All good things must come to an end – today we’re presenting the last review from our month-long exploration of 1978 and 40 year old whiskies. It’s been quite the rollercoaster – we’ve covered a few legendary bottlings, found several hidden gems and experienced a couple of outright disasters. The undertaking has required years of careful preparation and patience (I.E. ‘stashing things away’) and a careful watch on the bank balance (historic whisky can be a very serious mission). But, most of all, it has required the kindness of good whisky friends and a very (and always understanding!) generous wife.
The process has been one of great reflection, not only on whisky’s past, but also on my 40 years – in essence, a contemplation of liquid maturation over my lifetime. To my mind, that is one of whisky’s greatest strengths – whether past or present, it has an innate ability to either create or recall memories. A single moment - whether a celebration, quality time with friend and family, or simply a moment of quiet contemplation – whisky can have significant meaning to all of us. And, as I look forward to my next decade (with very little 50 year old whisky to show for it), whilst the aromas and flavours of this month-long experience will have long since faded, the memories of it will endure.
Today’s final 1978 bottling comes from Port Ellen in the form of the 4th Diageo Special Release. Bottled in 2004 at 56.2% ABV, this 25 year old was part of a release of just 5,100 bottles.
Nose: Crisp, sharply honed and highly coastal. Sweet and salty preserved lemons kick off, supported by a mix of ripe and unripe fruits – orchard (apple), tropical (kiwi and guava) and stone (peach). The peat smoke here is maritime, steely and forest-like – brine, iodine, seaweed, menthol, rock pools and pine needles. It’s pronounced and bold, but more sweet and citrus-driven than overtly medicinal. In the background, honey, hay and delicate cut flowers. The addition of water initially unlocks further minerality – white wine (a youthful Chenin Blanc perhaps) and wet slate. Shortly after, marshmallow creaminess and coconut shavings come to the fore. And, shortly after that, a burst of highly tropical fruit. Lovely ‘as is’, but water really does have a big impact here.
Taste: A full and mouth coating arrival packed with sweet citrus and plenty of seasoning – salinity and coastalness are highly pronounced and are joined by ashy, sweet peat smoke. In the mid palate, a building sense of pepperiness, tempered by both grapefruit juice and limestone. Perfectly judged vanilla (real pods, not extract) brings up the rear alongside a touch of liquorice, grassiness, hay and mint. Reduction is even more radical than on the nose, transforming the mineral and citrus lead flavours into a riot of tropical fruitiness – pineapple, mango, kiwi and guava. Highly juicy and perfectly balanced against the smoke (which is not reduced with dilution but becomes slightly chalky).
Finish: Very long, quite salty with lemon zest, pan-seared scallops and a seafood bisque.
The 4th Special Release Port Ellen is highly coastal, bold, animated and packed full of well-balanced flavours. It’s not the most complex Port Ellen expression I’ve sampled, but it is certainly one of the tastiest. At its natural 56.2% strength it’s chiselled, sharp and precise. When reduced, it opens up wonderfully, presenting a much broader palette of flavours – remarkable without losing any of the definition of its underlying maritime character.
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