What story are we buying when we invest in collectible whisky? The craft beverage craze emphasizes the narrative of small batches, local ingredients and devoted, intrepid producers who promote the purity of their product on the molecular level. But one of the most sought-after single malt scotches in the world - Port Ellen, of which we are selling several bottles in our Fine Wine and Whisky Auction - has barely a hint of this kind of founding story.
The Port Ellen Distillery was built in 1825 as a malt mill and began
distilling single malt scotches in 1833. At that point it was owned by the
Ramsay family, who owned not only Port Ellen, but most of the iconic Islay distilleries until after WWI. But the rest of the Port Ellen story is not one of family traditions being handed down from generation to generation - it's actually a banal tale of global corporate consolidation.
From 1920 on, the Port Ellen Distillery was bought, sold, closed and opened several times over by ever-larger scotch conglomerates. Buchanan-Dewars bought it from the Ramsays, transferred it to the Port Ellen Distillery Company, and then sold it to the Distillers Company Limited in 1925. DCL transferred management of the distillery to its subsidiary, Scottish Malt Distillers, who closed it in 1930. It was reopened in 1967 and then closed again in 1983 when the global demand for whisky hit rock bottom. The shuttered Port Ellen was then bundled with all the other DCL holdings that were sold to Guinness in 1986 in a scandalous deal that resulted in several executives going to jail for inflating the price of Guinness shares in order to strengthen their bid for DCL. Finally, in 1997 Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo, which is now the world's largest luxury beverage company, with brands like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Johnnie Walker and more, keeping Guinness and Port Ellen in fine company.
As most scotch aficionados know, around 2000 Diageo seemed to realize that it owned a warehouse in Islay containing some of the world's rarest whiskies still just sitting in their casks. It began bottling and releasing small amounts of Port Ellen with its annual Special Releases. Diageo has sold several casks of Port Ellen to other whisky bottlers as well, such as Douglas Laing, two of whose Port Ellen bottlings are in our sale. Needless to say, bottles of newly released whisky from a long-closed "ghost" distillery command a high price on the increasingly hot whisky market.
So the question becomes: does the fact that one of the most famous whiskies in the world isn't the product of a romantic back story devalue it? When it was originally being made in the 70's and 80's, Port Ellen wasn't a "craft" liquor - that kind of hype wouldn't hit the whisky industry for another 20-30 years. It was just whisky. But perhaps, extreme rarity aside, Port Ellen's relative lack of romance affords an opportunity to be clear-eyed about our consumption of luxury goods. Stripped of a story with lots of colorful characters and groundbreaking industry moments, the reputation of Port Ellen must stand on the quality of the liquor in the bottle. Which, it turns out, is remarkable.
Even though the Port Ellen distillery was completely dismantled, its huge copper stills sold for scrap, when it closed in 1983, the malting plant at Port Ellen has remained continuously operational. It is the only maltings on the west coast of Scotland and it makes all of the maltings for every famous Islay scotch, such as Laphraiog and Lagavulin. The distinctively smokey characteristic of these scotches comes from the Islay peat used in the Port Ellen maltings. Islay itself is largely composed of peat - centuries of layers of sphagnum moss and vegetation rotting into dense black banks. As it turns out, this intense peat characteristic ages extremely well. And since Port Ellen hasn't been made since 1983, every Port Ellen whisky has had a minimum of 35 years to mellow.
Last year Diageo announced plans to bring the Port Ellen Distillery back into operation by 2023. Whisky-lovers are divided on the wisdom of that decision. But whether or not Diageo starts producing new Port Ellen whiskies, there will never, ever be any more of the originals. Perhaps we have the peccadilloes of the fast-paced world of corporate trade to thank for the fact that these singular scotches lay neglected for so long, only to be offered in recent years. If Port Ellen hadn't been passed around like a hot potato so many times, it's possible most of the whisky in those casks would have been sold or consumed long ago.
Content created by the Leland Little editorial team