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2 weeks agoupdated Apr 05, 2024

Port Ellen: The Resurrection of Whisky’s Fabled Ghost Distillery

Port Ellen reopened its doors in March following an ambitious six-year restoration project.

By Alex Martin

Though just a 72-mile flight from Glasgow, Islay, the southernmost island of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, is a world of its own. Vast rolling hills, untouched beaches seemingly plucked from the tropics, and where the ancient Scottish Gaelic language still holds strong. As Scotland’s fifth-largest island and with a population of 3,200 people, space is plentiful. So too is the Scotch whisky. At the start of 2024, the island had nine operating distilleries, some boasting global cult followings. In the summer months, over 50,000 tourists make the pilgrimage to Islay to visit its distilleries. However, the holiest site of all has not produced a drop of whisky in over 40 years: Port Ellen.

[See also: The Most Exclusive Scotch Whisky Experiences]

Those two words are instantly recognizable to Islay disciples. When Port Ellen closed its doors in 1983, amid whisky’s last great downturn, few outside the island batted an eyelid. The distillery almost exclusively produced whisky for blending, and blenders stopped buying, so the stills fell silent and were stripped for parts. Whether through luck or judgment, some of the whisky already in casks remained untouched for decades. Then, something magical happened. It turned out Port Ellen’s spirit produced stunning highly aged whisky. At some point around 25 years old, the spirit transforms into the perfect mix of tropical fruit, sea salt brine and smoke.

port ellen warehouse
Port Ellen’s warehouse is a symbol of Islay / ©Diageo

The key ingredient for collectors, however, was elusiveness. The remaining casks were in short supply at a time when demand was booming. Once word got out that Port Ellen was producing some of the best whisky around, collectors jumped in. Within years, prices rose from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. In 2023, a single cask from Port Ellen sold for over $1m. In March this year, it restarted operations.

So the multi-million dollar investment (Diageo spent $55m reopening Port Ellen and another distillery, Brora) is good business. But whisky takes time. Good whisky takes even longer. It’ll be three years before the stuff coming off Port Ellen’s shiny new copper stills can even be called Scotch whisky. Even then, it’s unlikely that Diageo will make anything widely available. All that is left is what flowed off the stills four decades previous, and there is almost nothing left. What does remain will cost you dearly. The latest release, Port Ellen Gemini, a two-bottle set to mark the reopening is £45,000 (approx $57,000).

Atlas of Smoke

Whisky distilleries make good money from tours, inviting people in for next to nothing before politely guiding them to the gift shop. That model won’t be in Port Ellen’s makeup. The only income they can hope for in the next few years will come from Diageo’s network of private clients. Another tour will be available for $250, including a sample straight from a 1979 cask, but spaces will be limited. Half of the distillery’s footprint is dedicated to an invite-only experience called ‘Atlas of Smoke’.

Private clients walk through an entrance reminiscent of a modern art gallery, up a winding staircase to a contemporary living space designed to feel like an upscale apartment. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out on a glittering Kilnaughton Bay. To the right, on the other side of the courtyard, are the new whisky stills. To the left, the remaining bottles of Port Ellen sit in a locked cabinet, with prices ranging from $4,000 to $20,000. That’s some gift shop.

[See also: This May be the Most Exclusive Whisky Tour in the World]

Port Ellen Gemini
Port Ellen Gemini is the oldest whisky ever released by the distillery / ©Diageo

This is not your usual distillery tour, and the break from convention continues with an introductory tea tasting. Three teas, curated from Postcard Teas in London, bear the hallmarks of a good Islay whisky — fruity notes, whisps of smoke and a light texture. It’s a cultured start that, if nothing else, highlights the scarcity of Port Ellen whisky. There simply isn’t enough of it to give away so early in the tour. But you don’t have to wait too long.

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Port Ellen Gemini awaits in the private dining room. Private clients get a generous measure of each. The Gemini collection consists of a 44-year-old whisky from three European oak casks. It’s the oldest whisky ever released under the Port Ellen name and with just 274 sets, one of the rarest. To make this whisky fit for the grand reopening, Gemini was split into two different casks for the final years of its maturation. By placing it in two different cask types, one whisky has become two, each with a distinct flavor profile.

Port Ellen Gemini Original stayed in the European oak butts, a traditional practice of the distillery in its heyday. This gives it the classic Port Ellen style — sweet, salty and smoky. Port Ellen Gemini Remnant is far more experimental. That was placed in an original Port Ellen remnant cask, used to measure excess spirit from a filling run. The remnant cask would have touched some of the distillery’s most treasured malts during its lifetime. Unappreciated in its own time, it’s a symbol for Port Ellen. The cask was seasoned with the same Oloroso sherry it originally contained many decades previous. That sherry has had its say on the whisky, which is noticeably darker and spicier than the Original.

Spirit of experimentation

Experimentation will be key to the distillery’s future. There is no blueprint for a young Port Ellen. There is just one official bottling on record from the distillery’s operating days: a 12 Year Old created to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the distillery in 1980. The bottle in the private dining room has 50ml missing, which was poured for the queen herself. Her Majesty was one of few people who knew what a young Port Ellen tasted like, and no one wrote her notes down.

The distillery itself is a triumph of contemporary design. Huge windows give passersby a glimpse of the charismatic Phoenix stills, named as such because they were built to exact specifications from original blueprints.

Port Ellen still house
The Port Ellen still house / ©Diageo

Opposite, two smaller stills will conduct experiments. Its crown jewel is a unique 10-part spirit safe, allowing distillers to take specific cuts at different points in distillation. The spirit’s character changes markedly from start to finish and you can taste the difference in eight types of spirit taken every 30 minutes across four-and-a-half hours. The new make spirit starts with a super sweet pear drop and moves towards full-blown smokey peat. Different cuts can then be combined, potentially making something new and exciting. Any successful experiment in the smaller stills can be replicated in their bigger brothers.

Distillery manager Ali McDonald beams with delight as he explains the value of such an ability. As consumer tastes change, Port Ellen is capable of changing its profile. If the market demands more smoke, Port Ellen can provide it. More fruit? No problem. For a distillery that has already had to make one comeback from condemnation, it’s a valuable insurance policy.

To arrange a private visit to Port Ellen, contact dre.scotland@diageo.com, diageorareandexceptional.com

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