Of all the closed Scottish distilleries, the Port Ellen Distilleryis surely the most revered.
The Port Ellen Distillery has had a chequered history. Regardless, it has become one of the most sought after Scotch whiskies for collectors and connoisseurs.
Interestingly, owners Diageo confirmed in 2017 that they would be re-opening the distillery that was last operational in 1983. The whisky produced between 1966-67 and its closure in 1983 remain some of the finest produced during the era. The steady stream of official distillery released bottlings from Diageo since 2001 has convinced them that the distillery can rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
Port Ellen was established on the south coast of Islay by AK Mackay and Co in 1825. It was then taken over by local entrepreneur John Ramsay in 1836. It was Ramsay who first traded the distilleries wares with North America in 1848 and was instrumental in helping Aeneas Coffey and Robert Stein create their continuous ‘coffey’ still at the Port Ellen distillery. As well as this he imported Sherry and Madeira into Glasgow, was Chairman of the city’s Chamber of Commerce and also served as a local MP. It wasn’t until 1920 that ownership passed out of the Ramsay family with Port Ellen being purchased by DCL in 1925.
The Distillery Closed in 1983.
The distillery first closed under DCL ownership in 1929 although the on-site maltings continued to operate through to 1966-67. This was when Port Ellen was fired up once again. At this point in time almost all the whisky to come out of Port Ellen was used in blends. It was the whisky slump of the early 80s that next did for the distillery and the closure in 1983 was to be the last time spirit would run off the stills. At least until Diageo announced in 2017 that they would bring Port Ellen back to life.
Several years after the closure of the distillery in ‘83, Diageo began a series of official Annual Release bottlings. All came from single casks aged between 22 and 37 years old. The 17 bottles in the set were released between 2001 and 2017 and are now some of the most collectible in the world. There have also been plenty of independent bottlings from the likes of Douglas Laing,. Gordon & Macphail and Signatory Vintage, who are rumoured to have bottled more than 100 casks over the years.
As a flavour profile, Port Ellen takes a big influence from the peat of Islay.
The maltings at Port Ellen is one of the most important in Scotland and the only one on the west coast. Peat is used during the kilning process which adds the smoke and peat flavours to the barley and ultimately to the final whisky. Maturation previously took place in 80% Bourbon barrels and 20% Sherry casks with other local Diageo brands Caol Ila and Lagavulin now also storing their whiskies at Port Ellen.
Iconic Port Ellen Bottlings
The Annual Release Series Full Set
A 17 bottle set of each annual Diageo Port Ellen release from 2001 to 2017. These were the Annual Releases that were snapped up by those in the know from the very start with Diageo announcing in 2018 that there would be no further bottlings. The full collection (if you can find one) is now selling for around GBP 40,000.
Port Ellen 1980 Queen’s Visit
A bottle of this was sold in June 2022 for over £80,000 (plus commission) making it the world’s most expensive 12 year old whisky. Its uniqueness comes from the fact that this is thought to have been the only release while it was active. The estimate is that only around 40 bottles were ever produced for The Queen and her staff. They were gifted on her visit to the distillery, but the exact number may never be known.
Port Ellen 40 Year Old Cask #1883 Casks of Distinction
As part of the Casks of Distinction series from Diageo, this 40 year old is arguably the most special. With an outturn of just 78 bottles, it is one of the oldest releases from the distillery. It is the most expensive of the series sold having gone for £23,500 in 2019, the year it was bottled.
Reawakening a sleeping giant…
In 2017 Diageo announced that they would be re-opening Port Ellen. The famous closed distillery would once again have liquid running off the stills. In 2022 the distillery appointed Alexander McDonald as Distillery Manager, former distiller at Lagavulin and Caol Ila. The distillery is set to start production this year (2023).
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