The lights are on at the still house of Port Ellen distillery after 40 years.
The lights are on at the still house of Port Ellen distillery after 40 years.

Port Ellen: The rebirth of Scotland’s legendary ghost distillery

The rebirth of Port Ellen distillery has been eagerly anticipated for years by the whisky community across the globe. 

Perhaps the most legendary of all Scotland’s ‘ghost’ distilleries, a term used to describe a number of sites closed in the 1980s and 1990s because of a slump in the market, it has lain silent since 1983.

Founded 1825 and named after the nearby town of Port Ellen, the distillery was originally a malt mill built to supply illicit distilleries. It is said to be the first Scotch whisky distillery to export to North America.

Nowadays a bottle is likely to set whisky lovers back at least £800 and its dwindling stocks are now much sought after by collectors. In 2022, a rare 1979 cask was auctioned by Sotheby’s for £875,000.

The distillery’s resurrection represents the final chapter in the £185 million investment by 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.

‘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,’ said master distiller Ali McDonald.

‘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. 

‘We are deeply committed to pushing the boundaries of Scotch through experimentation. I’m excited to see what we can now create.’

The striking new building is ultra-modern, with an unobstructed line of sight through the glass stillhouse to the stunning coastline of Islay, across the bay to Carraig Fhada lighthouse.

Alexander McDonald, Master Distiller at Port Ellen draws from cask.

At the heart of the distillery are two pairs of copper stills. The first pair – The Phoenix Stills – are precise replicas of the original Port Ellen stills and will distil the classic smoky liquid that has made Port Ellen single malt one of the most highly sought after whiskies in the world. 

The second pair – The Experimental Stills – will take the art and science of whisky exploration to levels of precision never before seen in Scotch whisky distillation.

The Experimental Stills are taking the whisky-making art to new levels of intricacy and complexity. 

The stills are linked to a signature Ten Part Spirit Safe –a truly innovative piece of distilling equipment – that allows the Port Ellen whisky makers unprecedented opportunity for experimentation. 

Distillers take the cut at the spirit safe.

While standard distillery spirit safes allow for three cuts of the spirit run – the head, the heart and the tails – the Ten 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.

To mark the distillery’s rebirth, distillers have delved into old stocks to create the Port Ellen Gemini, twin 44-Year-Old Scotch Whiskies, drawn from three 1978 European oak casks. Some 274 of the sets have been created and will sell for £45,000 each.

Read more Whisky news here.

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