Put on your red caps and man your submarines, because we're going deep. This week's review is Indiana Jones' Lost Ark, Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth, and Steve Zissou's Jaguar Shark all rolled into one. Because when it comes to Islay Scotch, when it comes to single malts in general, and when it comes to beasts of the smoky variety, Port Ellen is the holy grail.
It's got all the ingredients: The distillery has been closed for 30 years; existing stock is selling for $7,000 a bottle; whisky hounds far and wide troll the Earth looking to a rare sighting of this elusive and beautiful beast.
Friends in Low Places
How were we able to score a taste? In the library of a turn-of-the-century mansion built by one of America's most notorious capitalists, there is a secret vault. Eight inches of solid steel guard this former titan's most precious treasures. The sole individual with the combination is a weathered, peg-legged pirate named Captain Coop. Good ol' Coop has taken down his fair share of smoky beasts in his day, and for a few gold doubloons and a promise of eternal secrecy, he turned the wheel and retrieved a dusty bottle from the vault for our collection. Thanks Coop! Sorry we blew the secrecy part.
The jewel that Coop emerged with is a McGibbon's Provenance bottling 23-Year Port Ellen Sherry Cask, distilled in 1982 — just one year before the distillery closed — and bottled in 2005. It's an even rarer beast than your typical Port Ellen since they were not traditional aged in sherry barrels. McGibbon's is an independent bottler owned by Douglas Laing, an extremely well-respected distributor out of Glasgow. Basically, if you're a rich Scotsman, Douglas Laing hand-picks your hooch from their private reserves and delivers cases of whisky that fit your tastes. (One day, one day...)
Why is Port Ellen such a phenomenon? In its heyday it was the granddaddy of Islay distilleries. Lagavulin, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig were all officially founded in the early 1800s, although this was due to the legalization of the whisky-making industry. They were all surreptitiously distilling decades before then. Port Ellen had the prime location on Islay's biggest harbor and closest to it's largest town. It was the among the most prized of Islay's malts. To put this in perspective, it would be like living on a block next to Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and regularly schooling them at HORSE. Port Ellen was gutted and shut down in 1983 in a wave of corporate hysteria about overproduction and optimization, never to be reopened. Today it is used to produce malting for many other distilleries, but has no distillation capabilities of it's own.
Today, the Port Ellen Distillery is still an active and critical part of many of our beloved Islay whiskies since they produce maltings for distilleries like Lagavulin, and Caol Ila. (There's a great video in that link that shows the entire malting process including the 2-ton peat fires!). This is mostly a logistics decision. Port Ellen is the closest location on Islay from where ships dock that bring barley from the mainland. Port Ellen distillery had the largest malting and fermenting capacity and this may have determined the decision to stop distilling whisky there and simply use it to produce distillation-ready malts for the other Diageo distilleries. Sad, but it's probably one of the reasons that Lagavulin can continue to produce such quantities of fantastic quality whisky today.
Port Ellen Malting Facility with Cloud of Peat Smoke
It's a little known fact that a huge part of the actual peat-burning that goes on in Islay today is done at Port Ellen. So guarded is this secret that there are only tours of the facility allowed once per year at the local Islay Festival every spring. But it's well known to the locals since massive clouds of peat smoke come pouring out of this malt mecca every day. Imagine driving home from work through a fog of burning peat. Sounds like our personal paradise.