March 22, 2013

Port Ellen 23 Year - The Legend of the Jaguar Shark

The Legend of the Jaguar Shark

Steve Zissou & Co
(courtesy The Life Aquatic)
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 thirty years;  Existing stock is selling for seven thousand dollars a bottle;  Whisky hounds far and wide troll the earth looking to a rare sighting of this elusive and beautiful beast.

The Vault
(yes, that's a real Botticelli above)
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...)

Nice Try, Dr. J, Let Me Show You How It's Done

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 1800's, 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.

Current Operations

Port Ellen Facility (courtesy
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 two 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 whiskey 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 w/ 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.


Is it all just hype?  Do people love Port Ellen just because it's a rare and ever-dwindling supply?  It's kind of like asking if Hendrix would still be the greatest guitarist of all time if he hadn't died at 28.  Would he?  Yes, yes he would.  Case closed.

More from Douglas Laing

If we've piqued your curiosity about Douglas Laing, there are a bunch of other bottles that might be of interest.  They have a line of "vatted" scotch (in other words not quite a blend, but a mix of two or three single malts).  They make a proprietary Islay blend of Ardbeg, Bowmore, Caol Ila, and Port Ellen called Big Peat (Oh yeah Big Peat will be getting a SmokyBeast review, as if you had to ask, stay tuned..).  They also make a "double barrel" series where they combine one very smoky Islay malt with another - unexpected - single malt.  So far they've combined Laphroiag with Macallan, Ardbeg with Glen Rothes, and Bowmore with Highland Park.  A lot of these seem to float in and out of stock, but you can usually find them around.

Ok enough suspense, we're in the Jaguar Shark's cave at the bottom of the ocean.  Let's crack the bottle and have a taste.  How's it measure up?

Wifey's Tasting Notes

Appearance:  Perfection.  Not too light, and not too dark.  Just right.  And all natural, to boot.  It's pretty much exactly what you'd hope for in a scotch.  Even the bottle is a thing of beauty.  Even if you didn't know what you had, you get the sense that there is something special here.

Nose:  It might be because we first tasted this in a room in an over 100 year old library, but something about this takes me back there.  It 's like you're sitting in front of a fire, reading a good book, and of course drinking a good scotch.  The smoke is off the charts, which I think is the most special thing about it.  But it's not for everyone.

Palate: I make no qualms about telling everyone that I like my scotches peaty.  But this one takes the cake.  This is smoky beyond compare.  It's blended in a way that you can tell that these Port Ellen fellas knew what they were doing.  Besides the smoke, I get a lot of rich caramel and black pepper, and maybe a hint of saltiness.  It's really one of the more beautiful and awe inspiring scotches I've ever had the pleasure of tasting.

Finish: Smooth, spicy and rich, with a hint of tobacco.  Unlike anything I've ever had.   I am literally savoring the last drops of my dram, as I know this might be the last time we meet.  Sad, but true.  But worth the experience.

Hubby's Tasting Notes

For comparison I poured a dram of Lagavulin Distiller's Edition (my favorite scotch of the year) next to the Port Ellen in order to contrast the two.

Appearance:  It's a rosy copper.  A shade darker than the Lagavulin, and redder.  It's also a bit cloudier. More translucent than clear.

Nose:  Everything you'd hope for and dream of in an Islay is here: the campfire, the old leather, the honey, and the toffee.  But there's something else too, an exotic richness.  Like Indian curry.  Yes, sometimes I go to "Curry Hill" (New Yorker colloquial for the strip of Indian / Pakistani shops on Lexington in the 30's) and buy pre-roasted spice mixes.  They make a yellow curry.  It's warm and rich and wonderful.  Mix that with an old library and the rocks next to a campfire and there you go.

Palate:  It opens up warm and almost evaporates on the palate.  I can feel the flavors move down from the little ocean saltiness at the tip of the tongue, to the mid-palate sweetness, to the bottom-of-the-tongue warmth and richness.  It's the balance that's striking.  I've heard this before, but didn't really get it until I tasted it firsthand.  It's not the peatiest or the smokiest.  It's not the most sweet, fruity, sherry-packed.  But the integration of the peat/smoke and the sweet fruit is impeccable.  There is no burn, yet you can deeply taste the spirit.  A quick A /  B with the Lagavulin is very interesting.  It matches the smoke of the Lag, but the upfront smoke disappears very quickly and the richness remains.

Finish:  Lasting.  The smoke remains for a full minute across your nose and the bridge of your mouth.  All the spices mingle just perfectly on the aftertaste.  This is where, dare I'll say, that it crushes the Lag.  While I could sit for hours enjoying the smoky finish of the Lag, the way the flavor and smoke intermix here is, in a word, unique.

Honorary Doctorate

Our reviews are based on value.  Since this bottle has been off the market for years, we can't give it a letter grade.  Think of our typical reviews as a final exam at SmokyBeast University.  The Port Ellen doesn't have to take the exam.  It gets an honorary Ph. D.  The only sad part is when the bottle is gone, because we know there are a finite number of these on our little planet and each time you finish a glass it literally could be your last.  But you know what?  Life is not about the future, it's about the moment.  This was one to remember.  /smokybeast

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