An absolutely iconic bottling from perhaps the most monolithic of closed distilleries. This 22 year old Rare Malts bottling (the earlier incarnation of Diageo’s official releases) is a towering example of what the Port Ellen distillery was capable of running off its stills in the late ’70s. Not to mention…1978 was a spectacular vintage (wink wink!).
These are the sort of drams we dream about. The kind that render preconceptions moot and make us recalibrate our systems for measuring quality (as subjective as that is, of course*). One simply can’t drink something like this and remain fundamentally unchanged. It is the sort of whisky that changes what we understand about what we understand, if that makes any since. The reasons are multifold. First, this is a volatile-compound-driven whisky. That means that the foremost flavor contributor is peat, and peat, by nature, is a volatile and changing component. It does not remain constant. In fact, it degrades. Those phenolic compounds we know and love will fade drastically given enough time in the barrel. Second, this was distilled in the late 1970s, a time when processes were different, yeast and barley strains were different, wood policies were not nearly so rigidly-enforced, etc. Third, this was produced at a time when demand was a mere fraction of what it is today, ergo vatting casks would have been a very different exercise. Fourth, the malt hit glass around the turn of the millennium. It has been sitting in a bottle for almost 20 years. Oxidizing. Let that sink in for a moment. For those that believe that maturation stops at bottling, think again. The whole concept of Old Bottle Effect (OBE) probably now has enough evidence out there to support the fact that it is indeed a reality. Cork breathes. Breathing, of course, is not just exhaling, but inhaling as well. The neck level of this bottle (and a substantial proportion of older bottles, for that matter) tells us that this whisky has been slowly evaporating over the years. So what fills that void in the bottle? (Because we all know nature abhors a vacuum, aye?) Oxygen. Exactly. And that is bound to change the whisky.
Where I’m going with this is, this is not contemporary peated whisky. It is a relic. A beautiful antique. Something from a bygone age, that, in all likelihood, will never be replicated. And it is utterly stunning.
The ‘Rare Malt’ appellation doesn’t even begin to describe this one nowadays.
Sincere thanks to my mate Brett Tanaka for the opportunity to taste this. The range of bottles he’s been opening for what we’ll call ‘The Brett Sessions’ are simply beyond comprehension. And I am beyond humbled to be able to partake. I’ll be reviewing dozens of them in the coming weeks/months.
*Let’s not delve into Pirsig asides on the Metaphysics of Quality, my contrarian friends. And I know there are a few of you out there.
Nose: Peat and smoke, as you’d expect, and a fair amount, too. All of that expected oceanic brininess and iconic PE tarry character is in full effect here. Citrus (lemon, primarily). Notes of iodine and ammonia. Seared scallops and oyster liquor. Fuel (kerosene maybe? Not quite?). Fennel and tarragon. Salt licorice. Like sitting on the beach near the maltings, for those that have ever experienced that. Or like the morning air in the village of Bowmore when the breeze is blowing in off Loch Indaal.
Palate: Bombastic and fantastic. Smoky and salty, with threads of dark, oily vanilla. Herbaceous notes of green tea. Grapefruit and lime. Super fruity behind all the smoke. Some orange and melon. There is something almost ‘burnt tropical’ about it too. Slick and dark and wonderful.
Finish: Exquisitely long and throbbing (easy now, kids). Kinda seafoody. Kinda lemony.
Thoughts: This is a knockout dram. Unquestionably one of the all time greats, and one of the best expressions of Port Ellen I’ve ever tasted.
93.5/100 (But is that enough???)