There is something, the received wisdom goes, so inimitably evocative about a closed distillery. Something peerless and pedestalled and pure. Something to be whispered and gushed about, and spoken of with humanising adulation. They aren’t simply “closed” – no, they’re “silent”, “lost”, “dead”, “ghosts”. The living can’t compete.
We know where the apotheosis comes from, of course. It’s the slithery, saccharine siren-song of somnolent nostalgia. The lazy, unimaginative, England-trademarked insistence, played in sepia to the strains of Holst, that the best of us have gone before; that their like will not – nay, cannot – be seen again.
Straddling this legion of raised-up Galahads; atop the Glen Mhors and Imperials; the Glen Albyns and Dhallas Dhus; the St Magdalenes, Banffs, Ben Wyvises and Convalmores; standing even on the sainted shoulders of Rosebank and Brora is Port Ellen. The ghost of ghosts; the Holy Spirit of closed distilleries.
Critiquing Port Ellen is seen by a titanic chunk of whisky’s online cognoscenti as just a notch or two down from widdling on the Cenotaph. Don’t you know it’s the pearl of Islay? The apogee of peated whisky? The murdered martyr, sacrificed to the tasteless vodka-swillers of the unenlightened eighties? The corner-of-a-Hebridean-bog-that-is-forever etcetera etcetera. Acceptance into the whiskerati’s leathery member’s club comes when you lay your hand upon WhiskyFun’s URL and cite the Port Ellen bottling you rate whisky ne plus ultra. I remember being in an Islay hotel when some Diageo higher-ups arrived to celebrate 200 years of Lagavulin with all of the island’s distillery managers. Guess what they called to the bar for to mark the occasion?
It was this zealotry that drove last year’s announcement of the phoenixing of Islay’s Lazarus, alongside Clynelish 1.0. The final casks might have dripped their last into Special Release bottles, but don’t worry – the powers that be have watched, they’ve listened and now they’re resurrecting, just like Ian MacLeod are giving the kiss of life to Rosebank’s 25-years-stiff corpse. Pop the corks and sound the trumpets; wise heads have prevailed, and the good times are returning.
They say it’ll be just like it was before – don’t you worry. These won’t be malformed zombies, but perfect, reawakened Snow Whites; preserved in cryogenic stasis for a decade or two, but basically just the same, honest. Exactly as they were, give or take the equipment, the personnel and a building or two.
I know that at least half of you – and all of the professional contingent – think, when you think of Malt at all, that we’re ne’er-pleased Scrooges (and could do with a ghost or two ourselves). That all we want is something to grumble about and that we’ll kick your sandcastle over for the sheer joy of watching the sand fly. And I realise that there are those to whom Port Ellen’s re-opening will genuinely mean something, and who were genuinely upset when it closed. Not least my father, who bought bottles for £15 a throw on trips up to Scotland in the late eighties. (And then drank them all, if you can believe such a thing.)
But make no mistake: the new-era whisky won’t be the same. It can’t be, to begin with; no one has ever successfully recreated a whisky, despite Croesian sums being spent in the attempt. More fundamentally, so many of the production methods of these fallen idols have moved on almost out of recognition in the last three or four decades.
And there lies the kernel of the veneration. Closed distilleries are worshipped by genuine whisky lovers because they were mothballed before too many of their production techniques had been over-trimmed and watered down by the pincers of increased yield and efficiency. They weren’t “compromised”, as so many “survivors” were, on their yeasts, fermentation methods, barley varieties, still-heating, condensers and casks. Rather they were culled entirely, before their liquid records could begin to show the cracks and strains and homogenisations so commonplace to the last thirty or so years.
Flicking through R.J. McDowell’s 1967 work, The Whiskies of Scotland (and trying to ignore my then-adolescent father’s pencillings of contemporary prices) I was struck by the distilleries upon which he heaped most praise. Glenlivet, Macallan and Blair Athol loomed large. Above ur-Clynelish, above Glen Mhor, above Port Ellen. Look at that trio in 2018. I can’t imagine Mr McDowell racing to re-garland them with such lofty laurels.
“Can’t repeat the past? Of course you can” is the cornered insistence of thwarted Gatsbys. Personally I prefer Tom Stoppard’s take on transience in Arcadia:
“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.”
By all means look to the past for inspiration. There is a reason why so many of the world’s most experienced palates cite former-era whiskies as more singular in character, multifarious in flavour and (often) profound in quality than their modern day counterparts. I don’t think there is a serious whisky drinker who wouldn’t relish a deeper consideration of the importance of barley strains and yeasts and fermentation times and condensers and means of still-heating.
But those methods weren’t unique to the distilleries now closed. There wasn’t some conspiracy to single out and harvest only the very greatest whisky factories. The modern revival of Port Ellen is, to my thinking, simply a lazy route to marketing a new whisky. To getting a new distillery’s produce quickly on shelves without the sweat, tears and travails experienced by genuine, inventive new startups. Crucially, it is a near-guarantee of stratospheric sales even if quality isn’t up to snuff.
Diageo could have challenged themselves to make something shining and new; informed by the less efficiency-minded practices of the past. A tremendous addition to the warp and weft of whisky’s history. They could have used their astronomic muscle to make something better than the original Port Ellen (which personally I don’t rate all that highly anyway). But they didn’t. They’ve gone down the safe, easy, timorous, mammon-paved, quagmirish road-more-travelled, served with a heaped spoon of glimmering, stultifying nostalgia to folk who didn’t give much of a toss when Port Ellen closed in the first place.
A surfeit of romance will choke and hamstring the Scotch whisky industry if it isn’t backed up by quality that matches the fabulous, harder-fought efforts of the rest of the world. Consumers will only be blinded by names on bottles for so long. Learn from the ghosts of the past, by all means, but leave the ghosts themselves there. Let the old names die and make us something better instead.
And, with that, to another ghost from another hemisphere. An 18-year-old from the closed Willowbank Distillery, New Zealand. Deceased in 1997 after a long battle with being chucked around by conglomerates. (Foster’s delivered the final cut. Which silly sod gave some Australians a Kiwi distillery to look after?)
As you can read in Jason’s piece on Boutique-y’s recent-ish bottling, ex-bourbon casks of Willowbank were later bought up and re-racked into local ex-Pinot Noir barrels. My suspicion is that this edition (a Whisky Exchange exclusive) is a direct sister to the Boutique-y, which would make it a ‘single blend’ of malted and unmalted barley. One for Phil perhaps – they like that sort of thing in Ireland.
An 18-year-old, bottled in 2018, from a distillery that closed in 1997, is very much my sort of maths. One assumes, as Jason pointed out, that it simply spent some time in a neutral vessel of some description or other before being bottled. Doesn’t seem terribly likely to be a Glendronach-style “18-year-old-plus”.
I was excitedly told by a chap at the Whisky Show that its (delicious) 29-year-old sibling was “fantastic value for money” at £475 for 50cl. I’ll leave you to pick the bones out of that one. In the meantime this 18-year-old weighed in at £99.95 the half-litre. Jason was heartily enamoured of the Boutique-y, rating it 9 out of 10. (He’s only awarded that to six whiskies out of over 250 this year – I checked.) Let’s see how this one gets on.
New Zealand Double Wood 18 year old (Whisky Exchange Exclusive) – Review
Colour: Very deep, dark red.
On the nose: Golly, that’s beautiful. Fruity ex-wine cask single malt meets well-aged wheated bourbon, almost. Dried and sweet strawberries, cinnamon, caramel, smoky leather. Lots of winey notes. Game jus, blackcurrant and eucalyptus. These are big aromas; they bound out of the glass. Luxurious stuff.
In the mouth: A little harsh with alcohol … and wildly different to the nose. There are still big fruits, but they’re joined by an equally huge, resinous – almost gluey – note. Bizarre! Blueberries, raspberries, old furniture … then more weird glue. Cigar towards the finish. Determinedly different, massive-hearted, but not a patch on the epic, epic nose.
Amazing nose, leading to a big, but dramatically weird palate. (The geophysicist agreed, so it must be true.) Very unusual fare. I like it … but I’d like to have liked it more. And, given the wonderful, vibrant distilling scene across the modern Antipodes, I won’t shed too many tears for Willowbank’s loss.
We’re approaching the end of 2018 now; that cushiony, chinz-tinted, warm-mug, chicken soup time where one slumps, pudgy and soporific, sated with grog and comfort stodge, and drowsily reflects on a year done well.
My urge, this December, is not to look back into rose-flecked, unrepeatable history, but forward: to possibility, potential, promise. To future whiskies made better than today’s; ameliorated by past approaches; not to fretfully-guarded stashes of diminishing antiques. To tomorrow’s glass, rather than yesterday’s. To the next name, rather than the last.