Brora and Port Ellen, Port Ellen and Brora. The names are spoken with reverence in Scotch circles. Distilleries that made great whisky but for some seemingly unbelievable reason were shuttered long ago. The remaining bottles sell for exorbitant prices and the whisky experts sing their praises. But are they worth it? How much of the reputation is hype? Are the high prices merited or simply a product of speculative collectors banking on a scarce product? Are they really that good?
I've tried whiskies from these distilleries from time to time, but within the last few months, I've had the opportunity to do some rather intensive tastings of both Port Ellen and Brora and thought I would share my thoughts. All together, I tasted seven Broras and twelve Port Ellens. These included a few official bottlings (Diageo inherited the stock of both distilleries and annually releases "official" bottlings), many indies and a few specialty bottlings that are not available to the general public. I won't list them all here, but you can find all of them on the LA Whiskey Society website.
So what did I learn from these intensive tastings? Here are my impressions.
The twelve Port Ellens I tasted ranged from 26 to 30 years old and were all distilled between 1979 and 1983; all but one were independent bottlings. That's a fairly narrow range, but a fairly representative sampling of what is currently available on the retail market.
All of the Port Ellens were very good and the best were excellent. They ranged from mid-level peating to quite heavily peated, but the flavor profile was fairly narrow (which may of course be accounted for by the narrow range of distillation years I was trying). While these are very good, they aren't particularly unique. There are lots of great peated whiskies out there today, and the profile is similar enough to other peated Islays that it's hard to imagine a Port Ellen cult would exist if the distillery were still open today; rather, it would more likely be considered just another smoky Islay whisky like, say, Caol Ila. That being said, the best of these, particularly the Diageo 7th release and the bottlings by Old Bothwell, rivaled the best of other peated whiskies and were indeed quite special. And while Port Ellens are expensive, the prices on the indie bottlings don't seem that far outside of what you might pay for other similarly aged Islays.
A brief check of some of the major retailers shows that there is still a fair amount of Port Ellen out there. In fact, it may be the most plentiful of all the closed distillery whiskies, so while it won't last forever, my guess is there will still be plenty available for the next few years.
I tasted seven Broras in two separate tastings. They ranged from 22 to 30 years old and all were distilled between 1972 and 1982; three of them were Diageo's official releases. As a bonus, I also tasted a Clynelish made at the Brora distillery when it was the old Clynelish distillery.
The Broras varied much more than the Port Ellens and had a much wider flavor profile. While Port Ellen was always fairly peated, the Brora distillery varied its peat levels and reduced them quite substantially in the early '80s. In addition, both the peated and unpeated Broras have a quite unique flavor profile that is hard to compare to other whiskies on the market today, particularly the rich and densely flavored late '70s peated malts.
Overall, the quality of the Broras varied more than the Port Ellens, but the best Broras were absolutely phenomenal. My two favorites were the heavily sherried Brorageddon, a 1972 Brora bottled by Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask for the Plowed Society and my old favorite, the 2007 Diageo release, which is a 30 year old. The Brorageddon is long gone, but it is still be possible to snag a 2007. Yes, it goes for $350-$375, but this is one of those fairly rare cases when I do think a whisky is truly worth a price like that.
Comparing the two based on this admittedly limited sampling, Port Ellens seem more consistent then Broras, but while Brora may be a bit more of a crap shoot, the best Broras are among the best whiskies I've had. In both cases, I would say that these whiskies do deserve some amount of the hype. They won't be around forever, and Broras, in particular, seem to be fading rather quickly, so if you want to try them, start saving up now.