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More than any other distillery Port Ellen stands out above all others as a lost and lamented spirit. Of all the distilleries that were sadly closed in the 80s it is Port Ellen that has come to be mourned the most. This is undoubtedly helped by the fact that it is a peated malt from Islay, a fact that already lends it cult status, but also because there have been literally hundreds of bottlings of it over the years and the number does not seem to be dwindling even now. A malt of great individuality and often of very high quality it is a whisky that will only increase in desirability as time passes and stocks inevitably dwindle.
Port Ellen Distillery
Stills: 2 Wash. 2 Spirit
Active between 1967-1983
Port Ellen was mothballed in 1926 and did not reopen until 1967, as a result we have a very specific 16 year window of production from which all known bottlings have been produced. There are some 'old'bottlings of Port Ellen kicking around supposedly from the early 20th century but these are almost certainly all fakes. When the distillery started production in April 1967 its stills were heated my mechanical stokers, a form of direct firing and the stills were fitted with shell condensers, which replaced the old worm tubs. The stills were later converted to internal steam heating in 1970. The malt was initially floor malted at the distillery, though after 1974 all malt was produced at the new maltings that were completed in 1973. There are not as many bottlings from these initial years of production as there are from the latter which is a shame as they are often stunning with a beautifully complex and austere fruitiness, green and tropical fruits with steely, oily peat flavours and a rich coastal intensity. There are fantastic bottlings by G&M, Samaroli and several other Italian Importers although they are, understandably, pretty expensive. The profile of Port Ellen evolved a little throughout the seventies, after 1974 it started to move towards what we would recognize as a 'later'profile. There are two single casks of 1974 Port Ellen bottled in 2004 by Signatory as 30yo's that show a slight mix of the early and later aspects of Port Ellen's style, they are both utterly mind blowing whiskies if you can find them. The fruitiness was becoming gentler and less intense by the late seventies but the intensity of the coastal characteristics and the immense oiliness and petrol like attributes were increasing. There are many stunning examples of the make from 78 and 79 from a variety of official and independent examples. Douglas Laing has recently bottled a series of gorgeous 30yo single casks from these vintages.
During the latter years of its life Port Ellen's character had evolved again, moving like most distilleries towards a more modern style. This is the era from which there are the most bottlings available with more being bottled all the time. These whiskies display very pristine coastal and mineral characters often with a trademark slightly dirty, smoky, coal like peatiness to them as well. The best examples are stunning, however, due to the high output of bottlings the quality is occasionally diminished by duller examples and some poorer casks being bottled for the sake of selling the name. Almost every bottler has bottled casks from these years and they are often well worth trying as they can be very beautiful whiskies and there will come a time when it will be impossible to get Port Ellen any more. There is also a much higher proportion of sherry casks available from these years. Port Ellen in a good sherry cask, like most peated malts, is often stunning with notes of flints, gun oil, richly sweet peat and concentrated earthy fruit notes.
As with all closed distilleries there will always be an aura around Port Ellen, the drinking of it is something cloaked in privilege and often we are too misty eyed to assess the quality honestly. However there are more than enough obviously stunning examples out there to prove the quality of the distillery. Inevitably, when the bottlings are all gone or too ridiculously expensive, then it will be a sad day but until then we should make the most of this liquid while it lasts because, in many ways, it is worth the cult and praise we heap upon it. As many have already noted, it is a very sad loss indeed.