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.
Could the 13th release be 500% better than the 11th release, a mere two years before?
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 extra 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:
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.
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!