Legacy of heritage and innovation celebrated in thrilling Port Ellen Scotch Whisky distillery plans
The iconic Port Ellen distillery on Islay in Scotland will be revived in an inspiring celebration of quality, heritage and innovation, under plans that were revealed to the local community today (Tuesday 29th January).
The plans, which will be formally submitted to Argyle & Bute Council later this year, were unveiled at a pre-planning consultation event in Port Ellen, giving Islay locals the opportunity to view the proposals. The local community were invited to view the plans at the consultation event and also to share their memories and artefacts relating to the historic distillery. The tight-knit community on Islay is intrinsically woven into the life of the island’s famous distilleries, with almost everyone connected either directly or through friends and family with the Scotch Whisky industry. Former employees of Port Ellen were amongst those invited along to share in the distillery revival plans.
Diageo’s specialist archivist for single malt whisky, Joanne McKerchar, also attended to meet people and to learn from their Port Ellen experiences, anecdotes and artefacts. Under the plans, Port Ellen will be brought back into production with a combination of two pairs of copper pot stills and two separate distillation regimes in an innovative combination of tradition and experimentation. The primary distillation regime, using two stills that will exactly replicate the original Port Ellen copper pot stills, will carefully recreate the original spirit character of the distillery that made its single malt Scotch Whisky amongst the most sought-after in the world.
Alongside this will be a second, smaller pair of stills that will produce alternative spirit characters, allowing the Port Ellen whisky makers the freedom to experiment with new whisky styles. The experimental stills pay homage to John Ramsay, who owned Port Ellen in its formative years and who made it one of the most innovative distilleries of the 19th century, pioneering many of the techniques and equipment that would become mainstays of the Scotch whisky industry.
This history of cutting-edge innovation included:
- The spirit safe – now a feature of all Scotch malt whisky distilleries – was first tested at Port Ellen distillery in the winter of 1823/24.
- Archive records show that John Ramsay was exporting significant quantities of Port Ellen single malt to the United States of America as early as 1840, making it a pioneering single malt export, laying the foundation for Scotch whisky in its biggest global market.
- From 1841 to 1843, John Ramsay experimented with distilling malt whisky in a Patent still – the continuous distillation technique developed for grain whisky – typical of Ramsay’s restless, inquisitive nature, always seeking new methods and innovations for his product.
- Archive records show that John Ramsay imported Sherry and Maderia casks to mature his spirit, making him an early adopter of the now-common practise of finishing single malt in specific casks.
The buildings at the Port Ellen distillery have gone through many changes since it first opened in 1824, with the distillery closing and largely being demolished in the 1930s, before being rebuilt in the 1960s. Following its most recent closlure in 1983 only the kiln building with its classic pagoda roofs and the traditional sea-front warehouses have survived. These buildings will be restored as integral parts of the revived distillery, with a beautiful new stillhouse created to house distillation.
Georgie Crawford, the master distiller who is leading the Port Ellen project, said: “These plans are any whisky maker’s dream come true.
“To have the opportunity to recreate the original spirit character of Port Ellen distillery so we have new generations of that classic Islay peated malt is incredible, but then to combine that with the freedom to experiment with new variations is truly extraordinary.”
In regard to the building design for the recreated distillery, she said: “Like the whisky, the plans for the building combine the best of heritage and innovation.
“The buildings at Port Ellen distillery have changed and evolved many times over its lifetime. We’re lucky enough to have the old kiln buildings and seaside warehouses that will be restored and
reimagined, alongside spacious and modern light-filled new buildings to house the distillery production. “We believe these plans are a fitting tribute to the exceptional legacy of Port Ellen and we are incredibly excited to be able to share them.”
In October 2017 Diageo announced a £35 million investment programme to bring back Port Ellen on Islay and Brora distillery in Sutherland, both of which closed in 1983. Since then the company has embarked on an additional £150 million investment programme in Scotch whisky tourism – the biggest ever seen in the sector – which will create a global flagship visitor experience for Johnnie Walker scotch whisky in Edinburgh as well as investing in the company’s existing 12 distillery visitor centres, including Caol Ila on Islay.