Scotch whisky appreciation was in the genes of Jon Beach, owner of Fiddler’s Highland Restaurant on the shores of Loch Ness. He talks to Angus MacRaild about Port Ellen myths, its ever-climbing prices – and how he was ‘trapped’ into collecting its single malts in the first place.
Who are you and what do you do?
‘My name is Jon Beach and I own and run Fiddler’s Highland Restaurant & Whisky Bar in Drumnadrochit on the shores of Loch Ness. As well as looking after customers from all over the globe, ensuring they have food to eat, drink to enjoy and beds to sleep in, I have the task of keeping Fiddler’s whisky shelves full of great-tasting and interesting bottles of whisky.’
What whisky do you collect and why?
‘Port Ellen was the first whisky that I started collecting. It trapped me into collecting it by having the same name as my mother (Ellen, not Port) and by being an Islay whisky like Lagavulin, my first whisky love. For me, it was sort of a perfect storm of whisky collecting.’
Why did you gravitate to Port Ellen rather than your local closed distilleries: Glen Albyn, Glen Mhor and Millburn?
‘I went to Millburn School next-door to the Millburn distillery whilst it was still producing, so I always stocked Millburn single malt alongside the other Inverness malts in Fiddler’s. The difference was that I was buying those bottles to sell by the dram in Fiddler’s, whilst the Port Ellen was mostly for “personal consumption”. Recently, though, I've been very lucky to have tasted some amazing “Snecky” malts from all three of its distilleries – including a 1937 Glen Mhor.’
How did your passion for whisky begin?
‘My father Dick was always a Scotch whisky drinker, as was his father, so I suppose my passion for whisky must be in my genes. The other big figure in my whisky story is my father’s great friend Frank Clark, a true gentleman who used to own and run the Cairngorm Whisky Centre on the outskirts of Aviemore.
‘In the back of his treasure trove of a whisky shop (it was the 1980s – can you imagine the stock he had?) was a tasting room full of Scotland’s finest malts. It was in this back room that my fate was sealed.’
How big a part of the Port Ellen legend is the simple fact that it’s closed?
‘Being closed and there only being a finite amount of it left in the world has certainly helped create a cloud of mysticism around Port Ellen. Port Ellen as a brand never really existed, and it never had a marketing story of its own to tell. Whilst it was being made there was a void that has since been filled by many different voices with many different Port Ellen stories to tell. Some true and some fanciful, to say the least.’
Role models: Frank Clark of the Cairngorm Whisky Centre and Dick Beach, Jon’s father (Photo: Marcel van Gils)
Would you like to see the distillery rebuilt?
‘Such is the misinformation and confusion around Port Ellen distillery that many people think that it never actually closed, and some are even planning on booking the tour next time they’re on Islay.
‘Seriously though, a total rebuild of Port Ellen is perhaps outside the realms of possibility and anyway, would you ever be able to recreate all the conditions that helped produce those great whiskies of the past? Diageo would be much better concentrating its energies into recreating the “Lagavulin of the North” up in Brora. It could be their first true “craft” distillery? Since Roseisle…’
The prices for Port Ellen keep on climbing. How does that affect your decision to keep or open a bottle?
‘It’s only in the past year or two that Port Ellen prices started getting really silly, but the silliness has really been exacerbated by new bottlings that have come to market from Diageo and some of the independents.
‘Some might say, though, that actually they are just reacting to the action of the flippers out there, who buy whisky from shops and take them around the corner to an auction house to make a fast buck. Whatever the truth is, the fact is that I feel very sorry for anybody out there today trying to get hold of Port Ellen to drink – if they’re looking to get hold of it as an investment, then that's an entirely different story.
‘Personally speaking, I look at all the bottles of Port Ellen I’ve opened (and emptied) over the years and to me they’re now full of memories of the places that I opened them and the people I shared them with. Of course I’m fully aware of the value of Port Ellen nowadays, but I still firmly believe that the only good Port Ellen is an opened Port Ellen.’
Have the rising prices changed your whisky buying habits?
‘When the prices started increasing rapidly, I pretty quickly stopped buying new releases in shops and looked more to auction houses for replenishing my stock.
‘Alongside Port Ellens, I started bidding on more vintage Islay whiskies from the ’70s and ’80s and, after opening and tasting them, I came to the conclusion that one of the reasons I liked Port Ellen so much was because, like me, it was a product of the 1970s. Many 1970s whiskies from Islay’s other distilleries are really special too – not as sublime as some of the Islay whiskies I’ve tasted from the 1960s and 1950s, but nonetheless great and definitely more affordable.’
Light work: Jon Beach’s Port Ellen cask end, signed by those on the 2015 Islay Odyssey
How do you feel about whisky investment – and do you consider yourself an ‘investor’?
‘I buy whisky for three main reasons: primarily, stock for the gantry in Fiddler’s; my personal collection; and, finally, for personal consumption (the last two reasons are pretty much interchangeable).
‘I’ll put my hand up and admit that maybe 15 years ago I may have been buying many of the bottles in my collection as some kind of investment; I’d tried talking to financial consultants but I found their ideas of ISAs, savings plans etc very dull indeed.
‘It turns out my idea of investing in whisky was a sound one, not because of any increase in the value of the whisky, but in that I am now able to enjoy these whiskies and reap rewards of a different kind: the reward of enjoying and sharing a great whisky with friends. Fortunately, I have many great friends who think the same and see their whiskies as things to be opened and enjoyed too. These are the best kind of whisky friends to have.’
Do you think you’d be as passionate about whisky if you didn’t have a business that was so immersed in it?
‘The answer, I suppose, is probably not as it’s mainly through Fiddler’s that I’ve met most of the great people I know in the whisky world. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure I would still love whisky wherever I was and whatever else I may have done, but Fiddler’s has really been the catalyst for most of the connections I have with whisky.’
What do you think of Diageo’s stewardship of the Port Ellen legacy: the marketing, the bottlings, the prices?
‘When I started buying Diageo’s releases of Port Ellen, they were pretty much the only Port Ellens that were over £100 – a lot for me to spend back in 2001 (I wanted the Broras too, but they were far too expensive at £200 a bottle). Now £100 would be the price of a single serve of last year’s 15th release. Crazy. Mad. Bonkers.
‘Diageo’s marketing of Port Ellen seems to consist of including it amongst their yearly Special Release offerings alongside rare and occasionally unusual whiskies from their stable. The Port Ellen release certainly helps put a bit of a shine on the other bottles, and used to be the one that was snapped up the quickest, but now, thanks to the high prices of these bottles, they are hanging around in shops a lot longer than they used to.
‘The 15th release is the only release I haven’t tasted, but as a lowly barkeep why would I get invited to any of the launch parties or get any samples in shiny boxes...?’
Port Ellen in its modern guise – although only operational for 16 years – had several mini ‘eras’ of production. Do you have a favourite?
‘The ’70s was a transitional time for many distilleries, with the old, inefficient and slow methods of production being replaced by more modern and efficient methods. This really shows with the ’69, ’70 and ’71 vintages I've tasted. They are really special – don’t get me wrong, the later vintages are really great too – but for me the earlier vintages are amongst the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted.’
Works of art: Empty Port Ellen and Rosebank bottles in front of their portrait
What are the most prized bottles in your collection?
‘I think I’d have to say it’s the empty bottle of 1969 Gordon & MacPhail for Intertrade I took to Islay on the Rosebank-to-Port Ellen charity cycle I did back in 2011. I poured it alongside a 1980s 12-year-old Rosebank in the old Port Ellen filling store in the middle of a wild Hebridean storm.
‘It’s a bit sad, but I had a portrait done of the two bottles and it hangs on the wall in my “study”. I also have a few early 1970s vintage bottles put aside for future birthdays and, of course, for 2025, Port Ellen’s 200th anniversary.’
What are your holy grail bottles to taste/own/find?
‘A few years ago a wise Dutchman said to me about Port Ellen collecting that “the first 500 bottles are easy; it’s the last six that are impossible to get hold of”. Well, I’ve tasted three of the last six, so it’s just the Maltings Anniversary bottling, the 1969 OMC for the Whisky Fair and the James MacArthur Dark Sherry bottling to go.’
What do you think about the modern Scotch whisky industry and the nature of the product nowadays?
‘I sell a lot of modern, standard whiskies in Fiddler’s, with the majority in my smaller list of only 100 bottles being currently available, and I have to say the quality is high and, as I travel from Loch Ness around the world and the world travels to Loch Ness, the feedback is that Scotch whisky is synonymous with quality.
‘Unfortunately, more and more whiskies which I used to sell a lot of have had to move up to the higher shelves, making them less affordable and harder to recommend, but I suppose that’s the plan: rationing by price. I made a decision this year to make all the bottles in my small list carry an age statement; it wasn’t hard and I hope that doesn’t change.
‘As far as older-style whiskies go, I’m watching the Dornoch distillery with interest. Their plans to recreate 1950s- and 1960s-style distillates are well-researched and feasible, and I’m looking forward to drinking the “Port Ellen of the North” in the future. The boys in Dornoch are at the forefront of a slow turnaround that’s already starting, with a focus less on stories of fairies and suchlike, and a concentration on production processes, provenance and facts.’
You’ve been involved with organising these crazy whisky tours with the Glug Glug Club for the past few years. How did that come about?
‘It’s quite simple really: get a bunch of guys from all over the world with cupboards full of fantastic bottles of single malts and give them an excuse to open them by organising winter trips to different parts of Scotland and its many distilleries. We’re planning another epic trip from Edinburgh to Orkney in November. Stay tuned...’
What’s been the greatest whisky experience of your life so far?
‘There have been many happy whisky times, from quaffing cocktails and Port Ellen with deranged billionaires in Brooklyn; sharing Port Ellen, Balblair and Tomatin with European royalty; and enjoying Springbank, cheese and oatcakes in a VW bus under a spinning disco ball…
‘But the time I stood in Richard Paterson’s sample room sipping 1930s-distilled Dalmore with my father has to be up there at the top of the list, alongside the time that 1899 vintage Glenlivet got opened. Then again, there was that bottle of Queen’s Visit Port Ellen last year on the Islay Odyssey...’