Friday, 16 November 2012

Whisky Discovery #239

Port Ellen 25 Year Old Signatory Vintage (57% abv D.1982 B.2007)
Islay Single Malt Whisky
Circa £300.00
The third Port Ellen on our journey to date
The Port Ellen distillery on the island of Islay was closed in 1983 and stocks have been slowly released over the years, which must be surely coming towards the end now, the youngest spirit being 29 years old now. Kat and and have been fortunate in getting to taste two of the recent annual releases from Diageo, tasting the 11th release at the Midlands Whisky Festival in September, and then the latest 12th release at the The Whisky Exchange Show in October. 

Both were 32 Year Old expressions distilled in 1979, and they were both simply delicious, 'liquid history' as we were told at the time. At around £700 a bottle, and being highly collectible, it's not often opportunities to taste these rare malts arise, but before we tell you what we thought, a short story on how we came to have a sample of this often revered Port Ellen whisky.

A few weeks back, while we were coming to the end of our five dram vertical tasting of The Glenrothes, I 'tweeted' that we were hoping that we have saved the best to last as we opened the 1978 Vintage. We immediately got a reply from @WeeRockWhisky who told us to look out for sulphur.

Now I've not really experienced sulphur in my whisky journey to date, yet seem to be hearing more and more about it. I've heard about a struck match note and I replied that I quite like the the smell of struck matches anyway. At this point Canadian blogger @Whiskylassie joins in the conversation and tells us that 'they' say only around 5% of the population can actually identify sulphur, and that she didn't think that she was one of them.

The conversation developed around the sulphured whisky and I recalled the Belgian Owl experience of boiled cabbage water note on the nose, which I  was informed at the time was due to sulphur, but the most common note was that struck match, or an extinguished firework, but in some extremes a 'rotten egg' odour was found.

@WeeRockWhisky went on to tell us about a 1982 Port Ellen from Signatory Vintage that he found 'undrinkable'  and that it had been poured out! Shocked we replied that we should have been asked for a second opinion. Although it wasn't his bottle, the owner was immediately contacted and agreed to send both us and @Whiskylassie a sample of this, and the advice "If you haven't known sulphur, this will teach you quickly but try it far away from other drams." We were intrigued!

So What Did We Think?

The sample arrived from @Whiskyintel, the unfortunate owner of the said bottle, last weekend and although I opened it for a quick sniff when it arrived, I didn't really get to know it until the other evening. A quick nose from the sample bottle was really quite pleasant;  The high alcohol content is quite astringent at first, but there's lots of that rich Islay peat, a heavy aroma of tobacco and then that struck match note, it wasn't offensive but I could clearly detect it.

We poured some into a nosing glass, and started to nose it. The struck matches were more evident now, and this wasn't like the Port Ellen releases we had recently tried, the nose was quite aggressive, which we put down to the high abv. Yes the peaty Islay notes were there, bonfire smoke, charcoal, tobacco and old leather.

It was aggressive on the palate too, 57% abv stripping the taste buds? I was starting to think not. I have a lovely Signatory Vintage Heavily Peated Bunnahabhain at 54.6% that does not need water, and have had single grain at 64% abv that you wouldn't have really noticed. We added water to try taming it and it was then that we first noticed a bad egg smell, that hydrogen sulphide note that really wasn't welcome. It wasn't a constant odour, but enough to put us off and we too poured the dram away.

I covered the empty glass and returned to it the following morning. It was not pleasant at all; like a stale stubbed out cigar in an old ashtray.

I conveyed my thoughts back to @WeeRockWhisky who came back to me:

Tragedies like this are painful. Likely, when the whisky was first casked, the barrel was clean. However, somewhere along the line, they must have transferred the contents into a newer sherry cask or wine cask. Newer sherry and wine casks are often treated with sulphur as a way of preserving the barrel, as the alcohol content of wine is low, so it can spoil. Bourbon casks are preserved naturally due to the high alcohol content of cask strength bourbon, so no sulphur is used in traditional barrelling.

Sometimes, you can pick out traces of sulphur, like in the Black Arts and some A'bunadhs, but the number of spoiled casks is minor, so the sulphuric effect is minimal, sometimes almost appealing. Sadly, buying whisky matured in sherry casks is like playing Russian roulette. I seem to want to try them before I buy them.

And finished his email with one of the best signatures I've seen for a while!

May you never lie, steal, cheat or drink,
But if you must lie – lie in each other’s arms,
If you must cheat – cheat death,
If you must steal – steal kisses,
And if you must drink, for God’s sake, drink whisky.

and so endeth our first lesson on the effects of sulphur on a maturing spirit. We also learnt that my wife and Kat's mother has an excellent 'sulphur' nose, as upon nosing the sample she got it immediately, without any prompting from us all. We're going to keep the sample sent as a reference point for future discoveries, and @Whiskylassie are doing exactly the same as I found out when speaking with them last night

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