A toast to absent friends

Posted 17 August 2018 / In Port Ellen
The Dramble reviews Port Ellen 1978 20 year old Rare Malts

Bottle Name: Port Ellen 1978 20 year old Rare Malts

ABV: 60.9%
Distillery: Port Ellen
Region: Islay

Yesterday was unfortunately a depressing occasion for a number of reasons – least among these – a rancid 17 year old Dufftown. Life goes on as they say, and The Dramble won’t make do with ending the week on a downer, so we’ve dug out something a little bit special for our Friday review -  the Rare Malts 1978 20 year old Port Ellen. Habitually described as a legendary bottling, United Distillers first Port Ellen release in 1998 introduced the demolished (1983) and overlooked distillery to a wider audience of whisky enthusiasts. This bottling and a 22 year old ‘sequel’ released two years later would prove to be the catalysts that would both unearth this near forgotten Islay whisky and also signal the start of its steady accent to legendary status.

In the late 1980’s United Distillers (the forerunning of Diageo) introduced a series of six regional ‘benchmark’ whiskies in the form of the Classic Malts of Scotland. Buoyed by the success of these releases, and growing interest in single malts, the Rare Malts Collection was launched in 1995. Designed as a showcase for some of the more obscure distilleries in the UD portfolio, each Rare Malt release was aged for a minimum of 18 years and bottled at natural cask strength. Bottlings were delivered in simplistic carton packaging, almost devoid of any of the fancy adornments that one would see with modern releases of these whiskies. The rising demand for single malts at the time had led to increased desire for the more unusual – whiskies from wider afield then the Classic Malts. United Distillers used The Rare Malts Collection to sate this desire, and focussed on both closed distilleries and more unusual expressions – with liquid drawn from across the late 60’s, 70s and 80s.

The initial release of the series came from four closed distilleries - Brora 1974, Dallas Dhu 1970, Millburn 1975 and St Magdalene 1971. Subsequent releases over the 10 year life-span of the series covered a wide selection of notable bottlings, and whilst at one time these were commonly available and reasonably priced, fame and reputation has driven many of these bottlings into the stratosphere of desirability. I’m no expert on the Rare Malts, but others are - Ulf Buxrud has a fantastically detailed website: www.buxrud.se/raremalt.htm it’s a near encyclopaedia on this influential series.

The first Rare Malts Port Ellen was released in 1998 – the distillery has been closed for 15 years – with only the maltings and limited warehousing remaining standing. Following just two Rare Malt releases, Port Ellen would feature in Diageo’s equally famous annual Special Releases series for every year from 2001 up to 2017 (The Dramble will be brining you a review of 4th release – also a 1978 - over the next couple of weeks). Alongside Brora, Port Ellen has steadily become one of the most desirable whiskies in the world – Whilst both distilleries are being rebuilt (much of Brora’s equipment is still in situ, whereas Port Ellen’s is not) the new examples of these whiskies are going to be exactly that – new. Old Port Ellen is as such a historical liquid time piece – famous throughout malt circles, but with ever dwindling stock and ever rising prices.

Nose: Highly coastal and incredibly expressive. Briny water and a thick maritime breeze merge with a basket of freshly fished seafood – lobsters, crabs and mussels. This coastalness extends into smoke – ashy, oily and diesel driven – a fishing boat powering to harbour. Lemons, ripe pears and tart grapefruit are combined with our seafood mix, lifting its deep fleshy aromas and adding natural sweetness. In the background, a cornucopia of nuances – light chocolate, milky latte, smoked beef brisket and seared caramelised meat fats. There’s a heady vegetal vein running through the very heart of this whisky – broad beans petit pois. Likewise, a selection of sugars – refined caster sugar, icing sugar and burnt caramels and honeycomb. Resting adds further complexities – golden syrup, mineral dust, pebbles and a slight nuttiness from walnuts. The addition of water reinforces the underlying salinity of the nose, adding biscuits and enhancing the oily, fuel-like smoke – pungency, machinery and lubricants.

Taste: A huge impactful arrival – but perfectly approachable, despite the 60.9% ABV. Sweetness and tartness kick off – Oat cakes and digestive biscuits with lemon juice, apples and pears. Coastal peat follows – salty, mineral and phenolic – but not in a TCP sense – if you’ve ever tried early 90s (or earlier) Laphroaig, you’ll know exactly what I mean – briny with a tinge of the medicinal, but not overtly antiseptic. Orange peels, nectarine and pepperiness form the mid-palate. The spice builds steadily, reducing the sweetness of the arrival and, alongside the citrus element, adding zing and vigour. In the back palate, more creaminess – latte coffee, milk chocolate – and gentle herbals – mint and eucalyptus. Resting brings out the steeliness of this whisky – wet limestone, chalk and ashiness. Reduced, the fruit elements become incredibly juicy and syrupy, but, this is to the detriment of the precision and expressiveness of the other flavours.

Finish: Very long and very coastal – salty fish and meats, smoked fruits, plenty of brine and smokiness mid-way between an engine room and a smouldering fireplace logs.

This 1978 Rare Malts Port Ellen offers stunning complexity and depth of flavour. It’s amazingly approachable despite the high strength, and indeed, in my opinion is best experienced in this natural form. There’s a broad palate of aromas and flavours here – all of them perfectly in tune with one another. But, there’s so much going on this is worth taking your time over. A whisky for thinking as much as it is for drinking.

Score: 91/100


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