Support independent journalism - become a member

From the ashes – Port Ellen Distillery re-opens

Publication: The Ileach

Port Ellen Distillery was originally established as a malt mill in 1825. It has a long history, with many recorded openings, closures and subsequent re-openings over the years. This article explores the history of the building, as well it's latest opening in March of this year.

Inside of Port Ellen Distillery, courtesy of The Ileach.

The Ileach

Port Ellen Distillery was originally established as a malt mill in 1825, before John Ramsay subsequently developed it as a distillery between 1833 and the latter part of the 19th century.

Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), a forerunner of Diageo, acquired the distillery in 1925, but closed it down only five years later due to the worldwide recession. There was then a lengthy gap until the mid 1960s before it was rebuilt, continuing in operation until March 1983 when it was closed once again.

The Ileach’s headline at the time presented this as a ‘Bitter blow’, including as it did, several job losses at both Lagavulin and Caol Ila distilleries. Present day owners, Diageo, having demolished the majority of the distillery buildings, apart from the twin pagodas several years ago, announced in 2017 that the distillery was to be completely rebuilt following a multi -million pound investment which included Brora Distillery in Sutherland, coincidentally, also closed in 1983.

The new building, officially opened on Tuesday 19 March, is an entirely modern, luxurious affair, featuring expansive glass frontages and a visitor centre that offers clear views across the bay.

And it was fitting for such an auspicious opening, that two descendants of John Ramsay travelled from America to be present at the opening ceremony, held in the distillery’s expansive still room.

The Ileach, along with attending journalists, was given a tour of the new plant, which began distilling in late January this year. The tour was conducted by Distillery Manager, Ally MacDonald and Brand Manager, Emily Burnham, who took us from the impressive Visitor Centre, with its own kitchen and dining room, across the courtyard to the mill room.

Port Ellen, while intending to re-create the original, much-sought-after single malt by way of its two ‘Phoenix’ stills, is also intent on experimentation via two, smaller stills and three very contemporary-looking spirit safes.

And this experimentation is assisted by a fully controllable grain mill, allowing a wide range of hitherto unrealised options.
According to Ally, the distillery is capable of producing an annual 1.6 million litres of spirit.

The distillery has been designed within Diageo’s avowed intent to de-carbonise their distilling processes by the end of the decade. Ally MacDonald pointed out the processes that will not only save water, but recycle some of the heat required for the distilling process.
The two original pagodas have now been repurposed into an on-site laboratory, allowing quicker analysis of the results gained from the experimental stills. On the ground floor is a beautifully kitted-out tasting room where visitors can learn about flavour profiles and Port Ellen’s unique blending processes.

When it comes to distillery tours, Emily Burnham told us that the price of admission would start at £200 per person, rising to considerably more for the full ‘Port Ellen Experience’ including lunch and tasting of a variety of Port Ellen drams. However, the plan is also to open the distillery for free tours, on one Saturday per month.

It will be several years before the current spirit joins the remaining casks in Port Ellen’s warehouses, but on this first visit, all looks good for the future.