The mere mention of Port Ellen conjures widespread feelings for many enthusiasts. For some there is a sense of rapture around the distillery and the promise of liquid treasure – especially if you are into whisky purely for financial gain. Then for others the disappointment that this distillery can offer, or at least the emotional rollercoaster of quality that Port Ellen harbours.
Of course, 2017 delivered the unbelievable news that Diageo was set to perform a Jurassic Park style resurrection of the distillery. The fact that the majority of production buildings were sacrificed on the corporate chopping block amidst a worldwide slump in demand for whisky seems to have been lost. The kneejerk reaction from the forerunner of Diageo in the 1980’s brought to an end several historical distilleries that are now sadly missed and lost to the nation. Now swanning back into the limelight – heralding the benefits of reviving Port Ellen – Malt hasn’t forgotten who put the distillery in this predicament in the first place.
However it’s clear Diageo has a sizeable resource of information and records around the original Port Ellen and what it’ll take to bring its style of peated spirit back to life. Whether the resurrection is a faithful reproduction externally and internally seems unlikely. In some ways this modern and potentially ultra chic and expensive Port Ellen will be a Chanel style makeover where the only links with the past will be the brand name and location. Only time will tell, but for the residents of Islay it should mean more jobs unless this new modern Port Ellen is remotely controlled from a Diageo offshore tax haven.
In some respects Port Ellen is the most worrying of the reviving trio comprising also of Brora and Rosebank. The latter is mainly complete with the odd missing part thanks to copper thieves. The new owners also seem focused on retaining the qualities that made the original Rosebank so fondly loved by enthusiasts. Brora even with its decaying structure and still room roof featuring holes that tarnished the stills should now be safe. I’m still bitter with all the money flying around the Diageo coffers that more effort wasn’t displayed to protect and retain Brora previously. Now, it’ll cost Diageo even more to revive Brora as they’ll have to repair the damage and make good on the years of neglect. Perhaps that’s a lesson for the future?
Meanwhile, back with Port Ellen its the most worrying of the trio as it simply no longer exists or at least the main production buildings. A dangerous game is being played here as to build a distillery on the site of a former producer and reclaim its name may seem slightly dubious. After all this isn’t about being faithful to the Port Ellen whisky already on the market. It’s rather an admission that Diageo has failed to create its own luxury whisky brand around a single distillery. Faced with the prospect of being on the verge of consigning Brora and Port Ellen to the history books a radical plan was hatched.
The levelling of a distillery and the rebuilding of a replacement on its site is nothing new in the whisky industry. Aultmore springs to mind after being demolished and rebuilt in a modern and ultimately depressing style by 1971. The whisky marketing around Aultmore of course won’t highlight such a fact, but will engage in wordplay around traditional origins and its long status as a distillery. A more recent example is Wolfburn that originally existed in 1821, before the name was revived in 2012 by the building of a nearby distillery. It’s the same principle albeit the original Wolfburn was such a reclusive distillery that very little information actually remains of its original form or any photographic material. Plus, Wolfburn was gone for longer than the 3 decades or so that Port Ellen ceased to exist as a producer.
The name of Port Ellen is very much prominent in the minds of many enthusiasts thanks to the legacy of its casks and annual releases. When the new material arrives at market it’ll be priced at a luxurious level. What this means based on today’s prices and where they’ll be in 15 to 20 years time we’ll have to see. No doubt the Diageo spreadsheet posse will have a business plan factoring in such costs. Perhaps the most sound advice is to start saving now?
Fred, the founder of Douglas Laing, famously named his favourite distillery as Port Ellen. This perhaps explains why this independent bottler is so well endowed with casks from Islay. Over the years despite the rollercoaster nature of whisky from this distillery, my own humble experiences have confirmed that some of the very best Port Ellen’s have come from Douglas Laing. High expectations, even without Phil from the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar recommending this particular release from their vast inventory of whiskies at the bar. So let us begin.
Douglas Laing Port Ellen 1978 – review
Bottled for the Whisky Shop in 2006, this 28 year old resided in a sherry cask that produced 212 bottles at 56.1%.
Colour: Lapsang souchong.
On the nose: a treacle drenched peat with a salty coastal vibe. Milk chocolate, a surprising degree of beeswax, brown sugar, cloves and sweet cinnamon. Smoked hickory chips, bacon and maple syrup.
In the mouth: an exceptional arrival with roasted coffee beans, walnuts, chocolate and a dirty vanilla. The peat and earthiness is present but not forceful. Treacle, black tea, orange peel, black pepper and raisins all follow in a mesmerising display.
Yes, certainly one of the better Port Ellens that’s for sure. If the Mark 2 distillery reboot can deliver whisky such as this in 30 to 40 years time then there won’t be many complaints. However, whether there will be the affordability of patience remains to be seen. We should not overlook the value a great sherry cask brings to the equation as well. Arguably due to modern methods this element will be difficult to re-harness. Ultimately this is an exceptional Port Ellen and to be savoured regardless of what the future may hold.