This time last year, there was much rejoicing in the whisky world when Diageo, the world’s largest producer of spirits, announced plans to revive Scotland’s two most iconic silent, or “ghost”, distilleries: Port Ellen on Islay and Brora in the Highlands. Decommissioned in 1983 following a slump in the whisky market, Port Ellen and Brora mainly produced malt whisky for blending. It wasn’t until the market for old, rare and collectable malts took off about 10 years ago that they really began to be appreciated as single malts in their own right: Port Ellen for its rich, muscular peatiness; Brora for its more ethereal, scented smoke.
As stocks have dwindled, prices have rocketed – at last year’s Diageo Special Releases (an annual release of collectable limited editions) the Port Ellen and Brora editions were priced at £2,625 and £1,450 apiece. Rather mischievously, Diageo didn’t include either a Port Ellen or a Brora in the Special Releases (from The Whisky Exchange or Master of Malt) this year, although there were whiskies from two other silent distilleries, Carsebridge, a grain distillery in the Lowlands, and Pittyvaich in Speyside. But it has just released a rather good Johnnie Walker limited edition, Johnnie Walker Blue Ghost and Rare Port Ellen (£275/70cl bottle, from The Whisky Exchange) that features a generous measure of Port Ellen as well as rare whiskies from Mortlach and Oban. The result has all the finesse of JW Blue but with some deliciously brooding notes of black chocolate, dried figs and nutty smoke that are very much Port Ellen.
And rather like superannuated rock bands, silent distilleries are making comebacks all over the place. Only days after Diageo announced the revival of Port Ellen and Brora, Ian Macleod Distillers weighed in with its intention to resurrect Rosebank, a lowland distillery famous for producing floral, aromatic malts that age into phenomenal complexity. While we wait for the new Rosebank liquid to come to fruition, Ian Macleod has promised some special bottlings of old stocks. Meanwhile, I’ll be eking out the bottle of ultra-scarce Rosebank 20yo 1981 that I got at auction, a magnificently concentrated marriage of maturity and lively pep: honeycomb, liquorice, orange zest and sooty pot-pourri.
Just as I was about to sign this column off news reached me that Dallas Dhu – a silent distillery in Moray in northern Scotland – was also readying itself for an encore.
Will this new generation of whiskies taste as good as the old stuff? Will they dent the market value of the sought-after silent drams? We won’t know for several years. But for now, they’re a sign of an industry that’s truly alive and kicking.