A couple of months ago, I started becoming aware of the buzz around the Port Ellen Annual Releases, and became very interested in this whisky. However, I was pretty sure I would never actually taste a Port Ellen original distillery bottling (OB). I mean really, $400 for a 750ml bottle? No way that’s happening for me right now. Then I discovered Diageo’s Classic Islay Collection gift pack. It’s a box containing five 200 ml bottles (Caol Ila 12, Caol Ila 18, Lagavulin 12, Lagavulin 16, and Port Ellen 7th), and you can get it for around $100 through The Whisky Exchange [Link to my post on this gift pack].
Suddenly, a Port Ellen purchase became much easier to justify. So, here I am with a dram of the Port Ellen 28 year “Seventh Release” (2007) in a Glencairn tasting glass. Life is good. [The picture might look odd. I decided to set aside 100ml of my PE 7th for future use. I poured my 200ml bottle into two 100ml sample bottles, steamed off the label, and stuck it on the sample that I'm saving.]
I’d like to point out that this is a cask-strength bottling of Port Ellen whisky, coming in at 54.7% ABV. Let me also point out that if you buy a full size bottle of this same release, you will find it bottled at a slightly lower 53.8%. I’m not sure why the difference between the two, but I’d love to hear about it if you know.
Update - Tim F from The Whisky Exchange provided the following explanation in the comments section of my Lagavulin 12 post (Thanks Tim!):
Okay, I found the email reply I received from a source close to Diageo when I asked about the different bottling strengths. The following as verbatim from his email:
“…the different bottlings of the same issue (i.e. the 70cl and the 20cl bottles) were filled on different dates and possibly even at different bottling lines. The actual ABV of the spirit can vary a few degrees depending on how and when the different casks (even those from the same year) are vatted together before bottling; and the actual strength is measured precisely on the bottling line and the labels adjusted to reflect the precise measurement, I think.”
So it seems likely that the difference in strengths stems from a delay between the bottlings of the 20cl and 70cl after the batch had been made up. This does make some sort of sense, I suppose.
On the nose, my first thought is that this is similar to Caol Ila. There’s a similar fruity sweetness combined with peat and light smoke. But there’s more with this Port Ellen…a rich vanilla scent that now brings Laphroaig 15 to mind. So, we have a complex nose here, but it’s also a little bit muted. I feel inclined to take a bigger whiff, only to then be hit with the high alcohol content (which didn’t stand out to me on normal nosing).
On the palate, it’s not muted at all. There’s a significant presence, kind of “hot” from the cask strength, but also very peaty. On the back of the palate and starting into the finish, I’m again reminded of Caol Ila. This time, it’s coal smoke. However, once again, the Port Ellen continues to deliver where Caol Ila drops off. The finish lasts longer, with a distinct earthy peat (Talisker-like) coming up through the back of the nostrils.
I tried adding a little water, but didn’t take much in the way of notes. I’ll talk more about the effects of water in another post, when I compare the PE 7th with the PE 6th release. The water did seem to take away some of the vanilla on the nose, bringing it back closer to Caol Ila. It also removed the hotness on the palate, but left the peat in tact.
This is a really nice scotch in its own right. The fact that it’s from a highly respected and closed distillery, and is something of a rarity, makes the experience all the more enjoyable. I always find myself trying to associate new [to me] whiskies with ones that I’m already familiar with. In this case, I didn’t have to try very hard to imagine a vatting of Caol Ila 12 and Laphroaig 15, bottled at cask strength. Maybe throw in a little Talisker 18 on the late finish. My interpretation of these associations (to three scotches that I love) is that this is a complex dram that hits on all of the right notes for my tastes. On the other hand, I did find myself wishing the nose was a little less muted. It seems like I have to try harder while nosing this one. At this time, I can’t say whether I prefer it with or without water, but I’ll revisit that in the future.
If you can afford to buy the full size bottle, or if you can get your hands on The Classic Islay Collection like I did, I highly recommend trying this excellent scotch whisky. It slots nicely into the gift pack lineup, somewhere between the Caol Ila and Lagavulin in terms of flavor profile, and shares traits [and level of complexity] with Laphroaig 15. If this was more readily available and you could pick up a 750 ml bottle for closer to $100, I would be all over this as a regular purchase to keep available in my house. At the current price [for a full size bottle], I think you have to be able to appreciate the Port Ellen story/history to get your money’s worth.
- Info about the Port Ellen distillery
- Malt Madness Distillery Data – Malt Madness is a sister site to Whisky Fun, and they have great information about most of the distilleries in Scotland. This is a link to their Port Ellen page.
- Islay Web Log – Here’s an extract from the book “Port Ellen Distillery and Maltings” by John A Thomson. While the Port Ellen distillery was dismantled long ago, you still here a lot about “Port Ellen malt”. This article gives some background on the creation of Port Ellen Maltings, built to supply malt to the Port Ellen, Caol Ila, and Lagavulin distilleries in the early 1970s.
- Other opinions on the 7th Annual Release
- WhiskyFun.com – Here’s a comparison of three Port Ellens, including the 7th release. They really like this one a lot, scoring it 92 points (vs. 86 points for the 3rd annual release).
- John Hansell – An early “What does John know?” blog post, with tasting notes and scoring for the 7th release. 90 points.
- Whisky and other wonderful things – A blog by somebody with much more scotch drinking experience than I have. He’s not nearly as impressed, finding this release a bit too one dimensional. 7 (leaning towards 6) points out of 10.