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?