distillery focus: port charlotte

Admittedly, it’s not the most obvious first entry for a ‘distillery focus’ given that, well, it doesn’t exist yet, but the very concept of a Port Charlotte distillery is something quite close to my whsky-soaked heart. But where to start? A few facts, I guess; Port Charlotte is a village on the charming and alluring island of Islay, which is a part of the Inner Hebrides in Scotland. The village was founded primarily to provide housing facilities for workers at the Lochindaal distillery that was constructed in 1829, taking its name from the eponymous loch on the shores of which the village sits. The distillery had many owners over the course off the following century – and was at times said to be known as ‘Port Charlotte Distillery’ and ‘Rhinns Distillery’ – but was eventually closed in 1929 when it found itself in the ownership of a company called DCL.

Many of the original distillery buildings remain intact and are still in use, including those which now house the Port Charlotte Youth Hostel, Islay Natural History Trust, and a local garage. The bonded warehouses have been in continuous use for many years and they are happily still used to mature whisky, specifically that produced by the Bruichladdich distillery. Bruichladdich is situated a few miles north of Port Charlotte and the distillery here was founded much later than its neighbor but also crucially survived much longer, closing in 1994. It was reopened in 2001 and despite being famous for producing a light, elegant spirit the distillery has also been producing heavily peated whisky – such as is somewhat expected of Islay distilleries, and which was the style produced by the old Lochindaal distillery – since day one of its new inception.

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Old distillery buildings in Port Charlotte, with the Youth Hostel in the background

Since 2006 there has been a single malt release from Bruichladdich bearing the name “Port Charlotte”; initially it was a limited-edition, annual release (starting with PC5) and more recently there have been more standardized (read: afforadable) editions, including An Turas Mor, The Peat Project, & 10 year old. Then, in 2007, the company announced its plans to re-open a brand new distillery on the old Port Charlotte/Lochindaal site. In May of that year there was a formal ceremony to mark the occasion, with a one-off special edition of the Port Charlotte whisky released. Much of the needed equipment had actually been purchased years earlier from the dismantled Inverleven distillery in Dumbarton, and has been sitting, waiting, ever since. The project faced delays whilst awaiting planning permission, and supposedly as a result of “the financial crisis”, but in late-2012, following the purchase of Bruichladdich by French company Rémy Cointreau, it was confirmed that planning permission has been granted and the distillery is expected to be built by 2016.

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A still from Inverleven, with Bruichladdich warehouses beyond.

So those are the facts – or some of them at least. But facts only tell part of the story, and the excitement and anticipation that has surrounded the Port Charlotte releases adds a bit of depth to the tale. As mentioned, Islay is famed for the peaty whiskies produced there and many of the releases by Bruichladdich somewhat buck the growing trend for peat. The Bruichladdich brand remained fairly constant following its re-opening, with a newly repackaged 10 year old – containing, of course, whiskies distilled prior to its closure – put out with little delay. We had to wait a while longer for the peated distillate, though, which allowed a certain furor to build over this “heavily peated” spirit. When 6,038 bottles of PC5 were released fans of Islay whisky – myself included – went pretty nuts for it. I had been working in the York branch of The Whisky Shop for only a matter of weeks – maybe a couple of months – at the time, and it very quickly became the most I had ever even considered spending on a bottle of whisky (I think it cost around £55).

That bottle of mine is sadly all gone now – though it survived long enough to be compared alongside PCs 6, 7, and 8 – but I have incredibly favourable memories. At an intense 63.5% it was certainly among the first full cask strength whiskies I ever tasted, and even as a confirmed fan of Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg I was totally blown away by the intensity and the depth of character. Once it was tamed with a little water there was an immense array of flavours both sweet and savoury, and the contrast of fruit alongside salt, smoke, and turf stays with me even now. Suffice to say, that release has a very special place in my heart, and I’m happy to be able to take a sip of PC6 or PC8 every now and then (the former now living in a 10cl bottle in order to try and preserve it as long as possible). Not only do I have fond memories associated with the liquid itself, but also – especially, even – of the moments in sharing it with good friends (the night spent tasting four Port Charlotte releases back-to-back is a particularly fond – if slightly blurry – memory).

Port Charlotte/Lochindaal distillery c.1890 (image © Bruichladdich Distillery)

The reason for revisiting Port Charlotte today is in order to toast and bid farewell to the last drops of a bottle of An Turas Mor, which was opened for my last whsky tasting in the city of York, UK prior to my big move to the States. My two friends mentioned above both helped out with presenting the whskys that night, and we all found that this bottling, whilst good, didn’t live up to our memories of early PC releases. The drop in strength is surely a large part of the reason, with An Turas Mor being bottled from a variety of vintages at 46%, rather than natural cask strength. Then again, I doubt any release of Port Charlotte will quite live up to those memories; I have similarly romantic views of other drams from early on in my whsky drinking career, including the aforementioned Bruichladdich 10 year old – which was my first ‘sit up and take notice’ whsky – and Ardbeg’s Airigh Nam Beist, which remains possibly my favourite Ardbeg release despite it only just making the top 5 in an insane line-up of Ardbegs tasted last January (man alive, that 1974…)

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l-r: An Turas Mor, PC6, PC8

Anyway, in fond memory – and tremulous anticipation – here are my thoughts on An Turas Mor: In putting my nose to the glass I’m immediately struck by ashy, tarry smoke flavours, but after a minute or so I’m getting more of a salty, briney quality with a faint estery note reminiscent of ripe pears. On the palate it’s quite soft with a fairly light mouthfeel and the combination of brine and fruit remaining prominent, before earthy and smoky elements come to the fore. The finish has a dark chocolate feel to it – in fact, I’m reminded of a whsky and chocolate tasting that I co-hosted earlier in the year in which we tasted unsweetened 100% cocoa chocolate, which was kind of earthy and muddy, and intensely bitter. The whsky has the bittersweet flavour of maybe 70-80% cocoa dark chocolate but the earthy quality of that 100% cocoa insanity. All-in-all a fairly good indicator of the ‘house-style’ of the Port Charlotte releases, but without the nuances of the earlier limited releases.

Snippets of information for this post were garnered from the following pages:

Various expressions of Port Charlotte, including the excellent PC8, are available from Park Ave Liquor and Astor Wines in New York.

..

LSTN: The Appleseed Cast / Illumination Ritual (again!)
DRNK: Port Charlotte /  An Turas Mor

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