The Port Ellen distillery on the south coast of the Hebridean island of Islay is responsible for some of the rarest peated single malts on the market. After almost 40 years as a lost distillery, Port Ellen has been resurrected by Diageo.
Founded in 1825, Port Ellen was sold in 1920 and absorbed into Distillers Company Ltd in 1925. After closure and considerable demolition in the 1930s, the distillery was rebuilt and expanded during the 1960s whisky boom, then shuttered again during the 1980s downturn in 1983.
Port Ellen had almost exclusively been used in blends and wasn’t released as a proprietor’s bottling until 1988, when it made its debut under the label Rare Malts. There have been many independent Port Ellen bottlings by Gordon & MacPhail, Douglas Laing & Co and Signatory.
As stocks decreased, secondary market demand for Port Ellen intensified and bottlings regularly fetched five-figure sums. The oldest Port Ellen to date is a 40-year-old single malt distilled in 1979. Port Ellen still features in blends and was used in Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost & Rare.
One of the reasons for Port Ellen’s notoriety is its inclusion in the Rare Malts Selection. First released in 1995 by Distillers Company Ltd, which later became part of Diageo, the series predominantly included whiskies from lost distilleries from the late 1960s, ’70s or early ‘80s. Port Ellen 20- and 22-year-old were some of the first to be included. In 2001, an annual Special Releases series was launched by Diageo in which Port Ellen regularly featured.
In 2020 it was announced that Diageo was investing £35m to restore both this Islay distillery and Brora in Sutherland (which also closed in 1983). Port Ellen has been brought back to life with two copper pot stills that are faithful replicas of the originals, and two smaller stills which will produce more experimental and innovative spirit. Kiln buildings and warehouses that remained intact following the 1983 closure have been restored.
Diageo intends to faithfully replicate Port Ellen’s medium-peated style and almost exclusively produce single malts from the resurrected Islay distillery.