Islay is near and dear to our hearts here at BoozeDancing.com. For some on staff, it’s the preferred region of choice when choosing a whisky to curl up with by the fire, by the sea, or by the current episode of Better Call Saul. And when one gets a whiff of a new whisky brand, distillery, or bottling coming from Islay, we stand at attention, put down our remotes (after pressing Pause) and listen. With eight working distilleries and 47 more on the way (or so it seems), the world’s thirst for drams from the Queen of the Hebrides knows no bounds.
Chris Maybin and Oliver Chilton are part of the current great wave of Islay whisky purveyors using their top notch whisky noses and palates to offer up a new brand, Port Askaig. These independent bottlers have their own take on what’s wonderful about the island where whisky rains from the skies almost everyday, peaty water runs from all of the faucets, and every dog looks like Shortie…
We were lucky enough to share a dram (or two) of the newest Port Askaigs with Mr. Chilton in New York City at his booth at Whisky Jewbilee. More than happy to talk Islay and whisky, Mr. Chilton seemed more than just the cask picker extraordinare (our words) we’ve heard legends about.
Chris Maybin, a longtime friend of this space, is the consummate loquacious whisky pro (his words. No, wait. Our words.) and a partner in this relatively new venture – Port Askaig – with Messers Sukhinder Singh and Chilton. We caught up with Mr. Chilton and Mr. Maybin whilst one was on holiday and the other wasn’t. We forget which was or wasn’t. All we know is that one of them had a great vacation and we hope to see pictures very soon. The conversation started with a little Islay geography and only got better after that…
Booze Dancing (BD): Whilst perusing the Port Askaig website, we smiled when we read the words ” Port Askaig has been the gateway to Islay for hundreds of years”. We like that this phrase serves double duty, i.e. Port Askaig is the entry point to the physical island of Islay and the Port Askaig brand is the entry point to the whiskies made on Islay. All that being said, what was the motivation behind creating an independent bottling brand that focuses exclusively on Islay whisky? How do see the demand for this very unique style of whisky in the coming years?
Chris Maybin + Ollie Chilton (CM + OC): Without wanting to dazzle you with marketing jargon, the motivation for creating the Port Askaig brand was down to Sukhinder Singh really liking Islay whisky and thinking the Port Askaig name sounded nice.
At the time, in 2008, Sukhinder felt there was a gap for Islay Single Malt whisky in the market. You had the classics like Laphroaig 10 and Lagavulin 16 but no one apart from Ardbeg was bottling a permanent product at cask strength. So we produced versions of Port Askaig at cask strength, 17 YO and 25 YO aimed primarily at selling through independent retail shops. There was never a marketing or sales plan. Sukhinder just loved Islay whisky and especially Caol Ila. Fortunately he had access to some nice parcels of this and a number of other Islay distilleries as well. Sukhinder bet the Brand Manager at the time that Port Askaig could be built on zero marketing as long as the liquid and packaging was really good. And he was pretty much right.
As for demand for peaty whisky in the years to come, in the words of Yazz and the Plastic Population (anyone under 30, just ask your Dad), the only way is up. The popularity of Islay/peated whisky is exploding right now and we have no doubt that it will continue to do so in the next few years. The owner of our US distributor ImpEx Beverages, Sam Filmus, often says that he feels that Islay has become a brand, and we think that’s right. There is something about Islay whisky that feels unmistakeably and intrinsically Scotch. The interest in independent Islay bottlings also feels like it could become more important than the distillery brands themselves.
BD: Terms like small and /or limited batch tend to perk up the ears of many a whisky geek, and not always in a good way. What does “limited batch” really mean in terms of the Port Askaig brand? What types of established minimum and maximum barrel counts do you expect for each batch of a particular Port Askaig expression?
CM + OC: Small/Limited Batch as a term is only marginally behind Craft and Artisanal in the pantheon of devious whisky marketing practices. At the same time it does get the idea across quite nicely of what we do. Bottlings of Port Askaig can be anything between one and 50 barrels. So Port Askaig 8 YO and 110 Proof are typically 40-50 barrels per batch. The Port Askaig 14 YO Limited Edition was made from 11 casks, and the upcoming US exclusive Port Askaig 33 YO will be a single cask. Actually, just talking about this makes me think that we should put all this information on the labels, so thanks for the inspiration!
BD: Chris, we know that your background in the ever expanding whisky world is on the marketing and development side of the business (first at Compass Box and now with Specialty Drinks Ltd). After years of working with people like John Glaser, and now Ollie Chilton, what’s your role in the dabbling, if at all, in the barrel selection and whisky blending arts?
CM: My dabbling in the dark arts of barrel selection and whiskymaking at Compass Box and now at Elixir Distillers has never risen above the status of guinea pig, I’m afraid. I did – possibly literally – thousands of triangular tastings of Compass Box Asyla with the legendary Gregg Glass but my area of expertise is in making things sound good and look pretty, persuading people that a bottle of whisky in your house is much better than a few quid in the bank, and looking closely at rows of numbers. These days Ollie wanders over to my desk from time to time and force feeds me various whisky samples. He hasn’t poisoned me yet – although that is possibly tempting fate.
BD: In terms of working directly with Islay distilleries, what kind of access to all current Islay distilleries (or just a few of them) do you have?
CM + OC: We have filling contracts with a couple of Islay distilleries, and we have historic stock of all Islay distilleries apart from Kilchoman. We are always on the hunt for other casks to add to those stocks – mostly from the open market – so if you have any casks of good stuff that have fallen down the back of your sofa, or warehouse, please get in touch.
BD: Independent bottling seems like a great middle ground to break into the whisky industry, i.e. access to some great whisky without the huge capital investment of building an actual distillery. There’s a rumor going around that there’s an actual Port Askaig distillery in the works. Is this true? And if it is, what would be the advantage of going that route?
CM + OC: There is no Port Askaig distillery in the works, but we are hoping to build one by Port Ellen. I think Ollie and Sukhinder misread the road sign. If the good burghers of Islay are willing to grant us planning permission then this will be the culmination of Sukhinder’s journey through Islay and his love of whisky in general – from a buyer and collector of miniatures, to bottles, cases, pallets and casks – so we very much hope it will happen. Selecting casks is an inspiring and rewarding experience but nothing beats controlling your own spirit and making the best whisky that you possibly can.