There are few bigger highs for a whisky lover than flying into Islay on a clear day and looking down at the rugged coastline, studded with whitewashed distilleries marked with their names in huge black letters: Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Port Ellen. It’s a view that can’t have changed much in nearly 100 years, but from this month it will look a little different – because Port Ellen, which has lain silent since 1983, has now been resurrected.

Port Ellen is perhaps the most feted of all the “ghost distilleries”, a term used to describe the cohort of producers who closed in the 1980s and 1990s owing to a slump in the market. Its superannuated (and fast-dwindling) stocks are now much sought after by whisky collectors. The cheapest bottle of Port Ellen today goes for around £850, rising to 10 or even 100 times that for its rarest editions.

Founded on the shores of Islay in 1825, Port Ellen is notable for several industry “firsts”, including being the first Scotch whisky distillery to export to North America. Its peaty profile has fluctuated over the years (a quirk that makes it catnip for collectors), but the signature notes are an ashy smoke and a robust fruitiness that get more complex and interesting as it matures.

The two “Phoenix” copper pot stills
The two “Phoenix” copper pot stills © Diageo

Resurrecting the distillery has been a big undertaking. Its owner Diageo has invested more than six years and many millions into the rebuild (the only figure Diageo will share is the £35mn combined cost of resurrecting Port Ellen and Brora it announced back in 2017). Its new waterfront home is an ambitious fusion of tradition and innovation: part cutting-edge distillery, part whisky destination that’s open to visitors.

Those paying for the top-whack by-appointment Atlas of Smoke Experience (POA) enter through a hallway lit by the glow of a vast amber Perspex sphere. A sculptural spiral staircase leads up to a lounge with exhilarating views across the Sound of Islay – on a good day you can see all the way to Ireland. (The lounge also overlooks the small coastal road that runs into the town of Port Ellen – the occasional passing lorry serving as a pertinent reminder that this is a working distillery and not just a museum.) In place of the usual copper and tartan knick-knacks are contemporary artworks inspired by the island.

The Whisky Orb by Scott Associates Sculpture and Design, one of the contemporary art installations in the new distillery
The Whisky Orb by Scott Associates Sculpture and Design, one of the contemporary art installations in the new distillery © Diageo

The real focal point, though, is the gleaming still room visible across the courtyard – a cathedral of glass housing four towering copper pot stills. The larger pair – called Phoenix – are exact replicas of the original stills and make Port Ellen in the traditional style; the smaller pair are for making more experimental whisky. Master distiller Alexander McDonald can tinker with variables including the amount of copper contact, the grain size and type and levels of peat – and tease out the resulting new-make (unaged spirit) in ever-finer increments. “We have put a lot of work into recreating that classic Port Ellen spirit,” says McDonald, “but we also want to do things people haven’t done before. Port Ellen distillers were so innovative in the past – we too want to be trailblazers.”

Scotch whisky must legally be aged for at least three years – so it will be a while before any new Port Ellen is released. To mark the relaunch, though, they’ve delved into remaining old stocks to create Port Ellen Gemini, a limited-edition duo of 44-year-old curiosities, which have the distinction of being the oldest whiskies ever released directly from the distillery. Some 274 of these sets have been created and they retail for £45,000 apiece – a tasting of both is also included in the Atlas of Smoke experience.

One of the 274 limited-edition, 44-year-old Port Ellen Gemini sets that have been created, £45,000
One of the 274 limited-edition, 44-year-old Port Ellen Gemini sets that have been created, £45,000 © Diageo
Bottles of whisky lined up in the private client dining room
Bottles of whisky lined up in the private client dining room © Diageo

Very little of the original Port Ellen stock remains on Islay – most of it was sent (like the majority of Islay malt) to age on the Scottish mainland. On the morning I arrive, McDonald has just been reunited with a cask that’s been over the water since 1979. “It’s a lump-in-the-throat moment,” says McDonald. “It’s like the whisky is coming home.”

Five more ghost distilleries to know

Brora, Scotland

This storied Highland distillery was revived in 2021 after a silence of 38 years – it’s adored by whisky lovers for its mercurial smoke and fragrant, fruity waxiness.

Rosebank, Scotland

The much sought-after malts from this Lowland distillery combine elegance and power. Having been silent since 1993, it restarted production in July last year.

Karuizawa, Japan

This Japanese distillery’s heavily sherried, broad-shouldered malts are some of the most valuable in the world – it closed in 2001 and has never been revived. 

Hanyu, Japan

This defunct distillery found new fame in the guise of the Ichiro’s Malt Card series – a range of eye-catching malts that never fails to create a frenzy at auction.

Littlemill, Scotland

Dating from 1772, this Lowland distillery was one of the oldest in Scotland – it had highs and lows but was shuttered for good in 1994.

He hands me a long copper valinch and invites me to draw the very first dram. We taste in silence, our whisky-strong breath making clouds in the chilly warehouse air. As the robust smokiness softens I start to notice notes of pineapple (tropical notes are a hallmark of old Port Ellen), blackcurrant jelly and cloves. The finish has a savoury tang – oyster shell and salty sea air. VIP visitors will also get to sample this “dramming” cask. 

The Port Ellen Distillery on Port Ellen Bay, Islay
The Port Ellen Distillery on Port Ellen Bay, Islay © Diageo

The unapologetically luxe nature of the Port Ellen experience has led to accusations of pricing out the grassroots fans. The distillery has pledged to host events for everyone, including the local community, and a free “open house” at least once a month – tickets for this can be booked in advance. The cheapest tour, aside from that, is £200 per person.

It’s a busy time for the town of Port Ellen. Just up the road the vast Portintruan distillery is slowly taking shape. The landmark Islay Hotel is also being revamped by its new owner LVMH – it will relaunch in early 2025. The town also has a burgeoning rum scene, spearheaded by the Islay Rum Distillery, which makes excellent white rum, using imported molasses, in the shadow of Port Ellen. Portintruan, too, will be making rum as well as whisky; there are also plans for a rum distillery in Laggan Bay, opposite Islay airport. Things are changing fast – high time you booked that flight.


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