Port Ellen is arguably the most widely known of the closed distilleries in Scotland due to a mixture of the current vogue for peated whiskies and its prominent Islay location. Today, it exists as a maltings to provide produce for several of the distilleries on Islay, along with its surviving warehousing being used by Diageo and other distilleries on the island.
It’s life as a distillery commenced in 1824 when Alexander Kerr Mackay founded Port Ellen and financed its construction. This was the era of Excise Act that encouraged many illicit distillers and businessmen to enter the realm of whisky on terms laid out by the government. Many attempted to realise the dream and not everyone succeeded. Unfortunately for Alexander, like so many others he underestimated the cost of building and maintaining a working distillery whilst awaiting a reliable revenue stream that only came after maturation. Port Ellen went through various owners until it presented the opportunity to John Ramsay for success in 1833. Ramsay, a cousin of John Morrison, prior to Port Ellen was a successful importer in Glasgow specialising in wines and sherry. It’s very likely he was aware of the distillery and its troubles from the family and John Morrison who played an initial role in Port Ellen’s foundation and start-up period. Grasping the possibility, Ramsay persuaded the Laird of Islay to grant him a lease on the distillery and by 1836, Port Ellen was finally on its way.
The distillery remained in his hands until 1892, when Port Ellen was inherited by his spouse, Lucy. By the time of his death, John Ramsay was a very wealthy and influential member of the Islay community, owning land, housing and instigating various improvements to the island including around Port Ellen that had expanded greatly since the 1820’s and had become the main island port. His son, Captain Iain Ramsay, inherited the distillery in 1906 but never truly managed to excel as an owner. This was partially due to economic conditions as the fallout from the Pattison crisis still endured and wartime restrictions put much of the whisky industry on hold. Sensing what was to come, he sold the distillery to the famous blenders of James Buchanan and John Dewar. They in turn handed the rights to the recently created Port Ellen Company Limited, before the whisky industry endured a period of consolidation.
With the parent company purchased by the powerful Distillers Company Limited in 1925, this set the distillery on the path to the Diageo ownership that endures today. However, it was not a rosy period for Port Ellen as further economic conditions prompted a slump in whisky demand and a change in tastes. Soon the distillery was surplus to the requirements of its blending masters who mothballed it in 1930. This heralded a long period of inactivity in the stillroom although the warehousing and maltings were still used on site. Port Ellen was not revived until 1967 when it required a sizeable investment that expanded its capacity with its 2 stills being increased to 4. The work took almost 2 years to complete and in 1973 the large drum maltings were installed on the site that would ultimately seal its fate as a distillery.
Even when it sparked back to life, Port Ellen was very much a workhorse providing for the blended market. It had no single malt presence of its own, nor a heritage such as Bowmore, Laphroaig or Ardbeg who had established their own identities over the proceeding decades. By the early 1980’s the whisky industry was facing another slump in demand. This forced owners to evaluate their existing distilleries and despite Port Ellen’s fairly recent revival, it was a prime candidate given its lack of prominence in the marketplace. For several years there was much speculation as to its future but eventually several buildings were demolished and Port Ellen the distillery was no more.
Today, it serves other Islay distilleries as their prime source of malting and its remaining warehousing continues to mature whisky and act as a beacon to anyone arriving on Islay. Ironically its only in recent times via Diageo’s annual Special Release programme that Port Ellen has received acclaim and attention for its whisky. 2016 welcomed the 16th release in an ongoing series, with Port Ellen reaching 37 years of age and an ever-increasing price tag. Independent releases have flowed in recent decades and these showcase the variable nature of its whisky, but when Port Ellen is at its greatest then it is a marvellous whisky; if increasingly rare and formidably expensive.