If you’re a fan of high-end scotch you’ve probably heard of “ghost distilleries,” a term that refers to shuttered distilleries that still have barrels of whisky aging in warehouses under the control of large corporations and independent bottlers. An awful lot of this whisky seems to keep popping up in the form of special bottles and limited-edition releases. So rare is this liquid actually? The latest ghost distillery release comes from Gordon & Macphail, which released a 42-year-old single malt from the old Port Ellen distillery as part of its Recollection Series, and this is one that fans of dusty scotch should seek out.
Marketing tactics aside, the liquid from Port Ellen and other ghost distilleries will run out eventually. But given the large scale of production that many were operating on before closing, it makes sense that there is still a vast amount of barrels available. This particular Islay distillery, owned by drinks giant Diageo, will reopen later this year and commence whisky production once again, albeit in a very different shape and form. In the meantime, the remaining liquid from Port Ellen’s original iteration seems to be released once or twice a year with high age statements and price tags to match. Gordon & Macphail has its own share of Port Ellen barrels, as well as other shuttered distilleries like Banff and Glen Mhor—I got to try these as well, but the Port Ellen whisky stood out.
Granted, whisky this old is not always good—the flavor can be transformed into something unrecognizable after decades in a barrel, as I felt was the case with the Banff single malt. There are are 18 expressions from 15 distilleries in the Recollection Series 2, and this Port Ellen 1981 vintage is the oldest from the distillery to be released by Gordon & Macphail. Despite its dustiness, this is a tasty whisky. The requisite tropical fruit notes of mango and pineapple that usually come with a single malt this old are there, but they are buttressed by a whiff of smoke, tobacco, red hot cinnamon spice, rum raisin, chocolate espresso beans, and some apple tart. The start of each sip has a nice unexpected burst of berry sweetness, perhaps thanks to its maturation in a refill sherry butt. At 52.5 percent ABV, the whisky is higher proof than you might expect, which only adds to the flavor.
There are just 181 bottles of this Port Ellen single malt, and at $15,000 per bottle this is actually a bargain considering how much whisky this old from a distillery this ghosty can go for. Gordon & Macphail recently announced that it will cease operating as an independent bottler that purchases new make spirit from other distilleries to mature, and instead focus on the two it owns: Benromach and The Cairn Distillery. But there are still many, many barrels from ghost and living distilleries to bottle and sell in the G&M warehouses, so that part of the business will continue for years to come. Maybe that will make this bottle even more of a collector’s item, but whisky is meant to be enjoyed, not just admired on a shelf, so please pop this one open if you manage to find it.
- 100: Worth trading your first born for
- 95 – 99 In the Pantheon: A trophy for the cabinet
- 90 – 94 Great: An excited nod from friends when you pour them a dram
- 85 – 89 Very Good: Delicious enough to buy, but not quite special enough to chase on the secondary market
- 80 – 84 Good: More of your everyday drinker, solid and reliable
- Below 80 It’s alright: Honestly, we probably won’t waste your time and ours with this