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Port Ellen Distillery Finally Reopens

A view of the Port Ellen Distillery across Kilnaughton Bay
The new glass stillhouse can be seen at the Port Ellen Distillery. Credit: Diageo

The day has finally arrived: Port Ellen Distillery has reopened its doors after over 40 years of silence. 

The distillery, located on Islay, has amassed a cult following since its closure in 1983 amid the dreaded Whisky Loch

Owner Diageo has invested £185 million into refurbishing the distillery along with Brora, which reopened in 2021. Both ‘ghost’ distilleries are now back up and running, much to the delight of whisky fans across the globe. 

In the years since its closure, and particularly over the last decade or so when whisky has been repositioned in the market as a luxury asset, Port Ellen whiskies have been selling for astonishing prices at auction. The Port Ellen Annual Releases, in particular, are highly sought-after by whisky collectors at auction. 

These dwindling stocks have been strategically released by Diageo to ensure that when the distillery finally did reopen, it would be a significant event in the whisky industry. 

The New Port Ellen Distillery 

The new Port Ellen Distillery has been the subject of intense renovation. According to Diageo, the distillery “has been designed from the ground up to push the boundaries of innovation, experimentation and sustainability”. 

Architects have also worked to highlight the stunning scenery of Islay in this design, with the glass stillhouse providing a view across Kilnaughton Bay to the Carraig Fhada Lighthouse. 

The distillery was also designed with Diageo’s environmental commitments in mind. The company has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030. Port Ellen is helping them towards that goal, as the new distillery is already carbon neutral. Water and heat recycling and renewable biofuel will power the distillery’s new era. 

The New Stills 

Two large copper stills in the still house at Port Ellen Distillery
The new stills – Phoenix and Experimental – will distill two different types of spirit. Credit: Diageo

Four brand-new copper stills light up the heart of the distillery, waiting to distill the first new drops of spirit. 

One pair of stills has been named The Phoenix Stills. These are precise replicas of the original stills that worked at the historic distillery. These stills, rising from the ashes of the old distillery (if you will), will distill Port Ellen’s historic style. 

The second pair of stills – The Experimental Stills – will be used to experiment with new and innovative distillation methods using cutting-edge whisky science. These stills are linked to a ‘Ten Part Spirit Safe’, which will allow whisky makers to take ten different spirit samples during a distillation run. 

These samples are then assessed in terms of their quality, allowing the whisky maker to control the flow and distillation length of new-make spirit. Having access to ten samples (or cuts) rather than the original three gives unprecedented control to the distiller and allows for more intricate experimentation. 

The People Behind Port Ellen 

Port Ellen’s resurrection is thanks to impassioned work by those at Diageo and the new distillery team. 

Ali McDonald, Master Distiller said: “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 a gain is an incredible moment for the Islay community and wider whisky world. We are deeply committed to pushing the boundaries of Scotch through experimentation. I’m excited to see what we can now create.”  

Aimee Morrison, Master Blender, added: “Port Ellen will be defined as a distillery that will push boundaries, with our on-site laboratory giving us the opportunity to delve into scientific research, offering us a deeper look into this Islay malt. We will better understand how the nuanced flavours from cask-to-cask shine in different ways; with the rolling smoke weaving its way through the heart of Port Ellen. Collectively we will endeavour to maintain the undeniable quality of Port Ellen, create whiskies for the future and take the amazing opportunity to learn as much as we can about the enigma of smoke.” 

Summing up what the reopening of Port Ellen means for Diageo and the wider industry, Ewan Andrew Diageo President of Global Supply Chain & Procurement, and Chief Sustainability Officer, said at the opening ceremony: “This is a landmark moment for Diageo and for Scotch Whisky. Port Ellen is rooted in the land and the people of Islay, yet it is a name that resonates around the world as a watchword for quality single malt Scotch whisky. 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 trailblazing new light in the firmament of the Scotch whisky universe.”

Port Ellen Gemini 

The release of the Gemini signalled the start of Port Ellen’s new era. Credit: Diageo

The news of the distillery’s reopening follows the release of the Port Ellen Gemini in February 2024. 

The Gemini comprises two single malts distilled in 1978 and bottled at 44 years of age. One of the whiskies was aged in European Oak Butts. The other was finished in a “remnant cask” from the original distillery. 

Only 274 Gemini sets were released with an RRP of £45,000 (inc. UK VAT and Duty). 

What’s Next? 

Of course, it will be a few years (three at least, although something tells me Port Ellen won’t release a 3 year old whisky) before we see new whiskies coming out of the distillery. In addition to this, the capacity of the stills remains quite low – around 750,000 LPA – meaning that releasing quality over quantity will be the best way for Diageo to capitalize on its investment. 

In addition, the distillery’s new look, as well as the Gemini release, suggests that Diageo’s intention is for Port Ellen to become the luxury distillery on Islay. 

So, does Diageo have sold old and rare whisky hidden away to keep the collectors satiated in the meantime? Or will we have to wait a while for another Port Ellen release? 

Only time will tell. The only thing left to say now is, welcome back Port Ellen. 

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