Distillery Spotlight: Port Ellen Distillery
Region: Islay, Scotland
Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.
Whisky industry commentators and bloggers today give spirits conglomerate, Diageo, a lot of grief for its predecessor's decision to shut down Port Ellen Distillery in the 80’s. It’s a terrible mistake, they say. Why didn’t Diageo recognise the tremendous quality of the whisky produced at Port Ellen?
These commentators are quite frankly a little absent-minded. The fact of the matter is that the history of whisky is full of booms and busts. Distillery closures are part and parcel of a cyclical market. There were mass culls in around the 1840s, a correction in the 1900s and an even larger cull in the 1920s that came shortly before a worldwide economic depression.
In the 1970s, the Scotch industry was galvanised by a misguided sense of over-optimism that caused an immense scale of over-production. This turned whisky into something of a commodity. At the same time, demand for whisky was plummeting. Vodka became more fashionable amongst the Americans while the British had somehow taken to wine.
When there was simply not enough demand to sustain production costs in the 1980s, over 20 whisky distilleries were closed. This included Port Ellen Distillery in 1983.
A posthumous claim to fame
Like painters, many of these distilleries only became acclaimed after their passing. Port Ellen never received special attention when it was active, and only attained its status as a cult whisky brand after it was closed.
15 years after Port Ellen was bulldozed, whisky drinking began to pick up again, and a new kind of drinker emerged. This drinker was jaded by the homogeneity of major single malt brands (ahem, Macallan, ahem, Glenfiddich) but curious of obscure and more mature single malts.
What was originally an unsellable excess of whisky turned into liquid gold- stocks that were aged for far longer than originally intended. Two Port Ellen expressions were then released under the Rare Malts selection in 1998 and 2000 which rediscovered Port Ellen’s quality.
These bottles proved to be extremely well received. Following that, Diageo happy released another 17 expressions from 2001 through 2017 that helped many more modern whisky lovers rediscover Port Ellen and inadvertently established a cult distillery status for the old brand.
The Annual Release series ranges from between a decently-aged 22 year old (the first release) to a dignified 37 year old (the 17th and final release), and are generally matured in a combination of refill American and European oak casks. While Diageo is no longer releasing more Port Ellen expressions (at least from the old distillery), these bottles can still presently be purchased from the secondary market at around US$4,500.
By no stretch of the imagination did Diageo anticipate this level of popularity for Port Ellen. You could have purchased a Port Ellen from a UK grocery store for about £100 (US$140) in the early 2000s.
Early history and experimentations
The wider public does not know much about the provenance and early history of Port Ellen. After all, Port Ellen existed at at a time when single malts were less marketable than blends.
What is known is that the distillery was built very shortly after the eponymous village of Port Ellen was founded by the Laird of Islay in 1821. The distillery was built in 1824 by Alexander Ker Mackay.
What’s more interesting is that Port Ellen Distillery was notable for a number of “firsts”. The Port Ellen Distillery was the first distillery to experiment with several distillation equipments that revolutionised the worldwide whisky industry and are still used today.
The spirit safe- an important instrument still used by major Scotch distillers today- was invented around this time. The spirit safe is essentially a glass cabinet that encloses valves from which spirit emerges after distillation. Peering through the glass cabinet allowed the distiller to decide which portions of the spirit would be ultimately committed to casks, and which portions are too harsh for drinking and should be re-distilled (more on that in this article on how whisky is made). The distiller himself could not open the spirit safe to prevent dishonest tampering with the alcohol content and evasion of excise taxes.
Port Ellen Distillery became the first distillery to use a spirit safe because it was used as a testbed for experimenting and refining the prototype spirit safe in partnership with government officials.
Two years later in 1926, Port Ellen became the first distillery to conduct distillation with the “Coffey” continuous still in a set of experiments led by Mr Aeneas Coffey.
The “Coffey” continuous still remains an important technology still used today to produce grain whisky in Scotland and all over the world.
The first duty-free warehouse in the United Kingdom
The original founder Alexander Ker Mackay somehow became a bankrupt and the distillery passed through the hands of several distant relatives until it came into the family of John Ramsay. Under the capable Ramsay, the business prospered and he earned the admiration of the Laird of Islay.
Ramsay was also instrumental in lobbying officials to lift restrictions against the exporting casks of more than 80 gallons, and in gaining for Port Ellen Distillery the right to store whisky duty free under a government bond. Port Ellen’s Warehouse No. 1 is said to be the first “duty free” whisky warehouse in the United Kingdom.
What was this duty free warehouse intended for? Ramsay needed it as he would later become one of the first Scottish persons to export Scotch to the United States.
The Port Ellen character- refill casks and exceptionally long aging
Amongst aficionados, Port Ellen’s whisky is said to be one of the finest examples of what Islay malt can achieve.
The basic distillery character is heavily smoky, briny, peppery and medium-bodied, and it is well suited for both heavily sherried styles or lighter bourbon-driven styles.
However, most of the bottlings released by Diageo under the Annual Release are refill-cask matured with a ratio of 80% ex-bourbon and 20% ex-sherry.
Due to the use of refill casks, the cask influence is rather understated in the whisky. Port Ellen expressions tend to be less oaky while the influence of the spirit remains very fresh. This also accentuates the smokiness while preserving an austere, slightly acidic note.
Well-executed long-term aging
The main factor that makes Port Ellen so highly desired is obvious- very old age statements of up to 37 years. Yet, wisdom doesn’t always come with old age. A problem that can arise when whiskies have been matured for over 25 years is that the whisky becomes “overly oaked” and the barrel essentially takes over the entire flavour profile of the spirit.
This goes back to why using refill casks is used by Port Ellen for longer-term aging. This allows whiskies to be aged for exceptionally long periods of time without turning too oaky in the 30th year. When well-executed, very long periods of maturation helps develop a level of complexity, subtlety and balance that cannot be achieved in most whiskies.
Great nuance and complexity
The popular Port Ellen expressions tend to have a fresh juicy character (perhaps with orchard fruits and peaches), with significant oakiness that is not overpowering and a slightly austere character that contributes an apple cider note and a dry texture. This is usually accompanied by some red fruits and savoury light soy sauce, but always experienced with a prominent element of hot and aromatic peat smoke.
It is this phenomenal complexity which fans and collectors adore and constantly wax longingly for.
The closure of Port Ellen
The only existing bottles of Port Ellen single malt in the world today would have been produced during the very brief window between 1967 and 1983.
Throughout its history, it seems that Port Ellen hadn’t been the favourite distillery of its owner. In 1930 it was closed for the first time to an economic depression. It was only when things became better that the distillery was rebuilt in 1967 to meet blenders’ demand.
Permanent closure in 1983
The Scotch whisky industry threw itself back into another a period of overconfidence and massive over-production in the 70's. Then, in the 1980s, the industry met with its comeuppance in the form of the so-called “whisky loch” crisis where supplies of whisky vastly outstripped demand.
The Distillers Company Limited (DCL), once again, had to cut its production for financial prudence, and had to close one of its 3 Islay distilleries- Caol Ila, Lagavulin or Port Ellen.
Port Ellen was chosen for the guillotine. It was not financially prudent to carry on at a time when blended whisky was more popular than single malts. Of the 3 distilleries, Port Ellen is the smallest and supplies the least to whisky blenders. Caol Ila had the ability to make both peated and unpeated whiskies, while Lagavulin was strictly reserved for certain blenders.
In fairness to DCL, in the 1980s, blended whiskies were really the only driving force of the whisky industry. Consumers primarily purchased blended whiskies like Johnnie Walker (read our latest review of a vintage JW here) and Black & White.
Few consumers were familiar with the components that went into the blends. Yet fewer would have even shed a tear when Port Ellen was shut down. And just like this, the distillery was slated for closure.
As Grant Carmichael, Port Ellen’s former Distillery Manager, recalled the fateful day with some pensiveness:
“We didn’t know then what a great dram Port Ellen would be, or the demand there would eventually be for Islay single malts… And when one of the Islay distilleries had to go, it was the one. When I had to stand up and tell the men Port Ellen was closing, it was one of the worst days of distilling.”
The old Port Ellen grounds were converted into a large malting facility to supply peated malt to other Islay distilleries. Most of the old distillery equipment had been scrapped.
Port Ellen’s revival in 2023
But wait- the story doesn’t end here!
When Diageo released the final edition of its Port Ellen series to a wistful whisky world in 2017, it announced some good news: the Port Ellen Distillery will be brought back to life.
The distillery is due to be reopened in 2023.
Unfortunately, the old distillery was almost completely torn down and its copper stills were scrapped (with the exception of its iconic whitewashed warehouses by the sea). This meant that reviving Port Ellen isn’t a simple matter of polishing some old equipment and staffing the place.
Reviving the Port Ellen would be somewhat like cloning extinct creatures from their genetic material left in fossilised mosquitoes.
The project would be led by former Lagavulin distillery manager Georgie Crawford. According to Crawford, Diageo would be using both archived records and its “liquid archive” of the original spirit to suss out the flavour profile of Port Ellen. It would also rely on the architectural drawings of the old copper stills to recreate them today.
Reading Port Ellen’s history, you might feel a sense of indignation. Of the trio of Islay distilleries owned by DCL, Port Ellen was always the first to be abandoned whenever the whisky industry encountered economic trouble.
You might also be surprised at the short-termist attitudes of business managers who did not see that the whisky industry moves cyclically in a series of booms and busts. Rather than mothballing the distillery- which would preserve the buildings and equipment for possible future use, Port Ellen was entirely demolished twice - in 1930 and in 1983.
The resurrection of Port Ellen alongside other dead distilleries like Brora signals Diageo’s optimism in the future of the whisky market. We do hope that the next iteration of Port Ellen could stay around for a little longer!
What of the expressions distilled at Port Ellen Version 3.0? Would they taste exactly the same as the old Port Ellen? That is a tall order. Distilleries in the past have tried to replicate copper stills from a rival in an attempt to re-create a similar-tasting spirit but failed (see the instance of Lagavulin v. Laphroaig).
It may be possible to recreate the original buildings, equipment and copper stills that were destroyed in 1983. But it would be impossible to revive the whisky-making philosophy of the dead distillery staff: the master blender, maltmen, mashmen and stillmen. The new distillery team in 2023 could try to extrapolate their philosophy and approach by referring to Diageo’s written archives and notes. But a significant level of guesswork would be involved.
Be that as it may, Port Ellen 3.0 has the potential to create a great-tasting single malt inspired by the flavour profile of the original. That would be a respectable aim. After all, as older whisky drinkers pass on and the very limited stocks of old Port Ellen deplete, too few of us would be alive to feel disappointed by the Port Ellen 3.0.
Almost every bottling of Port Ellen is worth a taste if you ever get the chance. That said, our favourites are:
- Port Ellen 1978 Rare Malts Selection - 22 Years Old (bottled 2000)
- Port Ellen Annual Release 7th edition - 28 Years Old (bottled 2007)
- Port Ellen Annual Release 10th edition - 31 Years Old (bottled 2010)
- Port Ellen 1982 by Douglas Laing - 30 Years Old (bottled 2013)