What Sort of Monster Doesn’t Finish a Magical Dram of Scotch?
Scotch in Islay
Islay, Scotland, with its 3,000 residents and 239 square miles, is home to eight whisky distilleries. There’s more on the way, too, with business booming and investors eager to get in on the world’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for the peaty, salty, briny, and all-around wonderful whisky that flows from the island’s stills.
That thirst was not always unquenchable, however, an unfortunate truth which came firmly to light in 1983. This was to become a year of mourning, one which would be eternally remembered with anguish and grief by whisky drinkers once Port Ellen shuttered its doors and mothballed its equipment. No more whisky was to be distilled there.
Whisky takes time to come of age, though, and great whisky often takes decades. So while new production ceased, the warehouses have remained ever-active, slowly but surely maturing their remaining contents.
Mammoth spirits company Diageo owns the facility and has been doling out the remaining stock from those warehouses in small, highly exclusive annual releases. Bottles fetch a few thousand dollars a pop, when they can be tracked down at all. The liquid is the stuff of legend.
But who needs a bottle, when you can sample it straight from one of those prized, mythical casks?
A celebratory tour of the island in honor of the Lagavulin distillery’s 200th anniversary (also owned by Diageo) included a visit to Port Ellen. Beyond the warehouses, a thriving malting operation also takes place, providing the bulk of the peated, malted barley used in Islay’s active distilleries.
Soon, murmurs were heard and rumors were swirling. A frantic energy was building. There’s still whisky in those warehouses, yes? Will we get to try any of it? No, no, let’s not get our hopes up. Certainly there was no mention of this on the itinerary.
The group wandered out of the malting house and down to the shore, along the southern coast of tiny Islay, overlooking the even tinier town of Port Ellen itself. The sun was shining across brilliant blue skies, betraying the island’s windswept and perpetually storm-battered reputation, and perhaps signaling that on this day, there would be no mourning, no eternal grief or anguish. No, on this day, the whisky gods had a gift to bestow.
The gift, of course, was that patiently matured Port Ellen distilled whisky. Produced in that fateful final year of production, the whisky itself was now 32 years old, having spent the entirety of its life, a life longer than my own, coming of age in ex-sherry casks. Glasses were passed out and admired, more sunshine emanating from the contents held within than from the bright blue sky above.
Standing next to that warehouse, with its instantly recognizable Islay aesthetics—whitewashed walls with bold, black lettering indicating your location, P O R T E L L E N—a Glencairn glass is passed into my hands. Drinking Port Ellen, one of the world’s most prized whiskies, at Port Ellen, one of the world’s most fervently mourned former distilleries, it’s a pour of whisky that cannot be conveyed via mere tasting notes. This isn’t a collection of specific flavor profile pinpoints, it’s a transcendental, joyful experience to be savored far beyond the moment when the final drop was cherishingly sipped down. Sure, there’s salt and peat and spice and sherry, but really, it’s hope and dreams and loveliness.
Revelry ensues, photos are taken, glasses are returned and the group begins walking away. What’s this? Someone put down their glass, with whisky still remaining in it? Who would dare? Is there a commission to report this foolish person to, some sort of task-force to ride in, sirens blaring, to escort this person to his or her fully-deserved imprisonment?
No, I have a better idea. Shh. I’ll make this my little secret. I pick up the glass and savor its remaining sip. Another gift from the whisky gods above on this absurdly beautiful day spent wandering this tiny, quaint island which conjures up just such magical moments for whisky lovers the world over.