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Port Ellen - From Blended Whisky to Gemini And Beyond

Updated: Mar 20

Artist's impression of new Port Ellen distillery Islay

Image by The Drinks Business - Artist's impression


Not many closed distilleries get the chance to be revived, but Port Ellen distillery is one of the few. Along with other iconic distilleries like Brora and Rosebank, Port Ellen is highly anticipated to open its doors in March 2024. After a two-year construction process and a multi-million-pound investment by Diageo, the modern distillery has been built from scratch to revive the legendary Islay distillery that was once demolished.


If you're interested in learning more about the history of Port Ellen distillery, its bottlings, and why it was closed and demolished in the first place, now would be the perfect time to delve into its past and refresh the memory.




 

The Early Years


The Port Ellen distillery in Islay was founded by Alexander Ker Mackay in 1825. He received help from Walter Frederick Campbell, an Islay laird who owned multiple distilleries on the island and was a significant landowner. The distillery was initially named Leodamus, meaning 'Leod's Moss' and was inspired by its water source - the Leorin Lochs. Later, it was renamed Port Ellen in memory of Campbell's late wife, Eleanor Campbell.


The Port Ellen distillery was the first to test and install the 'Fox's Distiller's Economist,' more commonly known as the spirit safe. This invention was first patented in 1819 by Septimus 'James' Fox.


Unfortunately, MacKay filed for bankruptcy after only a few months of opening. The distillery was then passed down from one family member to another. In 1836, a MacKay (McKay) family member, John Ramsay, took over the family business and transformed it into a leading Islay distillery. He had a close relationship with Walter Campbell, which helped to secure the ownership of a large swathe of land to the north and east of Port Ellen in 1955. This patch included the land on which the distilleries of Laphroaig, Ardenistiel, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg were established.


history of Port Ellen distillery

Images by scotchwhisky.com - Port Ellen distillery & John Ramsay



Laird John Ramsay modernised his nearby farm, Cornabus, and set new agricultural development standards for farmers on Islay. During his reign at the distillery, Ramsay achieved several firsts. He was the first Scottish distiller to ship his whisky to North America - directly from the distillery in Islay. Ramsay also played a crucial role in establishing the first regular cargo shipments and passenger steamer services from Islay to Glasgow. Through some family inheritance, he invested in and built up the importation of Sherry and Madeira, using the casks to mature his Islay whisky. Ramsay also successfully lobbied the government for the creation of duty-free warehousing.


In the 1880s, the distillery site had private maltings and six traditional-style bonded warehouses holding 3,700 casks. The stillhouse had two stills with a capacity of 3,500 gallons (wash still) and 2,100 gallons (spirit still), both with a descending 15-degree Lyne arm. The annual output was recorded as being 140,000 gallons (636,400 litres), with most of the whisky produced going to blending.


After Ramsay died in 1892, his wife, Mrs Lucy Ramsay, took over the business and the land. 1906, the company was handed to their son, Captain Iain Ramsay. Unfortunately, the distillery was hit by the industry's downfall, further fuelled by the distilling restrictions of World War I, leaving Ramsay with no other option than to sell the distillery, along with the land it and other distilleries stood.


In 1920, the newly founded Port Ellen Distillery Co. Ltd. bought the distillery, owned by James Buchanan and John Dewar, which was ultimately absorbed into Distillers Company Limited (DCL) in 1925. Port Ellen became part of DCL's Scottish Malt Distilleries portfolio in 1930, joining Caol Ila and Lagavulin distilleries acquired by the company in 1927. Like many other distilleries, Port Ellen was mothballed in 1930, but the maltings and warehouses were kept in operation.



 

The Distillery's Short-Lived Second Chance


In the 1960s, DLC decided to reopen the Port Ellen distillery after significant remodelling between 1966 and 1967. The renovation included doubling the number of stills from two to four by installing completely new ones, and the production increased to 800,000 litres per year.


history of Port Ellen distillery Islay

Images by Whisky Magazine - The four stills of Port Ellen / Whisky Auctioneer - Port Ellen malt for H.M. The Queen 1980 / Diageo - Port Ellen distillery in 1981


In 1973, the Port Ellen Maltings was constructed next to the distillery, providing malted grain to DLC's three Islay distilleries. Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II visited the seven-drum mechanical maltings in August 1980, and a commemorative bottling was created for The Queen and her entourage. It is believed that only 40 bottles of the 12-year-old malt whisky were produced, which is the only official bottling created during Port Ellen's operational period. (A bottle of the Port Ellen H.M. The Queen 12-year-old was sold in an auction for £100,000 in 2022.) All the other whisky was used in blends or sold to independent bottlers.


Unfortunately, the 1980s were challenging for the whisky industry due to overproduction and a decline in the need for peated whiskies. As a result, Port Ellen was closed in May 1983. The two other DLC-owned distilleries, Caol Ila and Lagavulin remained open, and the Port Ellen Maltings continued to contribute malted grain to the region. Port Ellen was selected for closure due to its relatively small size and the similarity of its whisky character to the more extensive distillery, Caol Ila's malt whisky.


In 1987, Port Ellen Maltings became the leading provider of grain to all remaining Islay distilleries and Jura.


The Port Ellen distillery license was eventually returned in 1992, and the distillery buildings and most of the original warehousing were demolished in 1999. The four stills were reportedly dismantled and shipped to India to produce 'hooch' for the Russian market. During the demolition, the original stone plaque placed by Alexander Ker MacKay was discovered and moved to the remaining maltings.


Demolition of Port Ellen distillery

Images by Graham Fraser - Port Ellen during demolition in 1999 / Adventures in Whisky Land - Port Ellen Maltings after demolition / Port Ellen Distillery



 

Port Ellen - The Lost Islay Distillery Bottlings


In 1986, DCL was acquired by Guinness plc after concerns were raised about its management of distilleries. Later, in 1997, Guinness plc merged with Grand Metropolitan, giving rise to Diageo, now the world's leading owner of single malt whiskies and blends.


Diageo's first official bottlings of Port Ellen single malts were made available in 1998. The first bottling was created to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Port Ellen Maltings. The second bottling, Port Ellen 1978 20-year-old, was introduced as part of Diageo's Rare Malts Selection, followed by a 22-year-old expression in 2000.


Official bottlings of Port Ellen single malt whisky

Images by Whiskybase


Diageo identified a demand for lost distillery whiskies and thus introduced the Diageo Special Releases in 2001. This collection included a single malt from Port Ellen, distilled in 1978 and matured for 22 years. It was the first of many Port Ellen bottles in the Special Release series, culminating in a 37-year-old bottling released in 2017, totalling 17 expressions.


Port Ellen single malt whisky All special releases

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



However, in a surprising twist, Port Ellen was excluded from the next batch of Special Releases. In October 2017, Diageo announced a £35 million investment plan to rebuild the defunct Port Ellen and Brora distilleries, which had shut down in 1983. Diageo released a series of limited edition Port Ellen single malts to maintain anticipation while the reopening plans were being drafted. The most notable bottlings from this period were released in 2020 and two in 2022 as part of the Prima & Ultima range.


Bottlings of Port Ellen single malt whisky by Diageo

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Diageo initially planned to reopen Port Ellen distillery in 2020, but delays led to several rescheduling. Finally, in February 2024, Diageo confirmed that the distillery would reopen in March 2024.


Diageo announced the release of a special two-bottle set called Gemini, with a suggested retail price of £45,000 to mark the occasion. They announced the release of a special two-bottle set called Gemini, with a suggested retail price of £45,000 to mark the occasion. Both whiskies were distilled in 1978, aged initially in European oak casks and bottled at 44 years old - the oldest bottlings of Port Ellen directly from the distillery.


Details of Port Ellen Gemini single malt duo bottle set

Image by The Whisky Ardvark / Original images by Diageo


It's worth noting that all official releases of Port Ellen single malt have been bottled at cask strength - except for the one bottled at 40% ABV for The Queen in 1980.



 

The New Distillery of Port Ellen


Port Ellen new distillery Islay

Images by Scottish Financial News - Alexander MacDonald / whisky.com


The Port Ellen distillery officially reopened on March 19, 2024, after being absent for 41 years. The new distillery is built next to Port Ellen Maltings, where the old one used to stand. The distillery manager, Alexander 'Sandy' MacDonald, has been working in Islay since 2014, starting at Kilchoman distillery and then as a distiller at Caol Ila and Lagavulin distilleries.


The new Port Ellen distillery will combine modern and traditional distilling techniques, with a glass-surrounded stillhouse and a mix of heritage and contemporary buildings. Two pairs of copper pot stills and two separate distillation regimes will exist.


One pair of stills, The Phoenix Stills, will replicate the original Port Ellen spirit character. In contrast, the second, smaller pair, The Experimental Stills, will produce alternative spirit characters, allowing the Port Ellen whisky makers to experiment with new whisky styles. Additionally, the latter is connected to a 10-part spirit safe. The distillery has an on-site laboratory dedicated to analysing the spirits.


We can't wait to see what they come up with!


 

Thank you for reading The Whisky Ardvark. Make sure to check out our other informative articles.




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