One of the perks about my job is that I get the oppurtunity to try a lot of products, and that combined with friends and my own explorations means that I have been able to try dozens of different distilleries and hundreds of expressions. Aside from the obvious enjoyment inherent in trying such lovely (and occasionally not so lovely) whisky, it means that I have a relatively refined palate and I'm able to have an intelligent discussion with most scotch drinkers. Bascially I'm good at my job, as I can discuss pretty much any scotch available commercially in Alberta. Very, very occasionally this will result in a customer offering me a bit of something they've bought, and tonight I was blessed with the chance to try to 1978 vintage Port Ellen. For those not aware, Port Ellen was one of the oldest Islay distilleries, operating from its opening in 1820 until being closed down in 1983. While the stills haven't produced any spirit in 27 years, the malting floors still supply much of the barley to the other Islay distilleries. Situated in Islay's capital city of Port Ellen, the distillery naturally shares many of the characteristics of its island cousins Lagavulin and Laphroaig. The bottle I sampled tonight was the 1978 release, bottled in 2005 at 54.2%. It comes in a 70cl bottle, and I sampled it out of a Riedel spirit glass. Sadly, this review couldn't be written as I sipped, as I was only able to try it at work out of this customer's generosity. Hopefully memory and the notes I took at the time will suffice to fill in the gaps.
In the Bottle 9/10
While I might've liked something a little bit more old fashioned and stylised, both the box and the bottle itself have a quiet elegance. This is a scotch for the coinosseur, have no doubt, and the relatively simple packaging speaks to this. A plan white label, with all of the information one could need in a dark green tinted bottle calls to those in the know with scotch and reminds one of Port Ellen's Islay sisters.
In the Glass 10/10
The whisky pours a beautiful clear gold with several large bubbles rimming the glass. The closest colour I've seen is from a select few Belgian blonde ales, or maybe a nice late harvest sauvignon blanc. Beautiful. As soon as I put my nose to the glass I'm hit by aromas of alcohol and peat, and with a moment the nose opens up a little to reveal more peat, heather honey, hints of vanilla and iodine. My mouth was watering already, and I couldn't wait to try it. I did sample it before I added a drop of mineral water, but to save jumping back and forth...with some water the nose opened up immensely. At first, the alcohol is completely smoothed out and the peat is dimmed a bit, with the heather honey springing to the fore and hints of sea salt in the back of my nose. As we chatted, the scotch had a chance to open up a bit, and vanilla and hints of chocolate became present (much like the Ardbeg Uigeadail) with the faint presence of wheat under the peat and sea salt. Just a gorgeous nose, I could've spent an hour analysing it alone.
In the Mouth 10/10
Before I added the water, this reminded me most of Lagavulin with a slight..something to it, despite the abv there was practically no burn, just hints of something in the middle of the my throat. With just a few drops of water (I had about a 1.5 oz pour, and I put maybe two eye droppers worth of water) the honey and vanilla exploded onto the tongue. The entire experience changed! It still reminds me most of the Lagavulin, but with subtler peat and a much greater abundance of honey and vanilla character on the front of the tongue. While I know better, there character almost makes me suspect there's a hint of sherry cask in this, but I think the vanilla and faint hints of toffee are inherent to the whisky and imparted by the bourbon. A sherry finish makes its presence felt far more strongly. As the whisky hits mid palate that slightly odd flavour comes to prominence, with the salt I expect from Talisker or Springbank coming to the fore. Delicious.
The Finish 9/10
The finish smooths out to more of the honey and vanilla, with the peat and salt fading away quickly. The sweeter notes linger long after the dram is gone, but I would have liked a bit more of that peat in the finish. Nonetheless, the finish contributes to the balanced effect of the whisky, sweetness and peatyness in a harmonious interplay.
Port Ellen isn't quite like anything I've ever had before. While it is clearly of Islay, and very much reminiscent of it's sisters on the island, it has a character to it which is unique. Whether this is the result of being from a single year of the unique character of the whisky I couldn't say; given its discontinued status Port Ellen releases will only become more rare. And this is a great shame, as despite (or perhaps because of) these oddities the release I had is hands down the best spirit I have ever tasted, and will be damn hard to beat. I really wish they were still in regular production, so that I could get my hands on a slightly cheaper bottle. That said, this outstanding release has now topped my list of whiskies to own a bottle of, and I may be putting aside a few dollars here and there so I can buy one for myself someday. A special thanks to my customer tonight, for allowing me to try something truly fabulous.
Final score: 9.5/10 Age: 27 yr Strength: 54.2% Cask: Refill bourbon Average retail price: $430-450 per 70cl bottle
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About the reviewer
Paul Gifford (paulgifford)
I'm a history major specialising in the British empire, with a general focus towards South Africa but embracing studies of the whole of the empire. I've been drinking single malt scotch whisky for nearly … more