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March 22, 2024

Inside the Port Ellen ‘ghost distillery’ as it reopens after 40 years

The reopening of the Port Ellen distillery, which closed in 1983, has been long awaited. Now it’s producing whisky again – and Spear’s was among the first to sample the private client experience

By Chris Madigan

At a whisky distillery, a tapestry of industry, science, craft and art somehow weaves together, connected by the warp of people and place and the weft of magic and alchemy. Port Ellen adds another dimension to the mysterious recipe: it exists in two time periods at once.

[See also: Ruby-encrusted decanter of Midleton Very Rare set to break new ground for luxury Irish whiskey]

The distillery on the Hebridean island of Islay opened to private clients and other whisky enthusiasts this week. Or reopened, depending on how you view it. The previous distillery (itself reborn in 1967 on the site of stills closed in 1930) ceased production in 1983, one of a wave of closures across Scotland. Back then, the name ‘Port Ellen’, if known at all, was associated with the maltings next door, which still provides peat-smoked barley for many of the island’s distilleries. The malt whisky produced there disappeared anonymously into blends.

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The legend of Port Ellen

The Bay Room at Port Ellen / Image: Port Ellen

Over the decades, the distillery buildings (barring a few warehouses) were abandoned or knocked down; no one is exactly sure where the stills themselves ended up (‘somewhere in India’, is the closest anyone has). The huge maltings facility has continued operating. But, like an artist unappreciated in their own lifetime, Port Ellen whisky has had a celebrated afterlife in limited-edition rarities. The workhorse malt turned out to age extremely gracefully, with the fading wisps of smoke providing structure for fruit flavours – especially tropical notes. The finite nature of the ghost distillery’s stock has, of course, added extra cachet for collectors.

[See also: Ingenious ‘infinity wheel’ gives Rémy Martin Louis XIII decanters a second life]

Now, 40 years on from the stills going cold, the distillery has been reincarnated and the first new-make spirit – produced by new distillery manager Ali McDonald’s team – is being filled into casks, under the guidance of master blender Aimée Morrison. Neither was alive when the old distillery closed.

This is the second Diageo ghost to make a resurrection in recent years and, as with its sister on the east coast of Scotland, Brora, there is an attempt to strike a delicate balance between reverence for the past and ambitions for the future.

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[See also: The best collectable rare whiskies: from Ardbeg to The Dalmore]

For those wishing to visit, there will be a free open day every month, offering a tour of the distillery, and a £200 tour with some very rare liquid included. But, as at Brora, the visitor experience at Port Ellen is geared primarily towards exclusive day-long visits by private clients – i.e. those who are most likely to enquire about the pair of 44-year-old whiskies released to celebrate the reopening, Port Ellen Gemini (£45,000).

The Port Ellen private client experience

Port Ellen Distillery’s whisky orb stands in the centre of the industrial space / Image: Port Ellen

The distillery is arranged around three sides of a courtyard. On arrival, guests are ushered up to a bright and airy lounge with an A-frame construction, windows looking across to the still house, and a balcony overlooking Kilnaughton Bay, with gaggles of honking geese and perhaps a grain ship delivering to the maltings. This Bay Room is where guests are welcomed by the brand home host, who shares a history of the island and the distillery, and where the exploration of what they are calling ‘the atlas of smoke’ begins.

Port Ellen Gemini (£45,000)

The first tastings, however, are not of whiskies but a selection of teas – to demonstrate how different processes can vastly affect the flavours that the same raw material can develop. Gratification for the Port Ellen enthusiast is not delayed too long, however, as a visit to one of the traditional dunnage warehouses (with the racks gradually being filled as production gathers pace) includes everyone’s favourite moment – drawing from one of the ghost stock casks, to be sampled immediately or later, as you prefer… holding off is recommended as the next stop is the dining room, where the Gemini is presented for sampling.

[See also: The Last Drop: luxury spirits ‘dram team’ are producing ingenious new creations]

Visitors may be distracted by a display case that houses every single official Port Ellen bottling, including the only one bottled while the old distillery was active. It marked the visit of the late Queen to the maltings and the bottle in the archive is not full – it’s missing the generous dram poured for Her Majesty.

A pause for lunch represents the transition from historical appreciation to anticipation of the future. The distillery tour begins with a dose of reality – the maltings. It is loud, functionally industrial and certainly has not undergone branding and beautification. In fact, if you want, you can pick up a shovel and stoke the smoking pile of peat in one of the kilns. There are high-tech wonders to come though.

The tour is led by the bundle of energy that is Ali McDonald. He can explain the process in simple terms, but will happily go into minute detail if a guest encourages him – his enthusiasm for his new six-roller malt mill versus the classic Porteus four-roller is that of a petrolhead debating V8 and V6 engines.

Phoenix stills and a ten-part spirit safe

Distillery workers take the cut at the spirit safe / Image: Port Ellen

Unlike most distilleries, where tours move from one room to the next to see different parts of the process, the new Port Ellen is open-plan, so visitors simply stroll across from the stainless steel mash tuns where barley and water are mixed, to the Oregon pine washbacks where yeast is added to begin fermentation, then to the ‘phoenix stills’ – replicas based on archived blueprints of those copper beasts lost in India. The reason most distilleries keep each stage separate is because there are different temperature requirements at each stage. Here, that is controlled by clever roof louvres that open and close to the Hebridean elements.

[See also: Ghost stock Brora among ultra-rare whiskies at Distillers One of One Sotheby’s auction]

There is just one pair of phoenix stills (the wash still and spirit still), but tucked away is another duo, a third of the size, for experiments, playing with every variable imaginable. To real whisky nerds, the most exciting innovation is a 10-part spirit safe. This isn’t Spinal Tap ‘this goes up to eleven’ pointlessness. Until now, spirit safes have been binary. Like railway points, you simply divert the flow of impure foreshots and tails back to be redistilled, but collect the potable hearts. This device can collect 10 separate batches from different parts of the run. Guests can nose these different liquids and it is remarkable how different flavour elements dominate from one hour to the next.

With this in mind, the final stop is the experimental lab in the old pagoda from the 19th-century maltings. McDonald, the master blender Aimée Morrison, or another senior Diageo whisky maker can join guests for a discussion of flavour and production choices that can go deeper into why a whisky ends up as it does than any other distillery experience – with experimental examples brought down from the shelves. They are even encouraging visitors to make their own suggestions for experiments.

Bespoke Scottish itineraries for clients

No one at Diageo will reveal how much Port Ellen ghost stock remains, nor the timeframe for releasing anything produced from 2024 onwards. It seems that the phoenix stills’ output is being laid down as stock for a long time hence – the volumes involved don’t suggest they’ll be bottling an entry-level supermarket malt any time soon, diluting the value of collectors’ rarities. Instead, the emphasis on experimentation (whatever that results in liquid-wise) just shifts the tale of Port Ellen from a melancholic ghost story to a page-turner of a sci-fi adventure.

[See also; Could this Macallan 1926 really become the most expensive whisky ever sold? Experts unbottle their opinions]

What’s more, it’s another exciting addition to Diageo’s collection of what are essentially luxury whisky theme parks. The private client team there not only curates discrete (and discreet) experiences for each guest within distilleries (and the Johnnie Walker Experience in Edinburgh) but also bespoke itineraries, with travel by helicopter or private jet; accompanying interpreters; stays at private castles or top hotels; activities in the Scottish countryside; and samples of personal favourite whiskies from the portfolio. It could be called Scotland’s most prestigious travel concierge, with a nice little whisky company attached.

diageorareandexceptional.com/contact-us;portellen.com

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