A few days ago was my birthday, so I wanted to mark it with a celebratory dram. I thought it was the perfect occasion to taste and enjoy a dram from a lost distillery (not for long though). My choice went to a Port Ellen 1982 Old Malt Cask from the independent bottler Douglas Laing, a dram being 26 years old. But before talking about the dram, let’s talk about the famous Islay distillery.
In 1824, Alexander Kerr Mackay founded the distillery near Port Ellen, a town located in the south of Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. Unfortunately, Mackay went bankrupt a few months later. The distillery changed hand several times between other family members, without much more success: John Morrison, Patrick Thomson and George Maclennan. In 1833, a cousin of Morrison, John Ramsay, took the reins.
Being formerly a Glasgow wine and sherry importer, he won the confidence of the Laird of Islay and was granted a lease on the distillery in 1836. Ramsay was a true entrepreneur: he was one of the first to export to the US, and was still at the head of the distillery 50 years later. Port Ellen was also the first distillery to adopt the spirit safe, created by the famous Aeneas Coffey, who also gave its name to the Coffey column stills.
A bit of history
At that time, the distillery had three barley lofts, steeps and malting floors, and two kilns to dry the barley with local peat. The still room only contained two stills: a 16 000 litres wash still, and a 9 500 litres spirit still. Six warehouses were holding 3 700 casks, and the output was a bit more than 600 000 litres per year.
In 1892, after Ramsay’s death, his widow Lucy took over the distillery, and at her death in 1906, their son Capt Iain Ramsay inherited the distillery. However, it was the start of a few years later to World War I with taxes and distilling restrictions, and in 1920 he sold the distillery assets to Port Ellen Distillery Co Ltd, a company owned by John Dewar and James Buchanan. In 1925 DCL bought the company, and mothballed it in 1930. Transferred as all DCL’s malt distilleries that year to a new subsidiary, Scottish Malt Distillers, Port Ellen stayed silent until 1967. However, the maltings and warehouses stayed in use, and after an 18 months rebuild, the stills were fired again.
Four new stills, coal-fired, were installed in the original still house, then modified to use oil-heated steam coils in 1970. New drum maltings were installed in 1973, and the kilns, fired using both oil and peat, were used for 36 hours to dry the malted barley, twice the usual time used on mainland, giving a strong peated aroma to the barley and the spirit.
However, in 1978, whisky sales dipped again and in 1983, DCL mothballed a dozen distilleries including Port Ellen. We thought for long that it would be definitive, but Diageo announced in October 2017 that Port Ellen would be revived once again (as well as Brora), and is scheduled to be live again in 2020 after a £35 million investment (for both Brora and Port Ellen).
Port Ellen 1982 Old Malt Cask review
The nose is peaty and maritime, with brine, seashells and iodine. Hidden behind the maritime notes, we can find a slight touch of citrus and apples.
The mouthfeel is slightly oily, and the arrival is smoky, like an extinguished bonfire on the beach. Smoked citrus and oranges, a pinch of pepper that adds some heat, and smoked salmon complements the smoky notes. Ginger and a bit of wood in the end.
Long with smoke, pepper, wood and aniseed.
A delicious dram that I’m happy to have drunk to celebrate my birthday. It’s a typical Islay, but at the same time it is very different to any other Islay whisky I’ve tasted so far (not thousands of them I know, but anyway). Now though it’s very good, its rarity and “legend” don’t mean it’s automatically rated 90+. It was tempting, but all things considered and legend put aside, I had even better drams in my life.
Huge thank you to Franck @LaCaveDeCobalt for the first picture… and the sample!