Port Ellen – when lovers of Islay whisky hear this name, tears of joy and sadness alike are likely to wet their eyes. This single malt has a reputation of being among the finest that Islay has to offer. But the distillery was closed in 1983 because United Distillers – now a part of Diageo – saw no future for it in the light of the economic crisis of the early 1980s.
Plenty of casks were sold to independent bottlers and new bottlings are still being launched today on a regular basis, with an ever-rising price tag of course. Also Diageo themselves had started a series of official Port Ellen Annual Releases 9 years ago.
But in a way, Port Ellen lives on nevertheless. In 1974, together with the expansion of Caol Ila, a large industrial maltings complex had been opened on the site of Port Ellen distillery that was to supply the UD distilleries with peated malt. And even though the distillery itself was closed, the maltings are alive and kicking and also supply their produce to most other Islay distilleries.
The warehouses (there are about a dozen of them) still remain in use, holding part of the production of Lagavulin. The kiln building with its pagoda roof is also still present, but what is now known as Kiln Square is home to a handful of small buisinesses unrelated to whisky.
At Port Ellen pier, there is a huge grain silo that is used to store the barley delivered by ships on a regular basis. The barley then is transported to the maltings by lorries. Unfortunately, there is no regular possibility to visit the maltings. Only during the Feis Ile festival – which happens to happen right now – they make an exception.
I am pretty convinced that today at least some peole at UD/Diageo regret to have closed Port Ellen. Had they foreseen the single malt boom that had begun in late 1980s, they certainly only would have mothballed it. But at that time, the focus was entirely on blends. With Caol Ila they had a modern distillery capable of producing big quantities of quality malt, so in a shrinking market an old-fashioned distillery like Port Ellen was regarded as superfluous. After all, with Lagavulin they had still another ace up their sleeves.
Many whisky fans dream of a re-opening of Port Ellen distillery. I don’t think these dreams are very realistic, though. Theoretically, there is enough space to build a new stillhouse for a medium capacity distillery with two wash and two spirit stills. But if we will ever see such a thing happen is highly uncertain.