Jun 122014

The Port Ellen distillery needs no introductions. This distillery was mothballed in the 1983 wave of distillery closing by the company now known as Diageo, in response to a serious decline in demand for whisky world over. As the whisky produced at Port Ellen was never sold as a single malt, and was only used for blends, the company figured that Lagavulin and Caol Ila would easily fill the gap, and even so both distilleries had to reduce production.

Diageo has dwindling stocks of Port Ellen whisky, releasing it in an ever more expensive yearly release. The 13th release, from October 2013, has a retail price of £1500, pretty amazing, considering that the distillery was obviously redundant 30 years ago. One must wonder why a bottle of mass produced whisky – ANY WHISKY – would warrant  such a price tag. Mind you, the 12th release cost £600, the 11th cost £300 but the 10 was £275. I won’t go any further back, as those batches were much larger than the ~3000 bottles now released. All are 1978 or 1979 vintage, matured 31-34 years and bottled at 53%-55% ABV.

Rare Malts Selection Port Ellen Price Inflation 2010-2013 © maltandoak.com

Rare Malts Selection Port Ellen Price Inflation 2010-2013 © maltandoak.com

Could the 13th release be 500% better than the 11th release, a mere two years before?
Obviously not.

In truth, you’re no longer paying for the whisky, especially since a good number of these bottles will never be opened (I estimated that number at two thirds, some of my whisky friends think the number is higher than 80%). Most of these bottles will sit sealed in private collections, adorning shelves, and others will go to auction at ever increasing crazy prices, again never to be opened. The bottles might as well have been filled with cheap Smirnoff vodka, it would have make no difference.

Is Port Ellen Whisky good? Yes, of course it is. Had it not been good, it would have never grabbed the imaginations of fans. Added to that is the fact that releases out there are 25-35 years old. So what would be a fair price for a 30 year old whisky from a closed distillery? The answer, of course, is whatever the market says it is, and the market is talking loud and clear. Nevertheless, there’s something about Diageo setting the price tag so far inside the crazy range, that makes it feel all wrong. It seems to me that at the £300 price tag of a mere two year ago even I would have gotten a few friends together to share a bottle without it causing my eyes to water.

But £1500 for essentially the same whisky? Come on…..

Do I really fault Diageo? Well, yes and no.
Obviously, ff I had a product with high demand and short supply, I’d make sure I get the most financial mileage out of it – especially if I saw that right after consumers buy the bottle from me at £300 they turn around and sell it for double that. Company executives figure that the company could pocket that ext
ra margin. Indeed, the 12th release was sold out just as fast as the 11th, and the 13th just as quickly. On the other hand, the original price of the expression plays a roll in the final auction price (well, usually at least, unless you spray paint the bottle gold, in which case all bets are off).  This year’s Lagavulin 37 release at £1950 is probably the precursor for the price tag of the 14th release, next year. For now, the price is on its way to doubling, on ebay:

EbayEbayEbay Auction

I wish there was a way to know just  how many of the bottles are actually opened. This irks me because I haven’t tasted many Port Ellens, and probably won’t get to taste the 13th release or any consequent bottling. Had the bottles been used for their real purpose – bringing whisky to the end consumer who breaks the seal and pops the cork out and has a dram with his friends to cherish the moment, they would still cost only £300. So in my book, keeping these bottles sealed, is a crime against whisky with the real beneficiary being Diageo, who holds the stock of liquid gold that has not reached its market price equilibrium

Now, getting back to the very good and very reasonably priced Port Ellen I had at the Loch Ness in Berlin. I paid €18 for a 20 ml tasting of a  26 year PE, and enjoyed every drop.

Photo Credit: masterofmalt.com

Photo Credit: masterofmalt.com

Douglas (Hunter) Laing Old Malt Cask Port Ellen 26 years Cask DL5398, Refill Sherry Butt Distilled 1.9.1982 and Bottled 1.7.2009 (50%ABV, NCF, NC)

Color: Deep gold, medium-slow legs.

Nose: Salt, sea, burnt out fire, tar, landfill fire with oak underneath. A freshly opened watermelon on the beach, vanilla, iodine and sherry. With 3 drops of water: milder peat, fresh cut grass and malt.

Palate: Very sweet peat, gentle sherry, spice, star anise, cigar draw. Spicy and soft in mouth.

Linger: Long with spice and peat playing in mouth. Spicy going down and a long warmth that lingers and lingers…

This dram is like angels were distilled into my glass. The sherry butt does wonders to peated whisky, and good whisky that spent 26 years in one will produce one cracking dram!



May 302014

You’ve heard a lot about Berlin as Europe’s culture capital, the city revived by the wall coming down. Berlin also happens to be one of the most popular vacation destinations for Israelis, and I figured I’d jump on the bandwagon and come to Berlin for an extended weekend. Not being the clubbing type, my days will be dedicated to sightseeing and visiting museums. But my nights and my shopping time (when my dear wife looks for clothes, bags and shoes) will  be dedicated to the exploration of Berlin as a whisky lover’s destination. I’ve divided my investigation into two parts: Tasting and shopping.

Part I will discuss Berlin as a whisky tasting destination, and part two as a whisky shopping destination.

Part I – Berlin as a Whisky Tasting Destination

A quick word on my methodology: There is none! I was in Berlin for an extended weekend, I did some research on the internet ahead of time and found tastings and bars, but I’m sure I didn’t get all there is to see (in fact, I know there’s more because I obviously can’t review places who’s events were on other weekends, and there are such places). So after this caveat, I’ll get to sharing my experience:

The Big Bar

After arriving in Berlin at 10 am on Thursday and taking an obligatory swing around the city to get its feel, we headed to the very residential Steglitz area to visit Loch Ness bar, an absolute temple of whisky, with 731 (!!) open bottles of whisky. The bar is on a quiet residential corner, away from the center of the city and a few blocks of the main street. Yet, like anywhere in Berlin, it’s really easy to get to with public transportation, and the bus lets you off just three blocks away from the bar.

The Loch Ness is an affiliate whisky bar of the Single Malt Whisky Society, and besides a lovely selection of the Society’s offerings, members get a 15% discount on SMWS bottlings.

The Loch Ness

I prepared my visit in advance, so I knew exactly what I wanted to taste, as the bar has a PDF list of its offerings. I wanted to taste five expressions, and ended up tasting four there and buying one dram to take home with me in a small bottle I brought along. At one point, the owner, Christian, had a few minutes to chat and I had the opportunity to get to know him a bit. He also has a little sherry finishing project on the side, in which he takes a simple single malt and finishes it in the sherry cask he has at home. Christian was good enough to share a dram that whiskey with me and it actually added a nice character to the Glen Grant he used. The bar is not his day job, and that’s doubly impressive, especially when you see the extensive collection of whisky he has, some of which comes from buying retail, and some had to have come off an auction. This also explains the fact that the bar is closed both on Sunday and on Monday. On the side of the bar there’s a lovely outside area, and sitting there was really pleasant, until one of the patrons began puffing on his cigar, preventing my nose from working properly.

There is also a smallish food menu, I had a hamburger and potato wedges, which were decent – but one really doesn’t go to a whisky bar for the food. Obviously, the main show there is the whisky and not the food which is one show that the Loch Ness puts on very well.

I tasted the following drams, all of which will see reviews as One Quick Dram postings over the next few weeks:

St. Magdalene 28 years old , Old Malt Cask (50%)

SMWS 73.45 – Aultmore19 year (56.1%)

Port Ellen 26 year, Old Malt Cask (50%)

SMWS 29.109 – Laphroaig 20 years (59.2%)

And they took home a bottling of a Ben Nevis single cask which was bottled by local whisky shop in Berlin, named “Big Market” to celebrate their 35th anniversary. This selection too, will be reviewed as a One Quick Dram posting.

All in all my experience at the Loch Ness was extremely positive. The whisky selection is fabulous, the proprietor very knowledgeable in the atmosphere very pleasant and relaxed. Were I a Berliner, this would’ve definitely been my regular watering hole.

One thing you need to know about Berlin is that many places do not accept credit cards. At all. Additionally, the places that do, will require your PIN code.

A store, a train and an Island

Klaus of Cadenhead’s during the tasting

On the second day went to visit the Big Market store. More about the shopping experience there in the shopping blog post to follow this one, however the store does have about 400 open bottles from which you can either taste a wee bit or purchase a dram to enjoy on the premises. After getting on the wrong train and visiting Berlin’s outer suburbs (right platform, wrong train…) I made it to the Cadenhead’s Whisky Market shop for a tasting. The tasting was for beginners, but I did want to see a tasting and maybe take some tips for the tastings I conduct in Israel, so I figured the language shouldn’t really be a barrier.
It was nice to see that the crowd was mainly youngish (late 20s and 30s), with the sadly regular over 90% male participation.  Being the opening day for the Feis Ila 2014 festival, naturally the tasting concentrated around Islay whiskys. The first election was the Islay Mist blend. Scratch that, followed by the very forgettable Duthies regional selection from Islay and the first part of the tasting ended with Smokehead. After a short break three heavier hitters were brought out: the Port Askaig 12, the Finlaggen cask strength

And lastly, Celp which is an Islay single malt (rumored to be either a Laphroaig or a Lagavulin) with a branch of sea kelp inside rendering it, legally at least, not a Scotch whisky.

A semi tasting and a disappointment turned glorious

On Saturday, Finest Whisky, a store with a nice selection of rare and hard to find whiskys was holding a tasting. This tasting was of rarer whiskys than the tasting the night before but my wife did not want to come nor did she want to fend for herself that evening, so we just went to check out the store without staying for the tasting. This was a shame because the tasting offered some very interesting whiskys most of them well off the beaten path. The selection list I got by email included:
Tamdhu 10, Original bottlin (43%)
Ben Nevis 17 – World of Orchids – JWWW (50,5%)
Clynelish 16 – Douglas of Drumlanrig (56,2%)
Bowmore 17 – White Sands (43%)
Duncan Taylor “Auld Blended” 35yo – (46%)
Glen Scotia 1977 – 2011 Van Wees Rare Reserve (46%)
Bunnahabhain 40 – Sansibar Whisky (46,7%)
Laphroaig Highgrove 12 – 1999/2013 (46%)

Hannes, the proprietor, was kind enough to offer me a tasting of the 40 year old Bunnahabhain and of the Highgrove Laphroaig. The Bunnahabhain was good, but I don’t have detailed tasting notes for it or for the Laphroaig. I also bought a bottle of a van Wees Laphroaig I was looking for, a single cask expression.

The Union Jack

That evening I visited the small but well stacked Union Jack which was an easy walking distance from my hotel. This is a small place about half the size of the Loch Ness with about 400 bottles to select from. In the lists I found on the Internet this place had the 20 year Rare Malts Brora I’ve been after for a while.

I ordered the SMWS 38.20 Caperdonich 16 year old (57.4%), the Dallas Dhu 18 year (58.5%) and the Imperial-Glenlivet 16 year old in the Cadenhead’s authentic collection series. I now came time for the Brora. Alas, the Brora was finished and the bottle was totally empty. The proprietor, Schlange, offered me the Linkwood 26 (56.1%) which was absolutely glorious. The Union Jack has a nice cozy feeling and Schlange has a really nice touch as together with your dram, she brings the bottle to your table and leaves it there for a few minutes to enable you to read the label and take down whatever information you’d like to note. I’d like to see this happening in more places.

One small note on the Union Jack though: go there for drinks before or after you’ve had dinner. Do not count on the Union Jack for your culinary needs – it’s a whisky bar and it does that very well. It isn’t a restaurant.

My last night in Berlin was a Sunday in which everything (and I mean everything) is closed, so this ends the first part of our post-series on Berlin as a whisky destination.

Relevant addresses include:
1) Loch Ness Bar
2) Union Jack
3) Cadenhead’s Whisky Market
4) Finest Whisky