"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Port Ellen Distillery, Islay

After visiting Laphroaig, and clearly not having had enough of the sea breeze there, Barnard’s party travelled to Port Ellen and took a walk along the shore “to get a breath of the sea”.  He describes “delightful bathing sands, which would be much appreciated and visited if there were some lodging houses…and the place were nearer Glasgow”!  This idyllic bay is fine just as it is and I imagine it is well used in the summer.  It now plays host to an annual beach rugby festival which is hotly contested between teams from the distilleries and further afield.

Port Ellen beach with grain silo and ferry beyond
Barnard also mentions the [Carraig Fhada] lighthouse on the opposite side of the bay from the town and distillery.  I didn’t manage to get round close enough for a good photo but unusually for a lighthouse it is built as a square tower, erected in 1832 by the Laird of Islay, WF Campbell, in memory of his first wife Lady Ellinor, after whom the town is named.

Port Ellen Distillery was founded in 1825 and was the first to trial the use of a spirit safe to help meet the new Excise requirements.  These trials took place in 1824 and proved that a spirit safe was not detrimental to the quality of the whisky produced, leading also to the formal distillery being established here.  The distillery under manager John Ramsay was also the first to directly export Scotch to North America in the mid 1800s so it was pioneering in a number of ways.

Port Ellen warehouses and maltings
The distillery was about half a mile from the “village” when Barnard visited, the northern extension of today’s town now reaching out towards it.  Barnard mentions having letters of introduction to the manager although he was absent when they called.  Letters of introduction were a common practice in Victorian times and Barnard’s venture has obviously been well received at previous locations.  As the distillery is now closed and operating only as an industrial malting I contacted current owners Diageo to try to arrange a visit.  Unfortunately, in an echo of Barnard’s experience, the local manager was unavailable and I had to settle for a wander around the perimeter.

Barnard was instead given a tour by the distiller and here he returns to his detailed recording of room sizes and vessel volumes after his break from this at Laphroaig.  There is nothing of particular note in his records, although he does record two kilns and two Pot Stills, 3,500 and 2,100 gallons (15,900 and 9,500 litres).  There are still two pagoda kiln buildings in the complex (increased to three at one time), which stand in stark and silent relief against the monumental steel edifice of the new maltings, slender chimneys towering above the angular pagoda roofs of old.

Port Ellen kilns and maltings and a bank of peat
Barnard recorded “six handsome warehouses… in a line with the distillery” and I counted at least ten in a line now, plus newer warehouses on the shore side complete with obligatory distillery name in bold letters.  These hallowed halls guard the nectar from the final years of distilling at this revered distillery, along side maturing casks from other Islay distilleries.  Barnard also mentions a “Cooperage and Seasoning House for casks”, the first time he has mentioned seasoning on his journey although he doesn’t elaborate on the practice.

Port Ellen warehouses
The water came from the twin Leorin Lochs in the hills north of the village and “was noted in the locality for its clearness and purity”, so the translation of Leorin from Gaelic as ‘muddy field’ seems not to apply.  The 19th century maps from NLS show a clearly marked ‘Distillery Burn’ running from a weir on the Leorin River and it still runs today to supply the sluice beside the maltings. 

Port Ellen weathered through most of the 1920s downturn but as part of Distillers Company Limited (DCL) from 1925 it eventually succumbed and was mothballed in 1929.  The maltings and warehouses continued to be in use and then in 1966 two large additional stills were installed and production restarted.  In a shape of things to come the first large malting drums were installed in 1973 and the distillery seemed then to have a new lease of life.

Production peaked at 800,000 litres p.a. but sadly was not to last.  The 1980s downturn hit hard and with Lagavulin and Caol Ila also in the DCL portfolio Port Ellen closed for the last time in 1983.  All the distilling equipment is said to be dismantled and removed and the still house was demolished in 2003 along with other buildings to make way for the extended malting operations.  By 2005 there were 7 huge drums malting 46 tonnes each.  They now supply malt to most of Islay’s distilleries and also to Jura.

Occasional small scale and single cask releases from independent bottlers help to keep the memory of the spirit alive.  The few that I have tried, mainly thanks to Douglas Laing & Co, have been exceptional.  Comparing a 1983 23yo and a 1982 26yo side by side has been one of the highlights of my whisky tasting to date.  Some wonderful 27yo from the last year of production is now available from various bottlers and not surprisingly they attract premium prices and the attention of collectors.

Port Ellen is not mentioned in Townsend’s 1993 book on closed distilleries Scotch Missed - perhaps there was still hope of reopening the distillery at that time? - but he does mention that there were 11 DCL closures in 1983 so it was not alone as the 1980s downturn took its toll on the industry.  Townsend only mentions one closed Islay distillery, Lochindaal, and of the nine visited by Barnard only the two have since closed, Port Ellen being the last to go, and now when Islay production is generally increasing there is hope that it may remain that way.

Port Ellen welcome
Port Ellen itself is a quiet town, regardless of the main Islay ferry terminal and the malting activity.  Whitewashed buildings and sailing boats add to the gentle maritime ambiance, curved round two bays and sheltered from the brutal elements of the North Channel by the headland called The Ard and the jagged rocks that stretch out to narrow the shipping channel.  As a gateway to Islay this is a peaceful place to begin adjusting your hectic life to the more relaxed island ways, and as Iain Banks points out in Raw Spirit - to be welcomed by a road sign made up entirely of distillery names is a good omen of things to come.