In these days of booming whisky sales worldwide and distilleries ever expanding to keep up with demand, it is hard to believe not so long ago whisky was in decline – a decline that claimed the Port Ellen distillery as victim.
The Port Ellen distillery on Islay’s south coast was founded in 1824 by Alexander Mackay on the site of a former malt mill known for supplying a number of Islay’s illicit distilleries. Following on from a rocky start, ownership of the distiller passed into the hands of John Ramsay, an industrious Victorian entrepreneur. The Mackay family remained owners of Port Ellen until 1920 before it passed hands again to whisky giant DCL who ran it for ten years before ceasing production a decade later as a result of the Great Depression.
Production resumed in 1967, an era when blended whisky was king and single malt, the preserve of enthusiasts and eccentrics. The distinctive smokey, maritime influenced single malt produced by Port Ellen lent character to a number of leading blended whiskies of the day, and gained a strong following amongst single malt drinkers. This success lead to an expansion of the distillery in 1973 with the construction of a vast new drum malting intended to supply malt for Port as well as DCL stable mates Caol Ila and Lagavulin. Things however took a turn for the worst in the 1980s with production vastly outstripping demand and forcing the distillery once again to close its doors.
With the growth in demand for single malts starting the 1990s, interest started to grow in Port Ellen again. In 1998 Diageo, successor to DCL, released a 21 year old Port Ellen commemorating the distillery’s closure. The success of this released spurred Diageo to commence a series of annual Port Ellen releases in 2001.
The year 2016 saw the release of the critically acclaimed Port Ellen 1978, a 37 year old single malt, the oldest Port Ellen ever released. Only 2940 individually number bottles were released worldwide, with many quickly snapped up by informed whisky collectors. The following year Diageo announced plans to re-open Port Ellen distillery, with production likely to start in 2020.
Villeneuve Wines have been lucky enough to get our hands on a number of bottles of Port Ellen 1978, however as these bottles are much sought after, are unlikely to stay with us for long, so snap one whilst you still can.