Port Ellen rises from the ashes

Port Ellen rises from the ashes

The iconic and beloved Islay distillery has reopened, with a focus on both the art of whisky making and the science of smoke and boasting a new design-led visitor centre that reinvents the concept of the humble distillery tour

Distillery Focus | 04 Jul 2024 | Issue 199 | By Joel Harrison

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The latter half of the 20th century was a challenging time for Scotch. The drink’s fortunes waned in the late 1970s, and as a result 20 whisky distilleries closed their gates across Scotland in the early 1980s, with seven more closing in the early 1990s. By contrast, there were just two new whisky distillery openings in this time.


During this downturn, the Scotch business was driven almost wholly by blends such as Bell’s, Teacher’s, and Johnnie Walker, with single malt only starting to make its way into bottle and on to the shelf. As the thirst for single malt grew towards the end of the last century and into this, the liquid legacy left behind by some of the closed distilleries started to become highly prized by drinkers and collectors alike. For a business based on forecasting the future, few in the whisky industry were able to foresee the way that Port Ellen’s spirit was to mature, developing beyond its initial use as a smoky blending malt and establishing itself as a much-loved single malt with a fervid fanbase of its own. Today, there are few names in the world of single malt Scotch whisky that excite as much as Port Ellen.


This new malt-driven dawn for Scotch created a natural curiosity among whisky aficionados to try the spirit from the ‘lost’ distilleries shuttered in the 1980s and 1990s. This renaissance saw exports of Scotch grow by 143 per cent, from 47 million bottles to 114 million between 2002 and 2016, with the single malts produced at mothballed or demolished distilleries developing legendary status. Stocks from these closed distilleries had been left to mature beyond their previous markers; designed primarily for use in blends, malt whisky such as that from Port Ellen rarely made it beyond a decade of age, let alone two.


Port Ellen’s first official bottling as a single malt was part of Diageo’s Special Releases collection in 2001 as a 22-year-old with a price tag of about £100. Drinkers were wowed and fans made. Today, bottles of this Special Releases ‘first release’ change hands for upwards of £4,500.

The still house at Port Ellen Distillery

Located on the south coast of the island of Islay, Port Ellen was opened in 1824 by Alexander Mackay on the site of a mill which, like the malting operation that exists there today, would have supplied malted barley to many of the whisky distillers on the island.


The business was not an instant success, and ultimately in 1836 the distillery reins were taken by 21-year-old gentleman John Ramsay, who was to have a major impact on this port-side producer. Ramsay’s vision was to establish Port Ellen as a serious whisky-making operation to rival its neighbours of Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg.


“He was a real man of his time,” notes Ewan Gunn, senior global brand ambassador for the distillery. “Not only was Port Ellen one of the first single malts on the market, but it was the first to be exported to the USA, too. Unusually, Port Ellen was also the first distillery in Scotland to install a spirit safe.”


Ramsay was focused on not just making whisky but also embellishing the island’s infrastructure, helping to start a bi-weekly steamer to and from Glasgow — clearly, here was a man who understood the importance of connectivity.


The Ramsay family controlled the distillery until 1920 when it was purchased by the blending powerhouse duo of John Dewar and James Buchanan, in the very early stages of what became the Distillers Company Limited, and later part of Diageo.

Ali McDonald, distillery manager, in the Port Ellen warehouse

However, in a precursor to the troubles of the 1970s and 80s, turbulent economic headwinds and Prohibition in America got the better of Port Ellen and it closed in 1930, remaining so until 1967. In 1973 the site was earmarked to become a sizeable maltings, which have been operational ever since.


Fast forward to 1983, and Port Ellen once again finds itself closed. This time, however, the stills were removed. “We know they were sold to a distillery in India, but we don’t know where the original stills are today,” says Gunn. “The famous spirit safe was moved to the Duty and Excise museum and was later auctioned off. We have no idea where that is either.” The status of the distillery moved from ‘mothballed’ to ‘lost’, survived only by the maltings with an agreement to supply the island’s distilleries with a percentage of their malted barley requirements.


In October 2017, Port Ellen’s owner Diageo revealed plans to reopen the iconic distillery (along with stablemate Brora in the northern Highlands). The process of resurrection has been a lengthy one, but in March 2024 the lights were finally back on, shining out across the boats in the harbour as spirit once again ran from the stills.


The rebirth of Port Ellen has seen two pairs of copper pot stills installed. One pair, named the ‘phoenix stills’, is an exact replica of the original, long-lost copper pots. The other set is a smaller experimental pair, designed to be adjusted and amended according to the distillers’ needs. “These experimental stills are bolted in certain areas, not riveted,” explains distillery manager Ali McDonald, who hails from the town of Lochgilphead on the mainland, just across the water. “This allows us to take sections out and replace them with different shapes and sizes, to experiment with spirit styles.”

The stills at Rosebank

Building on the tradition of firsts, the experimental stills at Port Ellen are fitted with a unique 10-part spirit safe. Visually resembling a telephone exchange, it allows the distiller to section off the heart of the spirit run into smaller, more precise cuts. This is spirit surgery, designed to drive greater understanding and knowledge of how the flavour of smoky Scotch whisky is produced. The aim is for Port Ellen to develop an ‘atlas of smoke’, to create a map of the tapestry of taste which smoky whisky can deliver. This programme has been devised under the guidance of Aimée Morrison, master blender for Port Ellen. An on-site laboratory is also an integral part of the process at the distillery, where science is lauded as the key to understanding the artistry of whisky making.


Six Oregon pine washbacks have been installed to feed both sets of stills, with a 7.5-tonne mash for the phoenix stills and varying batch sizes for the experimental stills. Long fermentations of between 98 and 130 hours are favoured for both.


Alongside its cutting-edge distillery, Port Ellen is home to a modernist visitor centre, with Scandinavian-inspired clean lines and Japanese design aesthetics all wrapped up in warming, comforting touches of Scotland. This is no haven for tartan and tweed, but a well-thought-out design statement. Tours start at £200 for a 90-minute immersive experience, with longer bespoke visits available too. On the first Saturday of each month, the distillery will be open for local islanders to visit for free.

Ewan Andrew, Aimée Morrison, and Ali McDonald

The former kiln has been converted into a tasting room for guests looking to explore more about flavour in whisky. It is decorated with bottles from an extensive sample library of mature whisky drawn from across Diageo’s portfolio of malt and grain distilleries; these back-lit bottles throw a relaxing amber light into what could otherwise be a harshly minimalist space.


To mark the reopening, Diageo has created a twin-bottle set, Gemini, the oldest Port Ellen ever to be released. Both bottles contain whisky that was distilled in 1978 and initially matured in European oak casks. It was then divided in two, with one half finished in a hogshead that previously held Williams & Humbert Walnut Brown sherry (Gemini Original), the other half spending time in an oloroso sherry-seasoned cask (Gemini Remnant). Only 274 sets have been made available, at £45,000 a pair.


Visitors to Islay often arrive through Port Ellen, home to one of two ferry ports on the island. As the merchant vessels that serve Islay make their way around the southern coast from the mainland, ferry passengers can spot the white-washed walls of the neighbouring Kildalton distilleries, proudly displaying iconic names such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg in giant stencilled black letters. The warehouse which proclaims ‘Port Ellen’ now rejoins this canon of great names, contributing once more to life on this most beguiling of islands.

Port Ellen Gemini
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