On the shores of Kilnaughton Bay on Islay stands one of the most important buildings of the global whisky industry. Diageo’s Port Ellen Maltings, responsible for providing malted barley to all of Islay’s distilleries. Touch (almost) any bottle of Islay whisky anywhere in the world, and its raw ingredients will have passed through the Port Ellen plant. Yet for all its industrial success, the maltings form but a sad remnant of one of Scotland’s most beloved whisky producing sites. For in the shadows of the big, grey factory lies the now dysfunctional Port Ellen distillery. Its twin pagodas still contrast proudly against the Islay sky, while wafts of peat smoke can still be caught in the air. Yet for all its beauty, the distillery is now an eerie place. After years of inactivity, the stillhouse and the surrounding buildings have become a veritable ghost town, its warehouses reduced to storage space for its more commercially successful counterparts.
Although no longer operational, the distillery continues to capture the imagination of whisky fans everywhere. Much like a Van Gogh painting or an Emily Dickinson poem, Port Ellen whisky gained huge fame posthumously. The mere mention of Port Ellen often evokes a sense of excitement mixed with a tinge of sadness. For its spirit is of undeniable quality; its character typical of the Islay whiskies so loved around the globe. The dwindling stocks of Port Ellen whisky have now become so popular that Royal Mile Whiskies advertises one of its expressions by claiming that “we could tell the world this tastes of rotten fish and stagnant sewers and it would still sell out instantly”. Indeed, the 2013 annual release sold out before it even hit the website. As a result, Port Ellen has become so expensive as to be out of reach for all but the most affluent whisky aficionados. Selling at just £30 a bottle three decades ago, it now easily commands £1500 or over. A quick search on Master of Malt will bring up many more sold out and discontinued bottlings, while Port Ellen’s ‘dearly departed’ section on Royal Mile Whiskies is among the longest of any distillery. Port Ellen whisky can occasionally still be found at festivals, but in addition to a wonderful tasting experience provides the drinker with a lingering sense of regret for what might have been. How is it that a whisky so universally loved came to be resigned to the pages of history?
The story of Port Ellen of course ties in with the broader narrative of the whisky industry, and the booms and busts it experienced throughout the ages. Like so many other distilleries, Port Ellen was started in the mid-1820s, when the signing of the 1823 Excise Act made legal whisky distilling a viable option for the first time. Yet the enterprise quickly went bankrupt and ownership changed hands several times, all with limited degrees of success. Until the distillery passed to John Ramsay, a young wine merchant from Glasgow. Only 18 at the time, Port Ellen owes its very existence to the business acumen and entrepreneurial ability of the young Scot. He was the first to export whisky directly to the United States and oversaw the rise of Port Ellen as Islay’s main harbour, making transport to the mainland both cheaper and easier. Under his leadership, the distillery went from strength to strength. Production was ramped up, new warehouses were built and Ramsay acquired an additional four distilleries. Yet all good things must come to an end and Port Ellen could not escape the downturn that gripped the industry in the early 20th century. After a major whisky boom in the 1890s, during which 25 distilleries opened its doors, the industry was all but brought to its knees in the following decades. The Temperance movement became influential in politics, ultimately leading to the era of Prohibition in the United States. While alcohol consumption was never officially outlawed in the United Kingdom, the excise tax on liquor did rise six fold, rendering whisky unaffordable for the masses. Meanwhile, the outbreak of World War I meant severe curbs on the availability of barley for distilling, as all resources were needed for the war effort. Add into the mix the Great Depression and the results were downright catastrophic. While around 170 distilleries were operational in the 1890s, this figure had plummeted to just 40 in 1933, with the remainder either mothballed or closed permanently. In the face of such adversity, Port Ellen proved no exception. The Ramsay family was forced to sell off the business to distilling conglomerate DCL in 1925. In a move that probably ensured the industry’s long term survival, DCL bought up a huge number of distilleries and closed them down in order to limit supply. Port Ellen subsequently joined the ranks of mothballed distilleries in 1930. Although the end of Prohibition and the Great Depression did encourage many whisky producers to reopen, Port Ellen would stay closed until 1967, when DCL decided that its blending companies could use an extra flow of peaty whisky. The whisky industry was once again booming, but for Port Ellen the new golden age was short-lived. By its very nature, whisky is a product that doesn’t hit the shelves until years after its production, which makes anticipating consumer demand inherently difficult. Record production in the 1970s resulted in the age old problem of over-capacity, and DCL was once again forced to close distilleries. It did so in 1983, and Port Ellen was among the dozen unfortunate victims. At this point, Port Ellen whisky was used exclusively in blends and it was decided Lagavulin and Caol Ila would simply take on Port Ellen’s portfolio. The decision to close Port Ellen was therefore taken at a time when DCL could not have guessed that Port Ellen would one day become popular as a single malt. While the maltings remained active, Port Ellen distillery never reopened.
In many ways Ports Ellen’s story is typical of other distilleries that closed down, its fortunes determined by the booms and busts of the whisky industry. Why then does the Port Ellen enjoy its current popularity? What is the reason for its enduring fame, where other distilleries have long since been forgotten?
It may have been Diageo’s smart management decision to keep some stock available for future releases. Over 30 years after the last spirit left Port Ellen’s stills, its whisky is still maturing in the warehouses. Many other closed distilleries simply sold off their remaining whisky to cover their losses and faded into obscurity within a matter of years. Nevertheless, the current hype for Port Ellen is one of scarcity. With supply limited to so few bottles, demand is always going to be high. If Port Ellen’s neighbour Laphroaig suddenly went out of production, I would expect a similar rush to occur on the last of its stock.
It may also be the fact that Port Ellen has for some time now been bottled at the advanced age of 30 years or over, giving the whisky a deep, complex flavour. With very few exceptions, recent bottlings of Port Ellen received outstanding reviews by whisky critics. Unlike distilleries that need to provide an affordable standard expression, every release of Port Ellen is something old and special.
Yet perhaps the simplest reason may be that Port Ellen was a remarkable distillery and we are all sad to see it go. With it dies one of the defining names of Scottish whisky heritage and a true Islay great. So don your impulsive hat, raise your credit card limit and hold your finger firmly on the mouse button, for in May 2016, Diageo will once again release an annual bottling of Port Ellen. It may well be the last time.
For an excellent overview of all of Scotland’s other distilleries that met a similar unfortunate end, I recommend Brian Townsend’s Scotch Missed: The Lost Distilleries of Scotland.