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Legendary Port Ellen distillery reopens

The iconic ghost distillery on Islay is back in production and celebrating with a £45,000 library release of twin bottles called Port Ellen Gemini. Neil Ridley visits the distillery and tastes the new single malt.

It was a moment which barely seemed possible. Port Ellen, the now mythical Islay single malt whisky distillery has risen from the rubble and is once again making its distinctly smoky spirit – more than 40 years after it closed down.

The distillery was founded in 1825, but mothballed in 1930. Reopened for a brief period between 1967 and 1983, it became a powerhouse on the island of Islay, with much of its stock used predominantly for blended whiskies.

Due to a difficult economic climate, the distillery was then shuttered – seemingly for good – in April 1983. Its last casks were laid to rest in nearby warehousing, while the stills and other distilling equipment were dismantled and removed.

Remarkably the handful of remaining, almost forgotten stock of Port Ellen blossomed into truly extraordinary single malt. It became highly coveted by whisky connoisseurs and collectors alike during the early 2000s, prized for its distinctive chamois leather, gentle smoke and citrus fruit aroma and flavour – as well as its increasing rarity.

Prices for Port Ellen on the secondary market rose considerably and the brand’s owner, Diageo, released a yearly batch bottling, from the last casks dating back to either 1978 or 1979. These were quickly snapped up by those in the know.

A man drawing whisky from a barrel

Alexander McDonald, Master Distiller at Port Ellen

Back to life

As a result of its reversal in fortunes, in 2017 Diageo announced that Port Ellen would become part of a £185 million investment scheme to breathe life into a handful of closed distilleries. This scheme also included Highland distillery Brora, which was fully renovated and reopened in 2021.

Work was finally completed on the site of Port Ellen in early 2024. The brand new, state-of-the-art distillery complex was formally opened in an emotional ceremony on 19 March.

Descendants of the distillery’s founding father, John Ramsay, were in attendance, along with former distillery worker Iain McArthur. This was a remarkable moment, as McArthur had filled the very last Port Ellen cask back in 1983.

To exactly recreate the original distillery – and the spirit which ran from its stills – was an enormous task. But it was a challenge relished by the entire team involved. ‘We’re very lucky that we have the Diageo archive team, who had documents and blueprints for the original stills,’ explained Master Distiller Alexander McDonald (above). ‘Everything from the shape and fill size has been accurately recreated to the original specifications,’ he added.

Innovations and new experiences

The re-envisioned distillery building is housed completely in glass (see below) and now incorporates a number of innovative additions, alongside the more traditional features. A unique 10-part spirit safe allows the distilling process to be broken down to a granular level for the very first time, so McDonald and his team can accurately recreate the classic Port Ellen spirit style of the past.

Whisky stills

The new glass still house at Port Ellen Distillery

‘The thing which makes Port Ellen for me is the unique fruitiness of the spirit,’ he explained. ‘Using these “Phoenix” stills [named in homage to their resurrection] we can accurately recreate the character of the spirit from the golden period between 1967 and 1983.’

In addition to the main Phoenix stills, the distillery is also equipped with a pair of Experimental stills that are exact one-third scale replicas of the originals. They can be used to produce spirit in a number of other styles, giving a huge variety of scope for future innovation.

Alongside the distillery building is a visitor centre experience, its minimalist Scandinavian design inspired by the natural beauty of Islay. This will be open from June and has been designed to make the most of stunning views of Islay’s coastline and across the bay to the Carraig Fhada Lighthouse. The new visitor centre is furnished with artwork by renowned Scottish artist Lucy May Schofield, inspired by the elemental landscape.

Vistor centre entrance

Port Ellen Distillery includes a new visitor centre, open from June

A taste of Port Ellen

The new site also includes a bespoke Kiln Room tasting space, where visitors can really get under the skin of the legendary spirit. ‘The kiln room was the only building left from the original site [due to its previous demolition],’ explained Ewan Gunn, senior global brand ambassador for Diageo malts. ‘The tasting experience is designed to be a crucible of ideas, to explore and map out flavour from every stage.’

To coincide with the reopening, the distillery has also unveiled a new release: Port Ellen Gemini. This 44-year-old release features twin decanters of original whisky first distilled in 1978 and filled into two contrasting European oak casks – an Original Cask and Remnant Cask, the latter being additionally seasoned with oloroso Sherry – to demonstrate the original distillery’s distinctive character.

Two bottles of whisky

Port Ellen Gemini

Tasted at the distillery, Port Ellen Gemini Original Cask (Alc 54.9%) boasts baked apple, tropical fruit and maritime coastal aromas, with light aromatic smoke, plus sherbet lemon and lime aromas. The palate is filled with more delicate smoke, manuka honey and cracked black pepper.

Only 274 individual sets of Port Ellen Gemini are available in selected markets, priced at £45,000.

For more information on Port Ellen Gemini or visiting the distillery later this year, visit portellen.com 


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