'There’s a nervous anticipation' - meet the people behind Port Ellen - as historic Islay distillery reopens

The long-closed Port Ellen distillery reopened this month. Rosalind Erskine was there to speak to some of the people of the distillery’s past, and future.

It’s a sunny day on Islay when Port Ellen officially reopened. The distillery has had a rough journey since it first opened in 1825. It was run as a malt mill, until John Ramsay turned it into a distillery from 1833 to 1892. It was closed, and largely demolished in the 1930s before being rebuilt in the 1960s under the Distillers Company (now Diageo). Port Ellen was then operational until 1983 - and used mainly for blended whisky - when it closed and was mothballed. Iain 'Pinky' McArthur worked at the distillery then, and filled the last cask before the doors closed. He was at the reopening, and recalled how the island was devastated when the distillery shut, remembering that he had a young child, with another baby on the way, at the time. He said: “It was a huge loss to the island and sad to see as we were going to be with no jobs.” Luckily for McArthur, the offer for either redundancy or a move to another distillery was made, and he chose to move to Lagavulin where he stayed for over 50 years, becoming somewhat of a legend in the industry. When asked what he thought of the reopening, he said: “it’s great to see it. It’s going to be wonderful for Islay and the families here as there’s jobs.”

Also in attendance at the opening were the great granddaughter and great, great granddaughter of John Ramsay (Janna Ramsay Best and her daughter Mairi Best) who owned the distillery from 1833 to 1892. Of the reopening, Mairi Best said: “It's so exciting. It's really positive. My great, great grandfather had to sell this distillery after the devastating aftermath of the First World War. They had focused on the American market and the Americans brought in prohibition. He was not well from the First World War and he said that (selling Port Ellen) was a great sadness all his life. We are really pleased that this is being reincarnated.”

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To toast the new chapter in the distillery’s story, guests sampled a dram of the 1979 Port Ellen as well as some new make spirit. In charge of creating the new Port Ellen spirit are master blender Aimee Morrison and distillery manager Ali McDonald. “There’s a slight nervous anticipation,” said Aimee who joined the Diageo whisky specialist team in 2012 on a student placement. “But I think that's a really positive thing to have because it means that we’re looking to make sure that Port Ellen is leading, it’s trailblazing and that we’re making the quality liquid that people expect from Port Ellen, and I think that’s where this nervous anticipation comes from. Because we want to make sure that we do justice to such an iconic whisky at the end of the day.” Ali McDonald added: “It is an honour to take up this new position at the helm of an iconic distillery and build on Port Ellen’s pioneering past. Port Ellen holds a very special place in the hearts of passionate whisky aficionados, and to see spirit flow off these stills once again is an incredible moment for the Islay community and wider whisky world.”

Aimée Morrison, Port Ellen Master Blender said there's a nervous anticipation about the distillery openingAimée Morrison, Port Ellen Master Blender said there's a nervous anticipation about the distillery opening
Aimée Morrison, Port Ellen Master Blender said there's a nervous anticipation about the distillery opening

This opening represents the final chapter in the £185 million investment by parent company Diageo, which has also seen the reopening of the other famous ghost distillery Brora, as well as investment in the company’s Scotch whisky visitor experiences. Drawing on Port Ellen’s heritage as one of the most pioneering distilleries of the 19th Century, the new distillery has been designed from the ground up to push the boundaries of innovation, experimentation and sustainability. Part of this is the inclusion of experimental stills which are linked to a 10 part spirit safe. While standard distillery spirit safes allow for three cuts of the spirit run – the head, the heart and the tails - the Port Ellen 10 part spirit safe allows multiple cuts to be drawn from the heart of the run, accessing previously unexplored flavours and characters. The distillery has a dedicated on-site laboratory and a full-time laboratory technician to analyse and catalogue the new experimental whiskies that emerge.

Once home to what’s thought to be the first spirit safe, it was the site of the first duty free warehouses and the place where patent stills for grain whisky were developed. The modern-day Port Ellen looks to continue this forward-thinking mentality. Of this, Aimee said: “I'm really looking forward to taking Port Ellen into the future with the experimental side of the distillery, but also still working on the ghost whiskies that we have at Port Ellen too. I am excited to see the experimental side of the distillery, to make sure that we uncover as much as possible about the atlas of smoke - the world of smoke - and really start to understand the intricacies of Port Ellen.” Aimee went on to explain that as well as finding out more about their spirit, the team here are hoping to inform the wider whisky industry. “it's unknown territory for us, as well as for the wider world,” she said. McDonald added: “We are deeply committed to pushing the boundaries of Scotch through experimentation. I’m excited to see what we can now create.”

Tours can now be booked for June onwards, with ticket prices coming in at £200. Like Brora, this isn’t a cheap day out, but you will be getting to try some very rare whisky as well as discovering more about Port Ellen’s evolution in the brand new pagoda tasting room. The team are also hosting free tours, also bookable online, to showcase the production side of the operation.

In line with the net zero targets that have been set for the industry, rebuilding Port Ellen has meant being able to utilise new technologies and techniques to make it carbon neutral. One of these innovations is the levers on the roof, which open and close depending on temperature. Ewan Andrew, Diageo President of Global Supply Chain and Procurement, and Chief Sustainability Officer said “Port Ellen has a proud heritage of leading innovation and experimentation and we have been true to that legacy in the reborn Port Ellen, creating a distillery grounded in tradition but prepared to be a trailblazing new light in the firmament of the Scotch whisky universe.”

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