Another week, another embarrassment of riches in the form of a single grain of nearly 50 years, and [drum roll and excitement very much yes please for the whisky please] a Port Ellen, bottled at a mighty-impressive 35 years of age.
I’ve had cause to revisit the first few episodes of Star Trek TNG recently as the boy is old enough that most of the (broadly excellent) moral lessons aren’t lost on him, and not quite so old that the ones that aren’t so excellent need cringeworthy at-length explanations.
The concept from that show which always captured my imagination the most, even at a similarly young age, was the replicators. Seemingly magical machines capable of repurposing matter at a molecular level to create food, drink, (well, anything* really) to precisely the desired recipe/concentration/heat at the touch of a button or by spoken word.
No replicating regionality
It doesn’t take me a huge amount of thought-experiment time to become initially delighted with the choice that a setup like this could provide, subsequently bored with the fact that nothing is scarce anymore, and finally dismayed at the removal of any anticipation or variation due to anything other than whim.
There’s a reason that regional cuisine (and especially ‘cucina povera’ and its international equivalents, regional cuisine which is constrained by extreme price sensitivity) is so utterly magical. It’s the product of a huge amount of time and effort, sure, but more than that. It’s time and effort in the face of adversity, and cyclical (usually seasonal) availability. Had there always been replicators, there would be no need to preserve them. No need to preserve means no Bottarga, no Jamón Ibérico, and worse still maybe even (whisper it) no whisky. These products aren’t great by design. They’re the product of natural selection, created by accident and refined on purpose.
How do I feel, then, about the (now no longer recent of course) news that Port Ellen distillery is to re-open? Conflicted, is the honest answer.
The Port Ellen paradox
Don’t get me wrong, the project is weapons-grade awesome. The entire setup, including the two-still setup, has been painstakingly recreated down to the last dent in the wash still, with an additional pair of new (smaller) stills to boot. Not only will Diageo be able to create new spirit which is probably going to be as close as dammit to the original, they’ll also be able to muck about with a whole heap of innovation on the same site too. Dream-come-true stuff no doubt.
Flash forward 200 years though, and will we be able to taste the difference between a 35-year-old Port Ellen distilled in 1983, the year of the initial closure, and one distilled a hundred years later in 2083**? I’d wager not.
What does this mean then for the 1983 bottling we’ve got this week. What intrinsic value does it really have if it can be replicated practically, synthetically, and/or pseudo-magically at some point in the future? Given the startling progress represented by 3d printing, steak grown in a lab from stem cells, and Coca-Cola Freestyle (in order of awesomeness) this point can’t be far away, right?
I guess the answer can be quite neatly packaged up as ‘diamonds, innit?’. I can pop down to Argos and grab a 10 Carat Zirconia ring for less than £20. If I’m feeling more upmarket, I can acquire a genuine lab-grown diamond made from precisely the same material as a real diamond, made using the same process of extreme heat and pressure, and without any of the real or perceived ethical implications, or the need for DiCaprio to do ‘that accent’.
There’s an easy rebuttal to this analogy that springs to mind. Real diamonds are prized above the replicated alternative because of their inherent internal flaws, their ‘genuineness’, surely? Well, I think this would stand up better to scrutiny if it wasn’t for the uncomfortable fact that prices for diamonds flex and scale according to the four c’s: cut (symmetry), carat (size), colour, and clarity. In the latter two of those four cases the paradigm is clear. Literally as well as figuratively.
Nonetheless, and in the face of flawless (sorry) logic and relentless progress in the production methodology, cost, and availability of synthetic alternatives, the market for real diamonds has moved only in one direction over time, and pretty damned aggressively too. There’s something else at play and that thing can be defined really as ‘specialness’. There is something inherent to both the Port Ellen, and the diamond which defies explanation solely as ‘scarcity’, or even ‘quality’, and therein my friends, lies the magic.
This week’s selection
So, on to this week’s bottlings. Let’s have a look at that Port Ellen first.
This is a refill barrel at a still-healthy 47.8% ABV, and has all those incredible hallmark notes of sherbet lemons, chamois leather, and intensely herbal depth that one would expect at this age. My personal opinion on this one, but I’d say that it’s easy to ruin Port Ellen with a liberal application of sherry, so we’ve been uncharacteristically restrained here.
Ultra-well-aged grain is up next, from the (now silent) Caledonian Distillery. This powerhouse of a grain producer was located smack in the middle of the Haymarket district of Edinburgh, finally shutting its doors in 1988. As with previous incredibly-well aged grains, it’s overwhelmingly likely that this dram (distilled back in 1974) was made from corn, drawing parallels again with our final bottling, more on which below. Soft, supple, and unctuous, and still at a hella-punchy 48.6%abv.
Irish single malt whiskey here from a secret source. Matured in a bourbon barrel, so expect lots of lovely vanilla and red fruit overtones, which work incredibly well with the soft, smoother style of whiskey production found here. Lovely stuff.
Solid, malty, rich, biscuity, and just very, very good at what it does. Speyside simplicity at its absolute best from Aultmore.
A heavily-peated whisky from the Tobermory distillery up next (Ledaig is the name they give to their peated production). Proving unequivocally that despite not being located on Islay, this distillery has the chops to take the established players on at their own game. Drawn from a (what we assume to be a reasonably active sherry) refill hogshead, the colour on this one alone makes it more than worth the price of admission.
Another belter of a value proposition for you this week from the Speyside distillery. A youthful and exuberant malt that epitomises the no-nonsense, undoubtedly meta Speyside distillery.
Yet more secrets from the Highland region up next, at an increased ABV from the Speyside, and with an additional year of age for only a fiver more. Enjoy.
The final whiskey for today comes from Heaven Hill distillery in Kentucky. You’ll notice that despite being able to be up-front about where this one comes from, we’ve neglected to put it on the bottle. This is because of reasons. Many reasons. Some of them good. Incredible ‘bigness’ from this one. I’m coming to realise that corn whiskeys are actually one of my best things, and this is no exception.
So, until next week then folks, at which juncture we’ll have some nicely-aged Speysides, a heavily-peated Islay, and another lovely mainland comparator also boasting heaps and heaps of peat.
*No, not anything. Fine. Anything except Latinum, Dilithium, or anything else which would upset the delicate post-scarcity-capitalist narrative balance.
**Which would mean that (greedy angels aside) the ‘Single malt, aged 200 years’ offered as a toast to Earth by Groundskeeper Boothby in Voyager’s ‘In the Flesh’ could well be from the same year had he the presence of mind to have picked up a bottle when he was 20 years old. My name’s Ben, and I remember things. Most of them are completely fucking useless. And yes, it wasn’t Boothby, it was a member of Species 8472. A rose by any other name? Anyone? Bueller?