Distillery In Focus: Port Ellen
Every now and again here on All Things Whisky, we wax a little poetic on the mystique of Port Ellen. If the post or review is something that finds its way to Twitter, it’s bound to get retweeted many a time. If not, it tends to be picked up at some point down the line and linked to by some German or Danish forum. There’s a lot of love for this distillery irrespective of the fact that it’s not produced a drop in well over 30 years. And if anything, that adoration is only increasing as the years wear on.
The early 1980s were a rough time for the whisky industry. Scotch had been thrust face first into the limelight in the 1970s as the ‘it’ drink and soaring demand led to many distilleries cranking open the taps and producing more spirit than the markets could reasonably support. As we see time and again, man never seems to learn the harder lessons of economics.
With hundreds and hundreds of thousands of barrels resting in warehouses all over Scotland, and a declining consumer base, the “eyes bigger than the belly” approach of the industry began to take its toll on the bottom lines of the producers’ ledgers. There was simply no need to continue making whisky on such a scale. Many distilleries slowed down and finally stopped flowing altogether. DCL (The Distiller’s Company Limited) – owners of Port Ellen – shuttered 11 distilleries in 1983, with others following suit all the way through the early 1990s. If memory serves, there were around two dozen distilleries that locked up shop in 1983 alone.
It was in May of ’83, amid this rash of distillery closures, that Port Ellen was deemed surplus to requirements; it’s peaty pungency being used primarily at this time to add a smoky elegance to DCL’s blends such as Johnnie Walker. Also in the expansive pages of the DCL portfolio in 1983 were Lagavulin and Caol Ila. The former was well established already as a single malt with reputation. The latter was a far greater producer than the wee Port Ellen distillery, which managed an annual output of only about 800,000 litres. Additionally, from what I can gather, it seems that Port Ellen was recognized at the time as somewhat of an inferior whisky, with a feinty edge to it. With the markets being what they were, the writing was on the wall for Port Ellen. Caol Ila’s peat prowess became the go-to for the smoky components of any blend bill.
After nearly 160 years of operation – albeit sporadic and marred by fits and stops in production – the gates were pulled closed on Port Ellen for the last time. But let’s step back a bit and take a quick peek over our shoulder at the road that brought us to this juncture. This will be a brief history (and I mean very brief), as this subject has been covered elsewhere by others, and I’m simply trying to provide a little bit of context.
In 1825, along the shores of Loch Leodamais in the wee fishing village of Port Ellen, the Port Ellen distillery was founded by one A.K. MacKay and Co. His initial investment of effort may have been impressive, but perhaps his management skills left something to be desired, as bankruptcy proceedings followed shortly thereafter. According to the inimitable resource, Malt Madness, the distillery ‘changed hands a few times’ in the 11 years between its founding and the 1836 acquisition by 22 year old distilling entrepreneur John Ramsay. Ownership then remained in the Ramsay family until 1920, when the distillery was bought by the Port Ellen Distillery Company. This tenure was to be short lived, however, and came to an end in 1927, when the distillery was acquired by DCL (the forerunner to what is today drinks giant, ‘Diablo’…err…I mean ‘Diageo’). Within two years of acquisition DCL mothballed Port Ellen and the distillery sat in silence for four long decades. Whisky production would not resume on site until 1967.
Knowing as we do that the distillery was once again mothballed – this time permanently – in 1983, tells us that there were really only about 16 years worth of production between 1967 and 1983 from which all of the contemporary stocks of Port Ellen have been pulled. This small window, and low peek distillery capacity, speaks volumes to the possible remaining stores of Port Ellen resting in situ in all of Scotland’s warehouses. What is especially disheartening is turning our thoughts towards just how many barrels probably ended up lost to blending.
It is a sad fact, as I noted briefly above, that the whisky made at the Port Ellen distillery was widely known as a rather weak example of Islay malt. It was not particularly prized for its underlying character – apparently noted as thin and somewhat feinty (careless cuts in the spirit run, perhaps?) – but it’s smoky resonance was still in demand for blenders looking to add a little complexity to their concoctions. Sounds a far cry from what we know of the distillery’s reputation in this ongoing whisky renaissance, I’d suggest.
So if Port Ellen was generally recognized as an inferior whisky, able to be done away with and surplus to requirements, why then does it consistently score highly in ratings and reviews and continue to attract collectors and connoisseurs by the scores? The answers are multifold, adding to the complexity of understanding the inherent worth of the whisky in the bottle.
First…nearly all of the Port Ellen you’re likely to encounter is mature beyond the age most malts see the inside of a bottle. In reality, this is simply another way of saying that we just don’t see young Port Ellen. It doesn’t really exist. The single malt initiative didn’t really take flight until Glenfiddich’s push in the 1970s. Considering Port Ellen’s less-than-household-name status and reputation as being a blender’s whisky, it’s not surprising that there are so few surviving examples of young Port Ellen. Even the exceedingly rare Port Ellen from decades ago that may have borne a low teens age statement on the bottle was likely to have some older casks vatted into it, as that is what was done in those bygone days. Otherwise, most Port Ellen that you’ll find rated and reviewed nowadays will boast an age statement of mid to high 20s and, more contemporarily now, into the 30s.
Does this lead credence to the ‘older is better’ argument? Yes, in a way. Quite simply, oak does amazing things to whisky as the two interact with one another. Give them enough time together and something special is almost always going to happen. It should certainly be noted, though, there have definitely been duds in the independent Port Ellen releases out there (read: bad barrels).
So, is it fair to generalize that Port Ellen is an incredibly whisky, when the data set consists primarily of malts that have exceeded the two or three decade mark? Let’s just say that nearly any distillery would most likely boost their average ratings a few notches if all they released were hyper mature malts. Young whisky has bigger peaks and valleys. Old whisky has rolling hills. Which is more pleasant to drive, do you think? Much Port Ellen is special because of its advanced maturity. So, yeah…maybe older does equate to better. Not as a rule, but on the average.
Second…Port Ellen has become the ultimate collectable cult whisky. Islay malts are probably the most widely coveted for collectors and the island is seen as almost the ‘spiritual home’ (pun intended, I suppose, or at least acknowledged) of Scotch whisky. With current demand being quite high for these smoky, peaty malts, you can only imagine the appeal for completists or obsessives to get their hands on whisky from a distillery that existed only briefly, if at all, within most of their lifetimes. Not only is it a rare chance to try a ninth Islay distillery, it’s the chance to taste a malt from a closed distillery. There are, of course, collectors whose sole raison d’être is to hunt down these liquid time capsules. For them, Port Ellen is the grail.
Finally…let’s not discount the fact that sentimentalism plays a large part in this equation for many as well. The historically bent out there will acknowledge in an awed timbre that what is in the glass with any dram of Port Ellen is literally liquid history. Sharing this malt is like a sepia-toned trip down a memory lane you’ve probably never walked before. Kind of that ‘homesick for the home I’ve never had’ syndrome. I can certainly attest that it’s easy to lose yourself in the drink and romanticize this facet of the whisky. I concede that some of my all time great whisky moments with friends have been over a dram of Port Ellen.
So, really…is that it? Older, scarcer, more collectable and draped in nostalgic romance? Nah…of course not. There is no two ways about it: much Port Ellen is really, really inherently good. You’ll find the occasional less-than-stellar showing, of course, but the majority are austere beauties that are memorable and of world class quality in both the highly sought after official releases and the more prolific independent bottlings.
And let’s be clear: Diageo’s official bottlings of Port Ellen are beyond spectacular. Those I’ve tried anyway. There is such a profound complexity of soft fruits, threads of smoke and earthiness, oceanic influence and oak carved nuance that it’s hard to imagine anyone not being instantly enamoured with the drink. These are natural cask strength expressions that carry all of the subtleties of Port Ellen in an elegant, yet powerful, incarnation.
In recent years, however, Diageo’s Port Ellen OBs (aka ‘official bottlings’ or ‘distillery bottlings’) are stretching the bounds of most folks’ incredulity with their hefty four figure price tags and seemingly favoritism-based market allocations. In fact, last year’s 14th release hit the shelves at a retail price of about £2200.00. Converting that to one of the North American currencies equates to ‘divorce’ and/or ‘homelessness’.
Independent bottlings, long the most accessibly priced options for the majority of us, have seemingly gone the way of the dodo. There may yet be a last few specimens dust gathering on local shop shelves depending on in which part of the globe you hang your hat, but for the most part they are nothing more than memories at this point. An occasional new Gordon & MacPhail or (one of the) Laing Brothers release may hit the shelves from time to time, but the reality is that where these once sat in the very low three figure mark, even they have crept up to about $1500 a pop. Sadly…the days of Port Ellen being available to the average punter – albeit at a bit of a stretch – seem to be long gone.
So the question then becomes one of relative worth. Does the whisky justify the price tag you’re going to be walloped with? I simply can’t answer that in any meaningful way. Here’s the way I usually put it when confronted with questions of this ilk: If you have a load of disposable income, and are in a position to buy expensive toys with no repercussions, why not? If money is not a concern, spend it on the enjoyment of the finer things in life. Port Ellen can unquestionable be one of those things. The most valuable things I have (excepting my beautiful wife and children) are memories and experiences. A good drink with good friends goes a long way to making more of both of those.
I guess maybe we’ll close with a discussion that seems to pop up from time to time, but with no real weight behind it. “Could there be a renaissance for this lost Islay distillery?” Short answer: “Who knows?” Strange things happen from time to time in the wider whisky world. This would certainly be one of the strangest though. All indications suggest the distilling equipment was long ago dismantled and parceled out, and that the still house was demolished to make way for an expansion of the malting facilities. Granted the warehouses are still intact, the pagodas and such still stand and much of the footprint is unchanged. As I said…who knows? My gut says it ain’t gonna happen though.
A better question to consider might be “do you really want Port Ellen to come back?” Distillers like to sell us on the idea that every nuance of their production (water source, dings in the stills, exact spirit run times, warehouse situation, etc) has to be consistent down to the nth detail in order for the magic to happen. If that is indeed the case, do we honestly believe we would have a true likeness of the Port Ellen we love with whisky from a ‘cloned’ distillery? At best it might be a Clynelish vs Brora situation. At worst…well…if you’ve watched The Walking Dead you’ll know resurrections aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be.
With a heavy heart I say let sleeping dogs lie.
– Images & word: Curt (With an acknowledgment to Malt Madness for a wee bit of the distillery history I was a little unsure of.)