentally, you may notice that many of the Douglas Laing releases have been from the 1980s, suggesting that this may indeed have been the source of Diageo’s rumoured pillaging.

Enough conspiratorial nattering.

A few nights back I was fortunate enough to be part of a private little gathering that sipped our way from the 9th release through the 15th release (with a little extra for ‘afters’).  Over the coming days I’ll share the details for each of these expressions.  I thought maybe we’d start here, with arguably the most atypical of the whole series.  Anomalous though it may be (due to it’s darker complexities and a seemingly more sherried profile), it is still an absolute barnstormer of a malt.

Cost prohibitive, of course, but Port Ellen is becoming as scarce as integrity in the whisky world these days.  This 32 year old was a limited release of 2,964 (grossly overpriced) bottles.  Oh yeah…and it really is utterly magic.

Nose:  Hmmm…this is quite an outlier from the rest of the Diageo PE OBs.  Almost Sherry-ish.  Rich in creamy toffee/butterscotch notes.  Dough.  Cinnamon.  Very toasted.  Iodine and medicinal notes.  Quite briny and citric.  Farmy too.  Dried fruits.  And also some burnt fruit.

Palate:  Smoky, but it’s a big wet smoke.  Burnt caramel.  Kippers.  Lemon.  Chocolate.  Rich, jammy fruits.  Plum skins.  Tarry.  Licorice.  Mocha/coffee.  Quite tart and tannic at the back end, but not unpleasantly so.   Leather and caramel.  Smoked apple.  And yeah…a little earthy and peaty.  Reminds a bit of older sherried Caol Ila.

Thoughts:  I swear this seems sherried.  Delish, but an odd man odd malt from PE.

*Sincere thanks to the anonymous gent who kindly poured this, and several other, Port Ellen for me at a recent gathering.  Unforgettable.  Slainte.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:12 am
Sep 302015
 

I had a strange and enlightening experience a few nights back.  I sat down with a range of whiskies and a mind to taking some notes for upcoming reviews.  This range was built with Caol Ila 30 as the cornerstone malt.  I threw in a Caol Ila 25, a 27 year old single cask of Port Ellen and an Octomore.  I figured the two Caol Ila showed a nice opportunity for compare and contrast; the Port Ellen would be a ‘sister’ malt in a way, and of a similar age and spec; and the Octomore would be easy to dissect by drawing strong points and counterpoints of comparison between the old gems and Islay whisky at youth and bombastic might.

All told I probably spent about an hour and a half on these four glasses, bouncing back and forth, using easily found notes in one malt to highlight strengths and deficiencies in the others.  Etc.  After I’d taken all my notes (and emptied the glasses, of course), I began formatting the posts here on the site.  Now here’s where things got weird.  As I started the Port Ellen template I found a post from several weeks back of this very same expression.  I do recall posting a PE review, but I didn’t realize it was this particular one.  As I started to compare my notes and scores – done in complete isolation from one another and weeks apart, I want to stress – I was rather impressed at how close they were, even picking up some very distinct nuances in both cases.  Have a look for yourself.  I think it says something for the consistency and rigidity of the tasting environment I aim for, and to ensuring nose and palate are tiptop before really digging in.

Not gonna lie…this made me a happy boy.  Check it out…

Port Ellen 27 Provenance Cask #6101
46% abv

027

Original published review:

Score:  90.5/100

Nose:  Very Port Ellen right off the bat.  Soft biscuity notes.  Old book.  Clean grist.  Faint seabreeze.  Mild citrus and wet rock.  Very faded peat and smoke.  A whiff of Werther’s Originals.  A little bit of honeydew melon and caramel.

Palate:  More alive here.  More fruits.  Oh wow.  Now we’re deeply entrenched in Port Ellen territory.  Smoke and beachside bonfire.  Lemon juice over charred scallops.  Sugar cookies.  Burnt lemon rind.  The smoke grows over time.  Something slightly herbaceous.

Thoughts:  Still a special whisky, but lacks a little oomph that would have pushed it even higher.  Can you imagine at cask strength?  A very restrained and elegant Port Ellen that suits my palate perfectly.  Love this one.

020

Second independent assessment:

Score:  90/100

Nose:  Instantly recognizable.  Light and coastal.  Fresh seabreezes over wheat fields.  Sugar cookies.  Faint whiff of sunflowers and beeswax.  Far off smoke and soft notes of cinnamon buns in the oven, though fleeting.  There is a touch of peat, but it is even less than an afterthought.  Rather typical of our older PEs.

Palate:  Fragile and endearing, as expected from a Port Ellen nearing three decades.  Very sweet.  Built on a bedrock of soft fruits.  Perhaps melon, pear, apple and lime.  Barley sugars and much like chewing on fresh grains.  Wet rock.  Seared scallops with salt and lemon.  Charred oak.

Thoughts:  Beautiful expression of Port Ellen.  Held a little too in check by the low abv, but it’s by no means dead because of it.  At cask strength though?  I can only imagine.

 
Pretty damn close, no?  Both sets of notes mention wet rock, seabreeze, grist/barley sugars, cooked scallops, citrus, faded/far off smoke, notes of baking, immediate identifiability as a Port Ellen, fragility/delicacy and too low of abv.

I think this serendipitous little happening will be enough of a catalyst to get me to now intentionally engage in retastings more often.  Definitely a hell of a way to keep a reviewer honest, sharp and consistent.  And if we’re not those things, we’re nothing.

 

  – Images and Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:35 am
Sep 022015
 

Port Ellen 27 y.o. Cask #6101 (Douglas Laing Provenance)027

46% abv

Score:  90.5/100

 

Incredible foresight or the ultimate in luck?  Either way, Douglas Laing’s early procurement of so many barrels of Port Ellen is unprecedented in the industry.  It’s rather widely accepted that Port Ellen, in it’s day, was generally referred to as a blender’s whisky, and not particularly coveted as a single malt.  It seems logical that casks of the young spirit would have been set at a very appealing price point for any independent bottler looking to fill warehouses with peated whisky, be it for blending, trading or bottling.  Years later, when the whisky world caught on to the niche collectability of whiskies from closed distilleries, Douglas Laing found themselves sitting on an absolute gold mine.

Thankfully, over the years many of those DL releases have found their way to Canada.  In fact, the vast majority of Port Ellen I’ve tasted has been courtesy of the Laing empire (in one of its varied incarnations).  The profiles of the Laing releases can differ by substantial degrees, but the quality is fairly consistent across most of them.  I’d go so far as to say that Douglas Laing’s Port Ellen portfolio is, generally speaking, second only to Diageo’s annual releases.

Enough generalities, though.  Moving on to this particular one…

Though initially skeptical of the low abv here (c’mon, guys…you don’t do this with old, delicate whiskies!), it only took a moment to be bowled over by this 27 year old.  It was made in 1983, the distillery’s last year of production, and was bottled in mid 2010.  Those 27 years were spent maturing in a refill butt, but don’t be fooled; in lieu of any sort of big sherry notes on this one, it seems to be built more on very soft fruits and only the faintest whiff of spices.  Exactly what I imagine when I think of Port Ellen, albeit a little more gentle courtesy of the lower abv (which isn’t that low, to be fair).

Nose:  Very Port Ellen right off the bat.  Soft biscuity notes.  Old book.  Clean grist.  Faint seabreeze.  Mild citrus and wet rock.  Very faded peat and smoke.  A whiff of Werther’s Originals.  A little bit of honeydew melon and caramel.

Palate:  More alive here.  More fruits.  Oh wow.  Now we’re deeply entrenched in Port Ellen territory.  Smoke and beachside bonfire.  Lemon juice over charred scallops.  Sugar cookies.  Burnt lemon rind.  The smoke grows over time.  Something slightly herbaceous.

Thoughts:  Still a special whisky, but lacks a little oomph that would have pushed it even higher.  Can you imagine at cask strength?  A very restrained and elegant Port Ellen that suits my palate perfectly.  Love this one.

 

 – Reviewed by:  Curt

 – Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:38 am
Jul 292015
 

9 Port EllenPort Ellen 25 y.o. Cask #4176 (Douglas Laing OMC)

54.7% abv

Score:  92/100

 

I tried this one for the first time about a week and a half ago.  Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to sit down with it twice more.  In the first two instances I was in the company of good friends (and many other fine malts).  In the last instance I was alone while taking notes.  This more dedicated time only served to reinforce what initial impressions told me: this is a spectacular example of Port Ellen.  Probably one of my all time favorites, to be honest.

This expression, a 25 year old, bottled by the Laing Brothers in 2008 (long before the company division), is almost like a time machine for me; immediately bringing back memories of the oceanic breezes, chimney smoke, farm life and maritime trappings of life on Islay.  If you’ve ever awakened to the early morning breezes on the island you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t, I’m not sure why you’re reading here and not searching Expedia for airfare deals.

There are a few Port Ellen expressions I’ve tried that not only hint at the sensory experience of being on Islay, but actually serve to mimic it.  Whiskies that so encapsulate the smells of the island’s villages they seem almost transportive in their abilities to transcend distance.  This is one.  They’re few and far between, but when found the impact is immensely powerful and evocative.  Elegant and sophisticated.  One for the ages.

This cask was selected by, and bottled for, Kensington Wine Market here in Calgary back in 2008.  Unfortunately that means it’s now but a memory.  Great cask selection, guys.  This one is a showstopper.

Nose:  Sweet, soft fruit notes.  A touch of lime and maybe honeydew.  Subtle peat and a very elegant smokiness.  Vanilla and cream.  Seaside breezes and wet shores.  A great gristiness here, like freshly milled barley.  Biscuits.  Salty dough or pie shells.  Faint dry leather.

Palate:  Oh, man, what an arrival.  So much harmony and complexity, and so much sweeter than expected.  Salt and pepper.  Licorice.  Peat and smoke, as we’d expect.  A touch of honey.  A squeeze of citrus.  Like chewing soft grains of barley.  Still creamy, bit with a nice lime counterpoint.  Some apple.

Thoughts:  An almost perfect realization of Port Ellen.  Exceptionally harmonious.

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:19 am