Plans for Port Ellen Distillery on Islay unveiled by Diageo

The plans for how one of Scotland's most iconic lost whisky distilleries will be revived have been unveiled by drinks giant Diageo. 

Published 30th Jan 2019
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

The details of the project, which will see Port Ellen distillery returned to its former glory and will be formally submitted to Argyle & Bute Council later this year, were revealed to the local community on Tuesday (29th January).

Residents on the island were invited to view the plans at the consultation event and also to share their memories and artefacts relating to the historic distillery.

Diageo’s specialist archivist for single malt whisky, Joanne McKerchar, also attended to meet the islanders, whose lives are intrinsically woven into the life of the island’s famous distilleries, to learn from their Port Ellen experiences, anecdotes and artefacts.

Former employees of Port Ellen were amongst those invited along to share in the distillery revival plans.

The plans

Under the £35 million investment programme, which was announced in October last year as a joint venture that will also see the Brora Distillery in Sutherland revived, 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.

According to Diageo, this history of cutting-edge innovation included:

The spirit safe – now a feature of all Scotch malt whisky distilleries – was first tested atPort Ellen distillery in the winter of 1823/24.

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• 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.

Distillery Buildings 

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.

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These buildings will be restored as integral parts of the revived distillery, with a 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 added: “Like the whisky, the plans for the buliding 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.”

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As well as the twin projects to revive two of the companies most famous closed distilleries, Diageo has also 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.

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Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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