Rising from illustrious graves. PATRICK LECLEZIO deconstructs the excitement.
First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2017 edition).
The biggest news in whisky in the last few months has been the mouth-watering declaration that the Port Ellen and Brora distilleries are to be refitted, and reopened in 2020. This is most whisky lovers’ (much conjectured) fantasy come true. We’ve been living of late through a golden age of malt whisky in which the inception of new distilleries and the revival of previously terminated or shuttered distilleries (so-called silent stills) have been common occurrences: examples range from the massive Roseisle and the boutiquey Wolfburn, Kilchoman, and Kingsbarn on the one hand, to forerunners like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich, and more recently Tamdhu and Glengassaugh on the other. But this is different. Special. Exceeding the “ok, cool” reaction that the others would have elicited, and tipping the scales at “yahoo!”. New distilleries are unknowns, and reincarnates like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich have largely created their standing during this latest phase of their existence. Port Ellen and Brora though are the Van Goghs of whisky, unregarded and mostly used as blending fodder whilst active, then garnering massive acclaim after their demise, and attracting followings during the interlude, Port Ellen in particular, that it would be trite to describe as “cult”. With this gong still reverberating, let’s take a look at what these announcements really mean.
They boil down to three simple realities really: we’ll have access to whisky that until now has been very expensive and limited, it may or may not be what we expect, and we’ll have to wait a long time still before getting our hands on any of it – a situation in totality that should both fire and temper our enthusiasms.
When time was called on Port Ellen and Brora in 1983 – part of a widespread series of closures by the Distillers Company Limited (Diageo, effectively), including now heralded distilleries such as Dallas Dhu, St. Magdelene, and Rosebank, driven by flagging demand – whisky was at a low ebb, and bottled single malt was a small speck on a blended landscape. In fact the first book featuring tasting notes, ubiquitous today, and the first magazine devoted to Scotch whisky (inconceivable in a media environment where we’re drowning in whisky commentary) were only published in 1986. In the modern age Port Ellen’s production, predominantly, and Brora’s, entirely, during their active years had been allocated to blending, so they were to a large extent unknown quantities. The only bottling of Port Ellen between 1967 and 1983 was a 12YO commemorating the Queen’s visit to the distillery in 1980, and the first known Brora bottling was released by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in 1989. Independent bottlings became relatively common, but it was only with official bottlings in the late nineties and turn of the century (now a feature of Diageo’s annual special releases), and in Port Ellen’s case extended maturation, that the legends were created. The quality of the whiskies and the fact that no more of it would be produced (ostensibly) combined to arouse messianic devotion – and pricing to match. The Port Ellen First Release, a 22YO of which there were 6000 bottled and offered at £110 in 2001, sells for some £4500 in 2017. Prices have escalated exponentially with each subsequent release, with Brora following a similar pattern. The prospect thus of larger supply, of being able to access these fine liquids at reasonable prices, is undoubtedly cause for celebration.
But don’t pop your stoppers just yet. Making the same whisky as was done 30 years ago is not a given – as conceded by Diageo in its press release of 9 October: “Port Ellen Distillery on the famous whisky island of Islay, and Brora on the remote eastern coast of Sutherland, will both be reinstated to distil in carefully controlled quantities, with a meticulous attention to detail, replicating where possible the distillation regimes and spirit character of the original distilleries”. The strains of barley and yeast employed, and the calibrations of production – especially from a more manual era, may be difficult to duplicate and replicate. There is an additional challenge too: whilst Brora was merely “mothballed”, the original buildings and stills left intact, Port Ellen was partly demolished, its equipment, the stills included, scavenged by other distilleries within the group. The whisky will undoubtedly be wonderful, but whether it’ll have the same austere, pier head flavours (as redolently described by Dave Broom) that made its name is debatable.
Any celebration is also somewhat premature. Production is anticipated to begin in 2020 once “planning permission and regulatory consents, detailed design, construction and commissioning work” have been secured and completed, although it seems logical that Brora should be ready ahead of Port Ellen. Be that as it may the gain of a year or so in this initial period is of little significance. As with any whisky the production will be just a small part of the overall time frame. In various interviews on the subject Nick Morgan, Head of Whisky Outreach at Diageo, has disclosed an intention to release the two whiskies as 12YO’s, whilst also acknowledging that there may be preceding smaller releases. A 12YO would put us at 2032 – a long wait indeed. Any earlier release would likely mean NAS, perhaps playing with the maturation regimen (smaller casks, new oak) and perhaps vatting with (dwindling) pre-83 stocks – although I think they’d be hard pressed to take this risk, given the premium that these command unadulterated, and the higher purpose that they can serve in perpetuating the hype (now more useful than ever). The Port Ellen’s and Brora’s to which we’ve become accustomed (those lucky few amongst us) are perceptible only on a distant horizon.
The order of the day then appears to be patience, in pursuit of a probable but uncertain payoff. Our patience though is unlikely to be arduous. One of the shining beacons of Scotch whisky, and whisky in general, drawing in and engaging people from far and wide, is its variety. The number quite evidently will keep changing but at present there are 98 active malt distilleries in Scotland producing innumerable expressions, two of which, sharing certain similarities with a Port Ellen and a Brora, I’ll recommend to keep you company in the cold nights ahead, before your much anticipated rendezvous with their future emissaries. Lagavulin, a few kilometres from Port Ellen, produces a rich, peaty, and complex 16YO whisky of exceptionally elegant balance. It is a defining Islay malt. On the opposite coast to Brora but unmistakably its Highland brethren you’ll find Oban, and in multiple bars and liquor stores around the world you’ll find its popular 14YO, a gorgeously fruity, aromatic maritime malt, imbued with fine wisps of smoke. Ask Santa to add these to your stocking. May the dram be with you.