Port Ellen, A Phoenix Rises in the Scotch Whisky World

Having once been a dormant icon, Port Ellen now exemplifies the rejuvenation of historical distilleries, continuing to inspire both nostalgia and awe among whisky lovers.
Port Ellen, A Phoenix Rises in the Scotch Whisky World

I’ve spoken about ghost distilleries in the past and having recently visited the reopened Port Ellen, I’m stuck on the subject again. There is something about a ghost distillery that fills me with enormous sadness. It’s like an exceptionally bred racehorse being left out in the field, missing out on its finest years, with no trainer to harness the talent. What does seem to be the case when it comes to ghost distilleries is the uncertain certainty that they will, in time, reopen. Why else would they sit so quietly and untouched over the years, an invisible cloak of protection from the locals daring anyone to utter the words property development. We talk of custodians regularly in the libation industry for we are dealing with concoctions that can live in a bottle or cask for far longer than us mortals and our hedonistic lifestyles. It is a unique industry, so often, Master blenders and winemakers will have long moved on before they see the true value of their creations, very much like artists.

Diageo, for such a giant, has a delicate touch when it comes to breathing the life back into the many scotch projects across the north. While I’m sure the building work has been far from delicate, it is the thought behind what they do that is nothing short of staggering. On a walk on the beach prior to visiting the newly refurbished Port Ellen, I bumped into some locals and aside from some grumblings about the road (which Diageo totally resurfaced on the completion of the project) there was awe, intrigue and respect. It could so easily have gone the other way. One of the exciting launches as part of the revival of the distillery is the Gemini release (more on this later.) This wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Iain ‘Pinky’ McArthur, a former distillery worker, who had the foresight to take a special cask with him when he left to work for Lagavulin when the Port Ellen doors closed over 40 years ago. Can you imagine telling Diageo you have a cask and then being welcomed into the process with open arms? This is why they get it so right; they understand the community. 

The distillery itself is like nothing I have witnessed before, they are truly pushing the boundaries of Scotch, just how remarkable can it get? The huge glass building with the two Phoenix stills on display is a work of art. I have never seen such transparency both literally and figuratively on a distillery tour. There is an entire side of the distillery devoted to experimentation and countless gadgets that Distillery Manager Alexander McDonald could have almost hugged with excitement on the tour. There is also a maltings on site, you can’t miss it, which is fairly unusual for a distillery. Currently the barley is imported from Kings Lynn before it undergoes the malting process above the magic properties of smoky peat. Port Ellen aim for 35ppm (parts per million) with their peat smoking of the grain. We can talk about ppm all day but smokiness is a bit of a mystery, it is neither here nor there when the whisky is this good because there is just so much depth. Another signature style of Port Ellen is the prolonged fermentation, a minimum of 98 hours and no longer than 130 hours. Why? Longer fermentations release more fruity notes. If you studied chemistry, think esters. A short fermentation on the other hand is likely to give you more of the primary notes such as nuttiness and baked croissant. It’s a matter of style. 

It definitely adds to the olfactory treat of visiting having a maltings on site. Port Ellen is a bit of a cult brand in Islay. There are now ten distilleries on the island which is a nice number for a speck of land with a population of around 3200. Islay is famous for smoke and Port Ellen, prior to closure had developed a much-adored signature style. It is up to Alexander to recreate this over 40 years on when the variables have very much changed. If anyone is up to the challenge I’d say Alexander has got it nailed. The process reminds me of a non-vintage Champagne. Each year throws such different conditions and yet a winemaker has to create another signature non-vintage of the brand at the most affordable level, it’s mad really. You must be able to relate. How many times have you done something and thought, I’m a genius, only for it to be slightly off centre, slightly less tasty, never quite the same on the next attempt. Experimentation is easy in comparison and some of the best discoveries are accidental. A wholesome reason perhaps that AI will never beat the human touch, there is so much beauty in error. This is what is ahead for Port Ellen, the art of creating something that lives up to the legacy and a determination to push the boundaries of Scotch through visionary experimentation. I feel enormously privileged to have already tried samples prior to going into wood so I think they’ve nailed it. Then again, I wasn’t privy/legal to have tried Port Ellen in its era, so I’ll let those palates be the judge. 

Whisky is not just a drink, it is an experience, a way of life and wherever you find yourself in Scotland, you won’t be far from a distillery. I would really recommend making your way over to Islay to see Port Ellen. It’s not like you have anything to lose because if you don’t like it, and I’ll bet you a dram that you do, you’re still on Islay. What I really loved about the experience is that they cater to everyone, whisky aficionados and the long-suffering partners that might not be as keen on the spirit. I don’t want to give too much away, but it truly is an experience for everyone and in the spirit of Land Rover; One Life. Live it.