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Who Needs Brora And Port Ellen? We Have Clynelish And Caol Ila!

Did I manage to grab your attention? Thank you. Of course the headline is an exaggeration, but not by much, actually.

Last month, Diageo announced their annual special release bottlings for 2012. There has already been quite some discusison about the pricing, I won’t go too much deeper into that territory here. But it has to be noted the the prices for Brora and Port Ellen bottlings across the board have risen quite substantially over the last years, with the Diageo original bottlings leading the trend.

Both distilleries have been closed for nearly 30 years now. Because of the constantly high quality of the bottlings, they have grown to the status of legends, certainly also helped by the ‘silent still’ bonus. But of course it is only logical that sooner or later the remaining stocks will come to an end. And as my recent statistics about independent bottlings indicates, we may indeed be approaching the bottom of the barrel, so to speak.

If you absolutely, postively have to have bottles of Brora or Port Ellen in your whisky cabinet, your wallet will suffer badly from it. Yes, they are very good whiskies, no doubt about it. But are they really that spectacular?

When you read enthusiastic reviews of Port Ellens or Broras – be it by simple bloggers or high profile whisky writers – always keep in mind that the vast majority of these reviews is done not after a blind tasting but in full knowledge of what is in the glass. The psychological effect of knowing what you drink is well-documented and not denied by any respectable taster. You may have a bias in favour or against a brand or distillery, either conscious or subconscious, that can affect your opinion.

For exactly this reason, the whiskies submitted to the Malt Manaicas Awards – just as other awards and competitons as well – are tasted blind by a panel of judges. As an example, here are the scores for the official 30 yo Brora release from 2010 from the Malt Maniacs Awards 2011:

Scores are mostly spread between 84 and 90 with one ‘maverick’ score of 80; the average is a bit below 87 which puts the whisky into the “very good, not more, not less” bracket. I was included in the panel of tasters. My personal score was 86, and I guessed this to be a Highland Park. Two Port Ellens were tasted for the Awards as well, they received average scores of 90 (Wilson & Morgan cask #2011) and 86 (Malts of Scotland cask #11011). My own scores were 85 and 87 respectively, and I thought both were Caol Ilas.

Speaking of Caol Ila, a look into the Whisky Monitor assures you that there are plenty of excellent bottlings around. The market for independent bottlings has virtually been flooded with Caol Ila in recent years, and in the 25+ year age bracket you will find that most bottlings have a score of 85 or more with quite a few going up to 90 and beyond.

Caol Ila arguably is the one Islay distillery that is closest to Port Ellen in its character. While young Caol Ila is not always spectacular, it has proved to age well. For me, aged Caol Ila is largely on eye level with Port Ellen. It is a worthy alternative, despite its reputation as blend fodder for Johnnie Walker Black Label. But wasn’t Port Ellen mainly used for blends as well?

For an alternative to Brora, look no further than next door! Clynelish was built in 1967 to replace Brora, but both distilleries were in production together for over a decade. The stills are exact copies, and the simple fact that for some malts in the first production years of Clynelish there is a period of uncertainty in which of the two distilleries they actually were distilled should make it clear that these two are closeley related. And in the Whisky Monitor you can see that old Clynelishes usually get high ratings as well, just like Caol Ila.

So instead of angrily shaking your fist against Diageo and other bottlers about the prices for Bora and Port Ellen, wouldn’t it be better to just leave those bottles to the die-hard collectors, gamblers or ‘investors’ and profit from the constant supply of high quality Caol Ilas and Clynelishes for just a fraction of the price?

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Sjoerd de Haan September 27, 2012, 11:39 am

    Great article and very much my own opinion as well. While I will never disagree that there are some stunning PEs or Broras that have yet to meet their equal from another distillery, I think that on average Clynelish and Coal Ila can live up to the same fame. Especially when you look at similarly aged bottles.

    Again, great article.

  • Thomas Tannenberger September 27, 2012, 1:17 pm

    once more, great article!
    but, the peat level in Brora makes all the difference. what I (and many others I guess) found perfect in certain Broras (the 2006 over all before and after rleased 30 years Special Release) is the combination of peat, the ´different´ fruitiness, and ´the many other things´ (waxy, farmy, coastal, whatever one could name). if they´d do strongly peated malts at Clynelish I would not cry a tear for Brora.
    Port Ellen, I´m maybe the only one but I think Octomore will become the next Port Ellen in some time, again with the fruit and peat and salt mineral combo right up to perfect once it gets double as old (10 years and older), and the PE thing to me is that the medicinal level in Octomore is just very low (which often gets bigger in many Caol Ilas, nothing against a good medicinal malt though!) while still being on the harder side of things with the rest.
    you may argue it´s little things that make the difference, but exactly this is the case as you know, a bit nore here, and a bit less there, and one is a big winner, the other just another good malt. (ps: I never found the W&M PE to be that much better than the many 82 83 PEs for 100€ less;)

    • Oliver Klimek September 27, 2012, 1:24 pm

      I agree, the earlier heavily peated Broras are something spceial and can’t really be replaced by Clynielish. But the ‘current’ Broras from the early 1980s are generally not too far apart from Clynelish. No distillery can really replace another one, of course.

  • bacchus September 27, 2012, 1:50 pm

    i completely agree.
    i’m pretty sure some distilleries will become legend when they’re closed; now is the time to buy marvellous bottles. i’m even convinced that they can become marvellous just staying in your cupboard for many years.
    and i don’t wanna wait that Ardbeg, Ardmore or Old Pulteney close…

  • TexasPeat October 23, 2012, 5:12 pm

    I have found the Berry Brothers 14 year Clynelish bottled at cask strength (55.5% for the cask I had) to be among the best “value” whiskies available in Dallas, which despite all the negative things some would like to say about Texas, is a very large whisky market. Total Wine sells the Berry Brothers range and I believe that Spec’s (a Houston-based chain with truly Texas-sized stores that are best described as Disneyland for boozehounds…with a killer deli, too) is going to bring it in.

    Fruits and “coastal” characteristics come together beautifully and, at only 14 years, it still has a delicious freshness that would of course be missing from an old Brora. Price? $55. No one who tasted it sans description and knowledge of the price thought it could be a whisky in the $50 range. Be sure to buy several bottles, as the first one you open won’t last long.

  • Dave Worthington October 25, 2012, 6:45 pm

    I completely agree with you Oliver. Whilst it was great to taste these at the recent Whisky Exchange Show (and meet you there too) they are all way above my budget. I start having to think very seriously about any whisky getting close to the £100 mark. When I tasted the Lagavulin 21 year old, I really wanted one, but I can’t justify that price. Given the opportunity I’d love to try them again though!

  • politicalidiot December 11, 2012, 6:07 am

    I think the 14 YO Clynelish OB is a great one too. I always have an open bottle in my cabinet. I recently happened upon a Chieftain’s K&L exclusive 21 YO Clynelish that is magically good too. Great distillery.