Did I manage to grab your attention? Thank you. Of course the headline is an exaggeration, but not by much, actually.
Last month, Diageo announced their annual special release bottlings for 2012. There has already been quite some discusison about the pricing, I won’t go too much deeper into that territory here. But it has to be noted the the prices for Brora and Port Ellen bottlings across the board have risen quite substantially over the last years, with the Diageo original bottlings leading the trend.
Both distilleries have been closed for nearly 30 years now. Because of the constantly high quality of the bottlings, they have grown to the status of legends, certainly also helped by the ‘silent still’ bonus. But of course it is only logical that sooner or later the remaining stocks will come to an end. And as my recent statistics about independent bottlings indicates, we may indeed be approaching the bottom of the barrel, so to speak.
If you absolutely, postively have to have bottles of Brora or Port Ellen in your whisky cabinet, your wallet will suffer badly from it. Yes, they are very good whiskies, no doubt about it. But are they really that spectacular?
When you read enthusiastic reviews of Port Ellens or Broras – be it by simple bloggers or high profile whisky writers – always keep in mind that the vast majority of these reviews is done not after a blind tasting but in full knowledge of what is in the glass. The psychological effect of knowing what you drink is well-documented and not denied by any respectable taster. You may have a bias in favour or against a brand or distillery, either conscious or subconscious, that can affect your opinion.
For exactly this reason, the whiskies submitted to the Malt Manaicas Awards – just as other awards and competitons as well – are tasted blind by a panel of judges. As an example, here are the scores for the official 30 yo Brora release from 2010 from the Malt Maniacs Awards 2011:
Scores are mostly spread between 84 and 90 with one ‘maverick’ score of 80; the average is a bit below 87 which puts the whisky into the “very good, not more, not less” bracket. I was included in the panel of tasters. My personal score was 86, and I guessed this to be a Highland Park. Two Port Ellens were tasted for the Awards as well, they received average scores of 90 (Wilson & Morgan cask #2011) and 86 (Malts of Scotland cask #11011). My own scores were 85 and 87 respectively, and I thought both were Caol Ilas.
Speaking of Caol Ila, a look into the Whisky Monitor assures you that there are plenty of excellent bottlings around. The market for independent bottlings has virtually been flooded with Caol Ila in recent years, and in the 25+ year age bracket you will find that most bottlings have a score of 85 or more with quite a few going up to 90 and beyond.
Caol Ila arguably is the one Islay distillery that is closest to Port Ellen in its character. While young Caol Ila is not always spectacular, it has proved to age well. For me, aged Caol Ila is largely on eye level with Port Ellen. It is a worthy alternative, despite its reputation as blend fodder for Johnnie Walker Black Label. But wasn’t Port Ellen mainly used for blends as well?
For an alternative to Brora, look no further than next door! Clynelish was built in 1967 to replace Brora, but both distilleries were in production together for over a decade. The stills are exact copies, and the simple fact that for some malts in the first production years of Clynelish there is a period of uncertainty in which of the two distilleries they actually were distilled should make it clear that these two are closeley related. And in the Whisky Monitor you can see that old Clynelishes usually get high ratings as well, just like Caol Ila.
So instead of angrily shaking your fist against Diageo and other bottlers about the prices for Bora and Port Ellen, wouldn’t it be better to just leave those bottles to the die-hard collectors, gamblers or ‘investors’ and profit from the constant supply of high quality Caol Ilas and Clynelishes for just a fraction of the price?