In terms of history and their flavor, Islay whiskies are in a class of their own. The island, the most southerly of the Inner Hebrides, was the sanctuary of the famed Lords of the Isles and because of its proximity to Ireland, had long historic links with it. Isla and Kintyre are the bridges across which the secrets of distilling and whisky-making made their way from Ireland to Scotland centuries ago.
Like the whiskies of Campbeltown, Islay malt are – with one possible exception – the most peaty and strong-flavoured in the world. Drinkers either love them or loathe them. Blenders cherish them because even in small quantities they can add such new taste dimensions to a blend. Virtually all Islay malts are or were marketed as single malts, exept Port Ellen. Although it distilled a good, robust peaty Islay whisky, virtually its entire output went to the blenders. Only since its closure by DCL in 1983 has Port Ellen started to come on to the market as a single malt from specialist bottlers. Though not as idiosyncratic as its neighbors Ardbeg, Laphroaig or Lagavulin, Port Ellen is very drinkable, as well as being in increasingly short supply.
The distillery has a small niche in history. Shortly after it opened in 1824, it was used to test the newly – invented spirit safe another invention of Aenas Coffey – and ascertain that it would not harm the product. As we well know, it did not.
The distillery was built near Port Ellen, then virtually a hamlet, by Alexander Kerr Mackay. He went bankrupt within months and the new distillery passed through the hands of several other family members who had little more success. However, in the early 1830s another family member, John Ramsay, took the reins, won the confidence of the Laird of Islay, was granted a lease on the distillery in 1836 – and never looked back.
Ramsay, formerly a Glasgow wine and sherry importer, had the magic touch and was a true entrepreneur. He pioneered the Scotch export trade to US, Started the first regular passenger-and-cargo steamship sailing between Glasgow and Islay and was still at the distillery helm when Barnard called 50 years later. Ramsay went into politics, chaired the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and was MP for Stirling in 1868 and for Falkirk from 1874-86.
The growth of Port Ellen and the other Southerly distilleries of Islay transformed Port Ellen into the island’s main harbour, displacing Bowmore. A pier was built in 1826 and, thanks to John Ramsay, it was improved and extended in 1881. Ramsay became a very powerful man on Islay, owning great stretches of land, building many houses and miles of drystone
dyke and greatly improving the island’s agriculture.
Alas, he has not Port Ellen the day Barnard called. The latter portrayed the distillery as unspectacular, with tree barley lofts, steeps and malting floors, plus two large kilns fuelled with abundant local peat. The malt was crushed by a pair of large rollers and fell into a 14ft diameter mash turn. The worts were cooled by a Morton’s refrigerator and pumped to one of seven washbacks holding 7,000 gallons each. The still house had two pot stills, of 3,500 and 2,100 gallons respectively. After casking, the new spirit was rolled to one of six warehouses holding 3,700 casks in all, or about a quater of a million gallons. Annual output was 140,000 gallons. All process and mashing water was drawn from island’s Leorin Lochs.
After Ramsay’s death in 1892, the distillery passed to his window Lucy and, after her death in 1906, to their son, Capt Iain Ramsay of Kildalton (1875-1959), a noted ornithologist and expert on the birds of Islay. He inherited the distillery just before the start of the industry’s great downturn and, beset by the tax rises and distilling restrictions of World War I, he sold the distillery assets to the Port Ellen Distillery Co Ltd in 1920.
The company, owned by firms of John Dewar and James Buchanan, was absorbed along with both firm by DCL in 1925 and the distillery joined the vast ranks of mothballed distilleries in 1930. In that year, all DCL’s malt distilleries were transferred to their new subsidiary, Scottish Malt Distillers. Under SMD, Port Ellen stay silent until 1967 – though the maltings and the warehouses stayed in use – when it restarted distilling after 18-month rebuilding programme. Four new mechanically-stocked coal-fired stills were installed within the original still houses , though that the system was displaced by steam coils heated by oil in 1970. Three years later, vast new drum malting were installed with seven drums holding 48 tonnes each. The malt was then dried in three vast kilns fired by both oil and peat over 36 hours, twice the mainland time, to impart the unique strong peaty aroma to the malt – and the spirit – that is the hallmark of Islay whiskies. Port Ellen still is the main supplier of malt to the island’s distilleries, with malting barley brought by boat regular to Port Ellen pier.
After the heady years of postwar expansion came the sales dip of 1978 onwards.
For more than a decade, it looked as if distilling just might restart there but, although malting and warehousing will doubtless continue there indefinitely, Port Ellen is now beyond doubt a lost distillery.