Almost as if mother nature knew what a momentous occasion the day had brought, the sun shone brightly on Islay this morning as Scotland’s ‘whisky island’ prepared for the long-awaited rebirth of an icon.

Port Ellen has for over four decades been known as one of the country’s most famous ‘ghost’ distilleries following its closure in 1983 as the island’s whisky industry experienced a well-documented period of turbulence.

Having braved an early flight from Glasgow, with thankfully less turbulence, our group was to have the privilege of witnessing the moment all of this would change and raising a glass to the ‘final chapter’ in the £185 million investment into the Scotch whisky sector from parent company, Diageo.

One of the first to welcome us at Port Ellen was global brand ambassador for Diageo Scotch Whiskies Port Ellen, Ewan Gunn who began our tour with an explanation of the term ‘ghost’ distillery.

He said: “Essentially, a ghost distillery is a distillery that is no longer producing.

“It may have been closed down, it may even have been demolished, but from it we still have maturing stocks of whisky.

“Port Ellen is a great example of that. This distillery closed down in 1983 and until very recently there was very little left of the distillery, but we still had maturing stock or ‘ghost’ whiskies.

“It’s very exciting that the distillery has now reopened and is producing scotch whisky again, but all of the stock from its previous iteration will still be known as ‘ghost’ whisky.”


Just a few barrels of this precious ‘ghost’ elixir are currently occupying floor space in the distillery’s stock warehouse, although Ali McDonald, master distiller at Port Ellen, vows they won't sit alone for much longer.

He said: “It is an honour to take up this new position at the helm of an iconic distillery and build on Port Ellen’s pioneering past.

“Port Ellen holds a very special place in the hearts of passionate whisky aficionados, and to see spirit flow off these stills once again is an incredible moment for the Islay community and wider whisky world.

“We are deeply committed to pushing the boundaries of Scotch through experimentation. I’m excited to see what we can now create.”

Elsewhere, representative of this passion for innovation are two pairs of copper stills housed within the glass-paned stillhouse that looks which looks out across the bay to Carraig Fhada lighthouse.

The first pair, the Phoenix Stills, are precise replicas of the original Port Ellen stills and will recreate the signature smoky flavour that has made Port Ellen single malt one of the most highly sought-after whiskies in the world.

The Herald: Stills at Port EllenStills at Port Ellen (Image: Frame)

The second pair, the Experimental Stills, are smaller in stature but designed to “take the art and science of whisky exploration to levels of precision never before seen in Scotch whisky distillation”.

Standing proudly in front of them both at the official opening ceremony which concluded our tour was Ewan Andrew, Diageo’s president of global supply chain & procurement, and chief sustainability officer.

Joining him were a handful of honoured guests, including a lively duo who had worked at the distillery before its closure over 40 years ago and two descendants of John Ramsay, the ‘legendary Islay figure’ who took up management of the distillery in 1836 and saw Port Ellen become an early single malt to be exported to the United States in 1865.

Andrew said: “This is a landmark moment for Diageo and for Scotch Whisky.

“Port Ellen is rooted in the land and the people of Islay, yet it is a name that resonates around the world as a watchword for quality single malt Scotch whisky.

“Port Ellen has a proud heritage of leading innovation and experimentation and we have been true to that legacy in the reborn Port Ellen, creating a distillery grounded in tradition but prepared to be a trailblazing new light in the firmament of the Scotch whisky universe.”

Looking towards the future, Port Ellen will be carbon neutral from the very beginning, with every part of the distillation process optimised so that both water and heat are recycled, and all energy produced by a renewable-biofuel boiler.

This is in line with Diageo’s commitment to be carbon neutral in its direct production business globally by 2030.

And there’s no resting on a hard-earned reputation when it comes to crafting their drams either, with a dedicated on-site laboratory and a full-time laboratory technician employed to analyse and catalogue the new experimental whiskies that emerge.

The Herald: Master blender Aimée MorrisonMaster blender Aimée Morrison (Image: Frame)

Master blender Aimée Morrison said: “Port Ellen will be defined as a distillery that will push boundaries, with our on-site laboratory giving us the opportunity to delve into scientific research, offering us a deeper look into this Islay malt. We will better understand how the nuanced flavours from cask-to-cask shine in different ways; with the rolling smoke weaving its way through the heart of Port Ellen.

“Collectively we will endeavour to maintain the undeniable quality of Port Ellen, create whiskies for the future and take the amazing opportunity to learn as much as we can about the enigma of smoke.”

Soon, Port Ellen will welcome the wider whisky community to ‘experience the wonders’ of the new distillery.

Available to book from June, its visitor experiences range from a full-day private immersion for connoisseurs to shorter introductions to the production process for those with a budding interest in all things single malt.

Honouring its legacy as an asset to its local community, Port Ellen will also open its doors on the first Saturday of every month, inviting anyone on Islay to visit and witness Port Ellen spirit being crafted once again.

Having done just that and enjoyed the privilege of sampling some of the last remaining stock from the distillery's past life alongside a sip of its potent young spirit, I’d urge any whisky fan to make the pilgrimage to Islay for themselves and discover the story of a legend brought back to life.

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