Fabled Ghost Whisky Distillery Port Ellen Reawakens For The First Time In 41 Years

The sought-after whisky label in Islay was resurrected for the first time since its distillery went silent in 1983.
by Ben Chin
Port Ellen

Photo: Diageo

It’s the first day of spring, and the quintessential Scottish grey has given way to lustrous blue skies. “It’s an uncharacteristically beautiful day,” chirped Emily Burnham, the brand home host for Port Ellen, as she welcomed the media to the historical reopening of “ghost” distillery Port Ellen.

First established on Islay in 1825, it was primarily a workhorse producer that made its distinctive, smoky whisky for blending. After closing in 1983, however, Port Ellen expressions became eagerly sought after by aficionados and collectors for its character and rarity, prompting owner Diageo to announce its revival in 2017.

Port Ellen

Left to right: Master distiller Ali McDonald; Port Ellen Distillery host, Emily Burnham. (Photos: Diageo)

It’s part of the beverage behemoth’s £185 million ($315 million) investment in Scotch distilleries and experiences, which saw similarly mothballed distillery Brora reopen to global fanfare in 2021.

Unlike Brora, which retained its original Victorian style and a pair of lovingly restored copper stills, the new Port Ellen is strikingly modern. Save for the pagoda and warehouses, little of the original distillery remains, and the direction of the design of the newly refurbished Port Ellen distillery has been given a radical reimagining.

Its gleaming transparent glass stillhouse, which offers a sweeping view of Islay’s stunning south coast, could be mistaken at first glance for an avant-garde art museum. Built from the ground up with innovation and experimentation in mind, it’s also future-proofed to be adaptable.

Port Ellen

Phoenix stills in the glass stillhouse. (Photo: Diageo)

A retractable stillhouse roof, for instance, allows the copper pot stills to be accessed more efficiently for maintenance and repairs. The entire distillery is also designed to be carbon neutral. Energy is drawn from renewable sources, including liquid biofuel, and an on-site laboratory is built to reduce the environmental impact of shipping samples.

The towering Phoenix stills, meticulously and exactly replicated from archival plans, will produce the whisky house’s new spirit. A set of smaller but identical stills running alongside will be tasked with more experimental expressions, allowing the distillery to chart an “Atlas of Smoke” and explore the many facets of its characteristically smoky flavour profile.

“‘Port Ellen will be defined as a distillery that will push boundaries. Each element of the production process allows us to innovate from day one. With an on-site laboratory, we can delve into scientific research to examine the possibilities of this legendary Islay malt. We will better understand how the nuanced flavours from cask-to-cask shine differently, with the rolling smoke weaving its way through the heart of Port Ellen,” says master blender Aimée Morrison.

Paying homage to its heritage

Port Ellen Distillery glass stillhouse. (Photo: Diageo)

Port Ellen is the first to export whisky to North America as early as 1848, carrying on its pioneering heritage at the new facility. Legend says it was the first distillery in Scotland to house a “spirit safe”, a glass and metal device used to analyse the distillate as it leaves the still.

Port Ellen

Port Ellen Gemini, a twin 44-year-old release. (Photo: Diageo)

Whisky enthusiasts will be able to witness the precise mechanics in person and meet the team with monthly open days and guided tours through the distillery from June 2024 onwards. Those on The Atlas of Smoke private tour, only bookable via the Diageo Private Client team, will also get the rare opportunity to taste the twin 44-year-old Port Ellen Gemini expressions.

Created to mark the distillery’s reopening, they are the oldest-ever single malts released directly from Port Ellen. With only 274 sets available worldwide at £45,000, the Gemini is also one of the distillery’s rarest releases. Parties interested in acquiring the highly limited release can enquire with Diageo’s Private Client team.

This story originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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