Escalation

Posted 08 March 2019 by Matt / In Caol Ila
The Dramble reviews Port Askaig 19 year old

Bottle Name: Port Askaig 19 year old

ABV: 50.4%
Distillery: Caol Ila
Bottler: Elixir Distillers
Region: Islay

Whilst the secondary whisky market has become something of a hot mess that regularly seems to defy all sense and logic, it’s the retail world that directly affects most enthusiasts. The two, alongside the producers themselves are now part of an inherently connected ecosystem -  the fates of one directly impacting on another. Make no mistake, some folks are raking in the £s hand over fist – but, it’s wrong to just blame ‘dirty flippers’ for the currently overheated market – everything is associated and price escalation is occurring throughout the supply chain.

It's an error to look back 20 years to when my interest in whisky first started to bloom and bemoan price rises. Doing so over a two decade period seems frankly churlish. But, when you take a more smaller, much more recent period of time, some of the price rises we are witnessing are starting to look incredibly stark – case in point – Port Askaig 19 year old.

Port Askaig 19 year old was introduced in 2013, alongside a short-lived 30 year old. Delivered at a higher strength (though still reduced out of the cask, hence the introduction of the ‘full proof’ title across the range), this bottling, came with an RRP of £80. Fast forward just five years and that cost is now £150. Inflation in the UK over the last five years has averaged 2.4% - this by itself would put the 2018 bottle price at closer to £90 – perhaps when you factor in near annual rises in alcohol duty, you might reach an adjusted price of £100. But, you’re still quite some way off the current retail price.

It’s no big secret that raw spirit costs are rising – the producers want a piece of the action. This is particularly the case with distillate from Islay – demand outstrips supply – you can see it month-in-month-out with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s outturn – green (peated) labelled expressions fly off the shelves, and in the case of the London members’ rooms, don’t tend to last long on the bar either. The net result is that the raw costs for retailers for peated spirit have, and are still increasing. Whilst Elixir Distillers/Speciality Drinks/Whisky Exchange (at one point the company structure was explained to me) head honcho Sukhwinder Singh has probably dreamed of owning a distillery for decades, the realities of the costs of purchasing spirit have not doubt hastened the company’s decision to go ahead and attempt to build one. ‘Farkin’ (too amusing to be formally named as such) distillery just outside of Port Ellen on Islay is in the planning.

A 46.6% rise in the retail cost of Port Askaig 19 year old over just five year period is grim reading. Whereas once this bottling would stand as a treat for the many members of my monthly whisky club, now, it’s frankly out of reach of their budgets. In our eagerness to stay with the growing market, we often fail to remember that salary rises don’t tend to run at the rate of inflation, let alone staying in touch with whisky prices. Port Askaig 19 year old is now too expensive for many ‘normal’ whisky drinkers budgets – which probably goes someway to explaining why Elixir Distillers have introduced other more affordable expressions to the line up over the last few years. Fortunately, the whisky market seems all too aware of its own price problems, and is introducing alternatives across the board – whether these are as ‘acceptable’ is a different matter entirely – time will judge.

Port Askaig 19 year old is delivered at 50.4% ABV and is commonly believed to hail from Caol Ila distillery. Not all the bottles in the Port Askaig series come Caol Ila – there’s some Bunnahabhain in the mix at times – but this one almost certainly is.

Nose: Coastal and rather graceful. Seashells and brine sit with green olives, chopped herbs, preserved lemons and pickles. Smoke is tarry, with tinges of antiseptic - and is accompanied by an array of lemony polish and brassy notes that reinforce the level of maturity on offer here. In the background, plenty of salinity, pebbles and rock pools. The addition of water releases a selection of natural aromas – ozone, rain on a tin roof, clay and putty. Interesting, but more honed and dynamic at its bottled ABV.

Taste: The arrival is oily, fat and mouth filling – sharp lemon, kelp, shingle and shale are joined by powerful, but at the same time still restrained, phenolic smoke – iodine, antiseptic cleaner, pine sap and menthol. There’s still plenty of brine here – salinity livened with a touch of white chocolate, before becoming more earthy in the back palate. Reduction adds sweetness – touches of tropical fruits – alongside a more ashy outlook with coal and mineral dust.

Finish: Medium to long in length with salted grapefruit and fading medicinalness.

I’ve written before how I tend to enjoy my Caol Ila either young and punchy or old and elegant – Port Askaig 19 year old falls mid-way on that scale and yet manages to tick boxes from both sides of the spectrum. Plenty of vitality – but wrapped up in some mature nuances and with a wonderful sense of balance throughout. It’s really rather good indeed. But, as noted above, the price of this expression has rocketed. In 2013, I’d happily have had a bottle on the bar at all times - but at nearly double the cost in 2018 I find it a much harder proposition to recommend so eagerly. The quality is still excellent – but the price has escalated.

Score: 87/100


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