Port Ellen was a single malt Scotch whisky distillery on the island of Islay in Scotland. Since the distillery closed in 1983 its single malt whisky has become rare and collectable. In 2017 owner Diageo announced they were investing £35 million in bringing Port Ellen distillery back to life. Production is expected to resume in 2024.
Port Ellen is a peated single malt Scotch whisky, typical of the Islay style. The whisky is often described as oily with plenty of maritime character and thick medicinal peat smoke.
Islay distilleries are famed for the distinctive peat reek of their whiskies and Port Ellen was no different. In order to prepare barley for the whisky-making process, it must first be malted. This involves soaking the grain and leaving it for a number of days until it begins to sprout. Its growth must then be halted by drying over a peat fire. When peat burns, it gives off a distinctive smoky aroma which is absorbed by the malt and transfers to the distilled spirit.
Port Ellen is predominantly matured in American oak refill casks. These casks originally contained bourbon whiskey before being used to mature Scotch. The more times a cask is used the less of an impact it will have on the whisky. Port Ellen used older refill casks so as not to mask its smoky character with lots of woody flavour.
In 1825 a malt mill was established on the outskirts of the village of Port Ellen. By 1833 it had been converted into the Port Ellen distillery by local entrepreneur John Ramsay. Ramsay was an associate of Walter Frederick Campbell, owner of Islay and huge supporter of its fledgling Scotch whisky distilleries. Together the two men pioneered Islay's first ever steamship service to Glasgow.
With this convenient new link to the mainland, Port Ellen thrived. The distillery remained in Ramsay’s family until 1920 when it was sold to blenders John Dewar and James Buchanan. Five years later the distillery was amalgamated into the Distiller’s Company Ltd (DCL). By 1930 however, Port Ellen was deemed surplus to requirements and closed. For 37 years the distillery lay silent but the 1960s saw it rebuilt with an increase in capacity.
In the 1980s, industry-wide over-production led to an excess in whisky stocks that came to be known as the whisky loch. Distilleries across Scotland were forced to close. By then DCL had become United Distillers & Vintners with Caol Ila and Lagavulin also on their books. Three Islay distilleries was too much and Port Ellen drew the short straw. The distillery closed for good in 1983.
In 2017 news broke that current owners Diageo would be investing a whopping £35million in bringing both Port Ellen and Brora distillery in Sutherland back to life. A planning application was lodged in May of 2019 and given the green light in January of the following year. The bold design includes two pairs of Pot Stills. The first will closely mimic the original Port Ellen stills in order to accurately recreate the old whisky while the smaller second set will allow for experimentation in new, different styles of Port Ellen whisky.
Port Ellen has gained an almost mythical status since its closure in 1983. The whisky is so rare, prices have surged to an excessive level with each special release commanding a high price. With the new distillery set to begin production in 2024 however, the return of this legendary single malt may not be too far away.