Port Ellen 18, 1981 (Douglas Laing OMC)

Port Ellen 18, 1981, OMC
This is, I’m pretty sure, the youngest Port Ellen I’ve had (this 21 yo is the youngest I’ve previously reviewed). This was released in 2000, one year before the first annual release; in other words, before Port Ellen was quite Port Ellen. As you may be tired of being told (and I’m sure I’ve said it many times before myself), Port Ellen was a workhorse distillery when it was operational and almost no single malt version was released until the the mid-late 1980s (after it had closed) and it wasn’t until the late 1990s and really the early 2000s that it became widely known and it’s now iconic reputation sealed. So someone who bought this bottle when it was first released probably did not pay very much more for it than they would have for whisky of similar age from open distilleries and would probably have thought you were kidding if you’d told them then that 15 years later the entry-level price for Port Ellen would be well north of $500.

This is from a sherry cask and is from Douglas Laing’s legendarily vast Port Ellen portfolio. While their wells seem to finally have run dry, Douglas Laing have released at least 160 Port Ellens over the years, as per Whiskybase—in fact, as per Whiskybase, they’ve released more Port Ellens than malts from any other distillery! Old Bothwell are probably the only other bottler who can say that and they’ve barely released anything but Port Ellen.

Port Ellen 18, 1981-2000 (50%; Douglas Laing, Old Malt Cask; sherry cask; from a sample received in a swap)

Nose: Mushroomy and earthy to start and then with expanding citrus there’s expanding gunpowder—mixed in with dried orange peel and apricot and salt, it’s the kind of sulphur I quite enjoy. Not very much smoke to speak of (perhaps masked by the gunpowder) but there’s a growing coastal note: brine, seashells. After a minute some paraffin bursts through and brings first lemon and then green olives with it; some mineral oil too. Three or four minutes in, here finally is the smoke, but it’s mild and mixed in with the paraffin and some wax. Sweeter with time and then smokier with time and the sulphur recedes. Water pushes the sulphur back even more and pulls out something plasticiney.

Palate: Quite austere to start, with the mineral oil and then the lemon. But then ashy smoke comes billowing up along with salt and the olives. Sweeter on the second sip and on the third but the salt expands too as does the phenolic character (not that it’s aggressively medicinal). The lemon expands with every sip and it gets more peppery and develops a bit of a char as well. With water it’s sweeter still (wet stones) and the ashy smoke expands as well.

Finish: Long. Lemon, minerally peat, ashy smoke and salt. More ashy smoke and some pepper with water and then quite a bit of a quinine-like bitterness.

Comments: Not for the sulphurphobe, but despite the sulphur it’s no sherry bomb—in fact, it’s not particularly sherried at all. And I should also note that the sulphur is not really particularly pronounced on the palate; and the palate is, I think, the best part of this whisky. I enjoyed this fine but it is one of those Port Ellens that will cure you of the notion that every Port Ellen must be some world-beating malt.

Rating: 87 points.

Thanks to Teemu S. for the sample!

3 thoughts on “Port Ellen 18, 1981 (Douglas Laing OMC)

  1. This sounds like the whisky came from a somewhat tired cask.

    From what I’ve read Port Ellen was one of Douglas Laing’s favorite distilleries (I guess before anyone else started liking it!) hence the large number of casks that went to his firm.

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    • I wouldn’t be surprised if Douglas Laing’s preference for Port Ellen on top of the lack of demand at the time was what led to the firm getting all those casks. It seems that demand for closed distilleries did not explode until the Internet age.

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