Yes, it really does have Port Ellen in it.
The Johnnie Walker ‘Blue Label’ moniker is synonymous with luxury and rarity, so it’s fitting that when Diageo decided to blend together some of their rarest whisky stocks, they would release it as an extension of the Blue Label range. But that’s pretty much where the lineage to the ‘common’ Blue Label ends, as this new release from the striding man is almost in a league of its own.
The new release I’m talking about is the Johnnie Walker Ghost and Rare Port Ellen and I was fortunate enough to attend a special preview tasting last week held at one of Sydney’s finest diners, Bennelong, at the Opera House.
The story of Ghost and Rare
The ‘Ghost and Rare’ element of the name comes from the malt and grain whiskies used in this blend, specifically those from the closed distilleries of Caresbridge and Calendonian (both grain distilleries), along with the fabled golden child of Islay, Port Ellen distillery.
Port Ellen’s history dates back nearly 200 years to the 1820s when it was founded on the south coast of Islay, the little island we now know as home to Scotland’s peated (or ‘smoky’) malt whiskies. It produced whisky for over 100 years before being sold to DCL, who we now know as Diageo, the parent company of the famous Johnnie Walker brand. After only a few years of ownership, Port Ellen was temporarily closed for some 37 years, before it was eventually brought back to life in 1967. The resurrection would be short-lived though, as the whisky glut of the 1980s hit hard. Diageo – owners of Port Ellen, Lagavulin and Caol Ila – had a tough decision to make, and in 1983 Port Ellen was closed for good. In the decades that have passed since, the ever ageing (and dwindling) stocks of this lost Islay distillery have become some of the most sought after single malts in the world. So when you see a Johnnie Walker release with the name ‘Port Ellen’ on the bottle, it’s the kind of thing that piques your interest.
The other thing to note is this; with Port Ellen and Caresbridge closing in 1983 and Caledonian closing in 1988, you have some seriously well-aged whisky in this blend. Aside from those three Ghost and Rare distilleries, malts from Mortlach Dailuaine, Cragganmore, Blair Athol and Oban also make an appearance, so this should be interesting.
On the nose I found it quite tropical, with some overripe, almost effervescent stone fruit. Behind that though were some interesting heaving notes; workshop grease, wet rocks and a salty maritime note.
The palate had a strong link to the nose with much of the above, along with a touch of citrus and a classy, tropical maritime peat note.
Is the Port Ellen really evident?
Normally I would be a bit skeptical and wonder whether my mind was playing tricks on me. I know it has Port Ellen in it. It even says so on the bottle. So am I just convincing myself I can taste the influence on that rare malt? That would certainly be plausible, but I don’t think that’s the case with this one.
Here’s an interesting thing about this release. The absence of a certain detail makes this just as interesting as the inclusion of detail (top marks to Diageo for telling us what’s in the bottle!). The peat influence in most Johnnie Walker expressions comes from a healthy dose of Caol Ila, but a quick glance at the bottle confirms that Caol Ila is indeed absent from this release. In actual fact, the only whisky in this bottle with any kind of discernible peat and maritime note is the Port Ellen. So while we don’t know exactly how much Port Ellen is in there, it’s enough to let you know it’s there!
So as I asked last time – a clever marketing move? Of course it is! But it’s so much more than that. It’s genuinely tasty whisky, with some genuinely old and rare liquid in it and it’s been put together in a very clever way. To think of this as a standard bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label with a splash of Port Ellen is missing the point.
The Johnnie Walker Ghost and Rare Port Ellen is now available from major stores with an RRP of AU$480