“Who Needs Brora And Port Ellen? We Have Clynelish And Caol Ila!”; so goes the chant by a fellow whisky blogger – a chat that’s been taken up by many experienced drinkers over the recent years as prices continue to climb. It was this cry the Malt Nuts set out to prove or disprove, at least directionally, and see how a bottle of the fabled Port Ellen fares when it gets dropped into a mix of mature Caol Ila. No matter what the result this was going to be an interesting evening.
Like all Malt Nuts the whiskies were blinded so we didn’t know what was coming, though unlike most other nights there wasn’t going to be a reveal after each round, it would instead only happen at the end of the tasting. The reason being rather obvious; there’s a Port Ellen somewhere in the line-up and revealing where it was, or wasn’t, would change the dynamic of the tasting.
If it ended up being in round 1, which it did, no one would be analyzing and guessing in round 2 for the PE, no one would have been on the lookout for something different. It wouldn’t have diminished the enjoyment of the whisky itself in round 2, but would make it more difficult to objectively analyze.
If it wasn’t in round 1 then that objectivity would again be swayed, but possibly in the other direction as one of the elusive PEs are definitely in that round, so obviously the best tasting whisky has to be the PE… right? These are the things you have to consider and plan out when running blind tastings which our head Malt Nut Barry does a marvelous and thoughtful job of.
Brief History of Port Ellen via Malt Madness
* 1825 – Founded
* 1836 – Acquired by John Ramsay and run by his family till 1920
* 1920 – Acquired by the Port Ellen Distillery Co.
* 1929 – Mothballed by DCL / John Dewar & Sons (acquired between 20-29)
* 1966 – Received upgrades and stills doubled
* 1967 – Starts distilling again
* 1983 – Closed for the last time and license to distill cancelled
* The drum maltings built in 1973 are employed by Diageo for creating malt for distilleries. Port Ellen Maltings
We had two pre-whiskies before starting the night which were the Dew of Nevis 12 from the Ben Nevis tasting, which I thought was still showing nicely, and the Annash blend from the Old and Older blend night, which I’d down grade to a B at this point. Both were good “palate warmers” for the evening, but since they weren’t blinded I didn’t put them in a round. Speaking of, here are how the rounds ended up for the night.
Port Ellen vs old Caol Ila Tasting Rounds
- Cut Caol Ila and the Port Ellen
- Cask Strength Caol Ila
And now let’s get on with the main event, the whisky!
Cut Caol Ila and the Port Ellen
1A: Montgomerie’s Rare Select Caol Ila 20 years (96-16): 46%
- Nose: Minerals, fruit, malt, smoke, honey, fruit, cinnamon oil and spice.
- Palate: Minerals, char, fruit, smoke, citrus, spice and honey.
- Finish: Long -> Mineral water, fruit, smoke and spice.
- Overall: B+ (87-89) This is really nice. Straightforward, enjoyable, peated malt.
1B: Cooper’s Choice Caol Ila 25 years (91-16): 46% – Refill Butt
- Nose: Honey, fruit, smoke, phenolic spice, pepper, graham and vanilla beans.
- Palate: Honey, smoke, minerals, pepper, spice, apples and gravy malt.
- Finish: Long -> Honey, smoke, fruit, mineral, candy vanilla.
- Overall: B+ (87-89) Tasty without being overbearing and well balanced. Nice.
1C: Single Cask Exclusives: 50%
- Nose: Waxy banana, spirity vanilla, smoke, spice, and a bit of and taffy.
- Palate: Waxy banana, spirity vanilla, smoke, spice, and a bit of vanilla cupcake sweetness.
- Finish: Long -> Waxy banana, spirity vanilla, smoke and sweetness.
- Overall: C+ (77-79) Borders on a C, the youth of this whisky is blatant next to the first two. Tasted on its own I might light this a whole lot more but jumping from a 20 and 25 to this the difference is so stark it’s jarring.
1D: Douglas Port Ellen 27 years (83-11): 46% – Refill Hogshead
- Nose: Lemony fruit, malt, mineral water, grassy malt, vanilla and oil.
- Palate: Lemony fruit, malt, cinnamon, wax, minerals and sweetness.
- Finish: Long -> Lemony fruit, wax, mineral water, wax and smoke.
- Overall: B (83-86) A bit underwhelming, but nothing horrifically wrong with it. If we weren’t drinking Caol Ila I might have guessed a young Brora because of the waxy lemon character. I was shocked to discover it was the Port Ellen because I typically assign the character of 1E to be PE… which was my guess.
1E: Caol Ila 25 years: 43%
- Nose: Peat, malt, char, fruit, saline, apricot, raisins, toffee and a bit of soap.
- Palate: Honey, char, smoke, malt, fruit, saline, iodine, rains dark fruity sweetness and a bit of soap.
- Finish: Long -> Dark honey, chat, malt, fruit and smoke.
- Overall: B+ (87-89) Borders on an A- and maybe would score that on its own. It’s dark, oily and accented with sweet honied fruit. This was my #1 guess for Port Ellen because of this nature.
Cask Strength Caol Ila
2A: A.D. Rattray Caol Ila 21 years (91-12): 55% – Bourbon Hogshead
- Nose: Smoke, honey, waxy fruit, mineral water, medicinal, meaty and layers of sweetness.
- Palate: SMOKE! Honey, wax, fruit, toffee, cocoa, medicinal, iodine and saline.
- Finish: Long -> Smoke, meat, fruit and toffee.
- Overall: A- (90-92) Holy nuggets that’s good. Heavy, rich and full with just a hint of black walnut when water is added. This is a lovely whisky and I was elated when it turned out to be mine.
2B: The Syndicate’s Caol Ila 20 years (90-10): 53.7%
- Nose: Buttery, nutty, sweet oily butterscotch, fruit, bad custard, chlorine and stale smoke.
- Palate: Chlorine, camphor, butter, fruit, butterscotch, mineral water, bad custard, smoke and touch sulfur.
- Finish: Long -> Smoke, butter, fruit, soap, chlorine and butterscotch.
- Overall: D (63-66) Holy crap, that chlorine character completely ruins this whisky. I kept coming back to it at random over the night and every time I knew exactly which glass I had grabbed because of that municipal-pool smell and heavy flavor. Water brought it out even more.
2C: Chester Whisky & Liquor Caol Ila 18 years (95-13): 53.8% – Bourbon Hogshead
- Nose: Waxy, banana, fruit, spice, butter, oil, smoke, honey, mineral water.
- Palate: Smoke, spice, wax, banana, herbal spice, toffee, honey, graham.
- Finish: Long -> smoke, spice, pine and graham.
- Overall: B (83-86) Soft, smoky and a bit spicy with a touch of malt in there; it’s not crazy interesting, but not bad either. Water doesn’t do much to it.
2D: SMWS 53.211 Caol Ila 22 years (92-14): 54.8% – Refill Bourbon Hogshead
- Nose: Malt, vanilla, spice, fruit, smoke, mineral water, lemon, toffee.
- Palate: Smoke, plastic, spice, fruit, mineral water, dark sweets, dried strawberries and clove.
- Finish: Long -> Smoke, spice, fruit, minerals.
- Overall: B (83-86) Warm and smoky with a charred undertone. Water didn’t do much to it; all-in-all an ok malt.
2E: SMWS 53.231 Caol Ila 19 years (96-15): 59.3% – Refill Bourbon Hogshead
- Nose: Apricot, honey, graham, butter, spice, smoke, char and iodine.
- Palate: Heavy smoke, oil, graham, butter, spice, char and cinnamon oil.
- Finish: Long -> smoke, oil, caramel, butter, malt and spice.
- Overall: B (83-86) Decent, not mind blowing and hits middle-of-the-pack for what we’ve had tonight.
And there you have it; mature Caol Ila can indeed out perform Port Ellen. True it wasn’t one of the “legendary” PE bottlings, but legendary or not the prices of Port Ellen today are absurd. The one we tasted would cost at least $700 these days but it was easily out performed by bottles that cost around $200 – $250 and the Caol Ila 25 held a dark oily character I thought might be PE when doing it blind. This is why blind tastings are so important; to give you perspective without the taint of a label.
Till next time, cheers!