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Gateway to Islay
In 2009, Sukhinder Singh of Speciality Drinks (now Elixir Distillers) created a new brand of single malt whisky using parcels of spirit sourced from the isle of Islay. Displaying a more balanced side of the island’s famously smoky whisky, the range launched with cask strength, 17 and 25 year old bottlings, with 100 proof and 8 year old expressions added in 2016.
The brand was named after the tiny port village on Islay’s eastern shore that has served as the gateway to the island for centuries. As far back as the 1700s, ships sailed into the Port from West Loch Tarbet on the Kintyre peninsula and a steamer service from Glasgow launched in 1825, sailing up the narrow stretch of water between Islay and Jura. A mile to the north stands Caol Ila, whilst Bunnahabhain is situated a little further along the coast. Both distilleries were similarly served by the puffer ships that once traversed the sound of Islay, sailing past Port Askaig to deliver supplies to distillery workers and transport whisky back to the mainland. A few miles inland lies Loch Finlaggan and Eilean Mòr where the ruin of Finlaggan Castle lies as a memorial to the once powerful Lords of the Isles.
Today the village of Port Askaig is a quiet wee place, home to but a few houses, a petrol station and shop as well as the hotel, complete with 16th century bar, the oldest continually licensed premises on the island. Despite its sleepy appearance, however, the area bursts into life when the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry sails in from Kennacraig, depositing everything from returning locals to whisky tourists and birdwatchers on to the steep road that leads out of the port. It is also the departure point for the small, yet frequent, ferry across to Feolin on Jura and in the summer an additional service runs to Oban via Colonsay.
Port Askaig offers the visitor some breathtaking views across to the famous paps of Jura, though the island’s temperamental weather doesn’t always work in one’s favour. It took me four or five visits to the eastern coast before I got a day clear enough to see the opposite shore. That’s what I get for visiting in the winter I suppose.
The Port Askaig 8 year old is bottled at 45.8%, un-chill-filtered and natural colour. It retails around £40 a bottle.
Smell: Quite fresh. Lots of ozone, sea salt and brine. Lots of vanilla. Citrus. Fresh bread & flour. Pepper. Liqourice. Light bonfire smoke and charcoal.
Taste: Plenty of salt and pepper. Plain scones and lemon curd. Caramel. Liquorice. Slightly woody. Drying on the palate with good texture. That bonfire smoke drifts through lazily, ever present but never overpowering.
Thoughts: This entry point to the Port Askaig range is a fantastic buy. It carries an age statement, it’s un-chill-filtered and it’s only £40. On that alone I’d suggest it was worth a go.
A couple of years ago I helped to judge the Scottish Field magazine “Reader’s Challenge” whisky competition. Eight of us had been chosen to blind taste our way through approximately 60 different whiskies, scoring each as we went. Three Port Askaig expressions found their way into the top ten. 100 Proof at No. 7, 8 year old at No. 5 and 14 year old at No. 3. That’s an impressive showing for any brand and while it’s true those of us on the panel were no experts, it’s telling that we all agreed on the quality of those three.
Wonderfully coastal and gently smoky, the 8 year old serves not only as an introduction to the range, but to Islay single malts in general. The familiar smoke is never allowed to run riot and the whole experience is one of precise balance and full flavour. Excellent.
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