I suppose that we must apologise in advance for this post. It isn’t everyday that you get to sample some fabulous drams of Ardbeg on the peat bog. Oh… and try six Port Ellen’s at Port Ellen… in the actual kiln. But more of that later.
We had a date with Dougie from Ardbeg at 11:00. He was taking us up onto the Ardbeg peat bank with some whiskies and stories, and was even giving us the chance to have a crack at cutting the peat. We first met Dougie last year at the 2012 Feis and had the pleasure of having him lead us on two different tours, so we jumped at the chance to catch up with him again. Dougie is a fascinating guide: he was born on island and so is able to give a real insight into life on Islay, from tales such as carrying the peat to school, to finding fully intact ‘bog bodies’ (you’ll have to ask him!), to legends and fairytales he is fascinating and knowledgable – a real credit to Ardbeg.
Our ultimate aim was to reach the water source for Ardbeg, or Airigh Nam Beist as it is known locally. The walk up was sweetened with drams of Blasda (Ardbeg’s lightly peated offering from a few years back) and the delightfully gorgeous Still Young (a cask strength whisky released under the Glenmorangie ownership – part of a series charting the journey up to the 10 year old). Once at the peat bank Dougie expertly demonstrated how to cut peat, making it look incredibly easy! It was then our turn. Some of us (mentioning no names.. Nick) suffered from trying to take too manly a piece but the rest of us seemed to pick up the knack!! Amazingly a peat licence on Islay costs only £35 annually, and providing you put in the time you can heat your house using just your hand cut peat.
Lunch beckoned and The Old Kiln Cafe had provided some tasty sandwiches and snacks. I opted for some smoked salmon sandwiches and they went excellently with the lunch time dram. The then as yet unreleased Ardbog:
Ardbeg Ardbog [52.1%]
A full review of this whisky will be on the blog soon, but it only seems appropriate to review Ardbog while sitting on the actual peat bogs that belong to the distillery. A magnificant whisky and builds and evolves in the glass. The best of the recent Ardbeg releases in my opinion.
Nose: Initial blast of dry smoke. Lots of toffee and salty notes. Quite sweet with caramel chocolates.
Palate: Full of TCP and elastoplast. Quite leathery and oily with star anise and cloves.
Finish: Very dry and bitter with some burnt spice
After a few more stories and observations on the local fauna and flora it was time to head back to the distillery. The return trip was interrupted with drams of Alligator (a recent Ardbeg matured in heavilly charred casks) and the recent winner of World Single Malt Whisky of the Year – Galileo (Ardbeg matured in marsala casks – a fine experiment that worked on every level). We would heartily recommend the ‘Peat Bog’ tour next time you are at the distillery – fantastic value and something that is a bit different from the ‘standard’ wander around a distillery. It was worth every penny.
We popped down to Kildalton to look at one of the finest early Christian crosses that is still intact and then headed back to the distillery for some pre-iPed (International Port Ellen Day) snacks.
The plan for the afternoon was simple – meet Jon Beech and the rest of the crew outside a bus stop in Port Ellen at 16:00 for the start of a magical mystery tour that would involve no less than 6 drams of Port Ellen, including the legendary* Port Ellen Alpha.
Nick takes up the story (as Mike and I decided to take photos, and to enjoy the whisky and the company – it was going to be one of those afternoons).
Lots of things have been written about Port Ellen. On the one hand, some afficionados proclaim that all from the tree of Port Ellen is blessed by the most high, whilst others protest it’s overpriced spirit that demands a rising premium beyond it’s worth. Still, as it’s International Port Ellen Day 2013 and we had received a most generous invitation to it’s main (and only official?!) event, hosted by Jon Beech who runs the amazing Fiddlers on the shore of Loch Ness, we arrived with some** anticipation.
Jon Beech would describe himself as a dyed in the cloth Port Ellen devotee, with a substantial collection he had been building now for over 20 years. His enthusiasm was infectious, and through a tasting tour of 7 drams that took us from the Port Ellen Lighthouse to the Old Kiln at the long closed Distillery, his knowledge and affection was compelling. Despite the crowd of seasoned Feis Ile pilgrims, bloggers and independent bottlers, the relaxed and good humoured atmosphere reflected an attitude that good whisky was there to be enjoyed, and was best enjoyed in good company. This atmosphere was the most memorable aspect of the evening. Well, that and some incredible whisky.
We started off with a Port Ellen (Batch 3 to be precise) from That Boutique-y Whisky Company. This was a rare vatting of various casks, but the majority from a heavily sherried cask, bottled at 56.2%. The influence of the sherry cask was immediately obvious on the nose, with juicy grapes and jammy sweetness. There was plenty of chilli on a spicy finish but no particular peat detectable. John told us that the level of peating was often variable in the 1970s – 1980s as distilleries often changed their recipes to orders for customs such as blenders.
Next up at the Port Ellen Lighthouse was a Belgian Bottling, The Nectar of The Daily Drams at 27yo and 53.0%, distilled in 1982. This was a fabulous dram and laid a gauntlet down to the whiskies to follow. The nose was full of intense tropical fruit flavours, especially pineapple and banana. The palate continued this appetising theme, adding waxy lemons and also a peaty undertow. The finish was long and sweet, without a hint of overpowering oak.
Thirdly we tried a fascinating rare Douglas Laing blend, bottled for Glasgow: European City of Culture 1990, which apparently contained Port Ellen, and there was a degree of consensus from the group that this also contained a dollop of Invergordon. It had fabulous butterscotch notes and an arresting palate that evoked ginger cream biscuits and salted caramel.
By now we had taken in the sea air by the Port Ellen Warehouse and moved onto the Old Kiln in time for dram 4; bottled by Paradise Lost at 56.3%. Again tropical fruits majored on both the nose and palate, however this time there was a lovely vanilla sweetness and also note of cigar ash before a drier, spicy oak finish.
We were in the courtyard behind the Kiln and trying a lighter style of Port Ellen, in the form of a Connoiseur’s Choice 1982 at 40%. The nose was more subtle, with wood smoke offsetting dessert pear on the nose, with a curious note that reminded a number of us of homemade play dough. There was gentle barley on the palate with further orchard fruit sweetness but also lemon and clove spice. The finish was again spicy with oak but I found more cloying and dry.
For a pre-finale we blind tasted the Port Ellen Alpha, and what was revealed to be Rare Malt Cask of 20yo Port Ellen at 60.9%. This was a real treat with spiced apples on the nose that reminded us of brown sauce, while the palate had redcurrant jelly (or strawberry jelly beans as Ben notes), and followed through to a pleasing burnt toast finish.
Finally we finished on a Sherry Monster, Scott’s Selection at 55.5%. The nose was full with figs and juicy dates, giving way on the palate to the now familiar tropical fruits of pineapple and a little banana.
So there you have it, a great range of Ardbeg and a once in a lifetime range of Port Ellen. Islay had delivered magic in spades today. Surely the final day wouldn’t be any better… would it Mike?***
*You know what I mean
**read almost excitedly uncontrollable
** For Mike, it really would be