The Revered Legacy of Port Ellen Distillery
Among the numerous closed Scottish distilleries, the name Port Ellen stands as an epitome of reverence and allure. Its history is marked by a complex journey, yet it has solidified its position as a prized treasure for collectors and whisky connoisseurs worldwide.
Intriguingly, in 2017, the owners, Diageo, announced their intent to revive the distillery that had ceased operations in 1983. The period spanning 1966-67 to the closure in 1983 bore witness to the creation of some of the most exceptional Scotch whiskies, which continue to captivate enthusiasts. Diageo’s consistent release of official distillery bottlings since 2001 bolstered the belief that the distillery could be resurrected, akin to the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes.
Established by AK Mackay and Co in 1825 on the southern coast of Islay, Port Ellen Distillery underwent a shift in ownership when local entrepreneur John Ramsay took the reins in 1836. Ramsay’s leadership proved pivotal, including his trading endeavors with North America and his instrumental role in the innovation of continuous ‘coffey’ still at the distillery. Notably, he imported Sherry and Madeira into Glasgow, was an influential figure in the city’s Chamber of Commerce, and even served as a Member of Parliament. Ownership of Port Ellen transitioned to DCL in 1925, marking the end of Ramsay’s era.
However, the distillery’s fate took a turn in 1983 when it closed its doors. A hiatus ensued until Diageo introduced a series of official Annual Release bottlings years later, showcasing single casks aged between 22 and 37 years. These 17 bottles, released from 2001 to 2017, are now revered as some of the most coveted collectibles globally. Independent bottlers, including Douglas Laing, Gordon & Macphail, and Signatory Vintage, also contributed to the legacy with their distinct expressions.
In terms of flavor, Port Ellen’s identity is intricately tied to the peat of Islay. Its vital maltings, one of Scotland’s most significant, utilizes peat during kilning, infusing the barley with distinct smoky and peat notes that carry through to the final whisky. Notably, the maturation process once relied on 80% Bourbon barrels and 20% Sherry casks, with sister brands Caol Ila and Lagavulin also utilizing the Port Ellen facilities.
Port Ellen’s iconic bottlings have solidified its status as a collectible treasure. The Annual Release Series Full Set, encompassing bottles from 2001 to 2017, commands a high value, with the complete collection fetching around GBP 40,000. The Port Ellen 1980 Queen’s Visit edition fetched over £80,000 in 2022, representing the world’s most expensive 12-year-old whisky, renowned for its rarity. Another prized gem is the Port Ellen 40 Year Old Cask #1883, part of Diageo’s Casks of Distinction series, which garnered £23,500 in 2019, the year of its bottling.
Amidst this rich legacy, a new chapter began to unfold when Diageo announced the revival of Port Ellen in 2017. The distillery appointed Alexander McDonald, a former distiller at Lagavulin and Caol Ila, as Distillery Manager in 2022. Set to recommence production in 2023, Port Ellen is poised to reawaken, breathing life into its storied legacy once again. For those enamored with the world of whisky, the saga of Port Ellen is but one of many captivating stories to explore.