Gone but not forgotten (Port Ellen)

In the latest of our new series,Gavin D Smith delves in to Port Ellen's past
By Gavin D. Smith
It is a fair bet that if Whisky Magazine was to conduct a readers’ poll to establish which closed distillery of the past half century represented the greatest loss, Port Ellen would come out very near the top. This is partly due to the continuing passion for all things Islay, but also because Port Ellen is an exceptionally fine dram by any standards.Grant Carmichael was general manager for Distillers Company Ltd’s Islay operations from 1978 until his retirement in 1995, by which time ‘DCL’ had metamorphosised into United Distillers.He says that “Port Ellen is a very, very underrated dram. It’s only these last few years that people have discovered what a fine malt whisky it is. It’s got a very different character from the other south coast Islay whiskies. It has the seashore character, and I also get a chocolate note off it. It’s there among the best.It’s becoming rarer and rarer, and too expensive, but that’s the law of supply and demand.” Port Ellen distillery is situated on the outskirts of Port Ellen village on the southern shores of Islay, and was established in 1825.It was one of many distilleries that sprang up in the wake of the liberating Excise Act of 1823. Port Ellen was built by Alexander Kerr Mackay, who became bankrupt soon after the distillery opened. It was subsequently operated with little more financial success by various members of the Mackay family, before the youthful John Ramsay from Clackmannanshire was appointed to take control, being granted the distillery lease in 1836.Port Ellen has a number of claims to fame, not least as the location where Septimus Fox’s spirit safe was tested and refined during the early 1820s. At the invitation of John Ramsay, both Aeneas Coffey and Robert Stein also carried out research work at Port Ellen, aiding the development of the continuous still.Ramsay proved a dynamic force in both the Scotch whisky industry and in the economic life of Islay. He was one of the pioneering exporters of Scotch malt whisky to the USA, shipping it directly from Port Ellen distillery, and subsequently was responsible for extending the village’s pier in 1881. With the laird of Islay, Walter Frederick Campbell, he was also instrumental in the introduction of regular steamer sailings between Glasgow and Islay. In Glasgow, he carried on a prosperous business as an importer of Sherry and Madeira wine.By the time of his death in 1892, Ramsay boasted a substantial property portfolio on Islay, having become owner and landlord of Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardenistiel (located next to Laphroaig) distilleries in 1855.He also served terms as Member of Parliament for both Stirling and Falkirk.Port Ellen distillery remained in the Ramsay family until 1920, when it was acquired by the great blending companies of James Buchanan & Co Ltd and John Dewar & Sons Ltd. Port Ellen passed to the mighty DCL when Buchanan and Dewar merged with it in 1925, and in 1930 the distillery closed, having been transferred to the DCL subsidiary Scottish Malt Distillers.Port Ellen was one of many distilleries to fall silent during that period of economic depression, but unlike so many of its counterparts, it was granted a second lease of life in 1967.At that time, the Scotch whisky industry had moved from ‘bust’ mode into ‘boom,’ and after 37 years of inactivity, Port Ellen underwent an 18 months-long, £400,000 rebuilding programme, during which the distillery changed quite dramatically, both internally and externally. It finally became operational once again in April 1967.Six years later, the village of Port Ellen was transformed by the construction of a vast new maltings plant beside the distillery, capable of producing 400 tonnes of malted barley per week. The old floor maltings at DCL’s three Islay distilleries of Port Ellen, Lagavulin and Caol Ila subsequently closed.Sadly, it was only a decade later that Port Ellen distillery fell silent once again. By the early 1980s there was a serious problem of over-capacity in the Scotch whisky industry, and Port Ellen was selected as one of 11 DCL distilleries to face closure in 1983. Two year later a further 10 followed suit.Port Ellen was probably selected as the most expendable of the Islay distilleries because its make was less popular with the blending trade than either Lagavulin or Caol Ila. It is important to remember that in the early 1980s, Islays were very much blending whiskies, and it would have taken a great deal of foresight to divine that one day Islay single malts would achieve international cult status.As Grant Carmichael says: “The distillery was closed in 1983, but we didn’t know then what a great dram it would be, or the demand there would eventually be for Islay single malts. It was rebuilt in the ’60s to supply the blenders, that was what it was for. And when one of the Islay distilleries had to go, it was the one. When I had to stand up and tell the men it was closing, it was one of the worst days for me in distilling.” At least the existence of Port Ellen Maltings ensures that the site is not entirely lost to the whisky industry, and the old distillery warehouses still perform a valuable service as storage for casks of Lagavulin. Unfortunately, the distillery itself suffered badly at the hands of vandals and the Hebridean weather during the two decades after its closure, though its distilling plant was eventually sold to India.In 2005 Diageo addressed the issue of the semi-derelict distillery, and, according to company spokesman Peter Smith: “We demolished the ‘red’ pagoda that dated from the 1960s and was structurally unsound, along with the 1960s and ’70s additions, including the modern still house. What’s left is essentially a courtyard with the two original pagodas, maltings, and some warehousing. Looking at it now if you drove past you’d think ‘there’s a nice little distillery.’” Although Port Ellen will never distil again, the enduring appeal of its spirit is reflected in the wide range of independent bottlings that have appeared during the last few years, and an exemplary 27-year-old expression graces Diageo’s latest range of Special Releases. Port Ellen is not lost just yet.