Silent Distillery Profile; Port Ellen – Scotch Whisky History

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Silent Distillery Profile; Port Ellen 

by Lawrence Graham

Operational: 1825 silent from 1929-67 but bonded warehouses and maltings continued to operate.

Closed: In May 1983. License returned in 1992.

Region: Islay, south shore.

Operational Owner: 17th December, 1997 United Distillers & Vintners Ltd, Diageo Plc.

Current Owner: Diageo Plc.

Address: Port Ellen, Isle of Islay, Argyll & Bute, PA42 7AH[1] 

Port Ellen. If there is one distillery that evokes strong emotions in the heart of the enthusiast it must be Port Ellen. As bottlings, official and unofficial become scarcer the angst only grows. Can’t they simply rebuild it? Possible but tragically, unlikely. This south shore of Islay distillery was originally founded by Alexander Ker Mackay with the support of the owner of Islay, Walter Frederick Campbell, M.P. of Shawfield & Islay. One source indicates that Port Ellen was actually a malt mill built in 1825 by Alexander Ker Mackay and was only converted to a distillery a few years later.[2]  Most other sources give the date of 1825 for the actual building of the distillery but this appears to be incorrect. 

The distillery’s original name was Leodamus “Leods Moss” but was renamed after Lady Eleanor/Ellinor Campbell, Port of Lady Eleanor/Ellinor, the wife of Walter Frederick Campbell.[3] The water source was the Leorin Lochs just to the north of the distillery. 

When distilling became the main focus of Port Ellen the legal rights can only be described as convoluted; Mackay held the ground lease for the distillery, the building lease was held by Major James Adair of Dumfries and Glasgow, who sublet to John Morrison and associates, George MacLennan and Patrick Thomson. Despite the convoluted arrangement Mackay appears to have been in charge. [4]  

Some time in the early 1830’s John Ramsay, who was to have such a positive impact on Port Ellen for the next 60 years, entered the scene. Over time Ramsay was to have extensive business dealings with Walter Frederick Campbell, the local laird. 

Ramsay expanded the distillery by adding a second duty free warehouse in 1839 due to increased business. In period of 1841 to 1843 Port Ellen worked a Stein patent still with malt only.[5]  In 1840 the holder of the building lease, Major James Adair died and this left Ramsay in a precarious position since he badly needed the building leases to continue operating the distillery. The distillery and buildings went up for public auction and a high bid from Glasgow was received but the local laird, Walter Frederick Campbell exercised his right of pre-emption and matched the bid from Glasgow thus securing the distillery. Ramsay was only 25 years old. In 1844 Queen Victoria was purchasing Port Ellen for Her Majesty’s Cellar and Walter Frederick Campbell encouraged Ramsay to take advantage of this. A large part of this success was the direct export from Islay to North America.  During this period Ramsay had extensive agricultural and business interests on the island and in addition was a Member of Parliament.  At one point through inheritance and business dealings Ramsay became the landlord of Ardbeg, Ardenistiel, Laphroaig and Lagavulin distilleries. Ramsay died in 1892 at age 77 and the distillery, through his estate, passed onto his wife and then his son Iain. At the end of the Great War Iain found that his business faced with a lack of capital, the effects of the war and dwindling markets in the USA due to the introduction of prohibition. In 1920 the distillery became the property of W P Lowrie and John Dewar & Sons (in the same deal involving Buchanan-Dewar Ltd Lochruan Distillery, Campbeltown and Port Ellen were merged into the same company). In 1930 the distillery was transferred to the Scottish Malt Distillers and finally the Distillers Company.[6] As Neil Wilson comments in his book The Island Whisky Trail “At the time (1930) there was enough whisky warehoused in Port Ellen to last 40 years, and the more cynical observers will remind you that it was fully 37 years before the distillery came on stream again.” 

In the 1930’s the Distillers Company owned five Islay distilleries, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Lochindaal, Malt Mill and Port Ellen. 

In the mid 1880’s Alfred Barnard visited Port Ellen, tape measure and letter of introduction at hand, and was conducted around the ‘works’ by the distiller, the manager being absent. He commented that the beach in front of the distillery was perfect for bathing and be ‘much appreciated and visited if there were some lodging houses or cottages available, and the place were nearer to Glasgow’. In particular Barnard took special note of three spacious barley lofts, three maltings floors (with steeps), two kilns with wire cloth floors, the Malt Store, the Mill Room containing a pair of malt rollers, the Mash Tun, a Wash Charger and heating tanks etc, etc. 

From there he moved onto the Tun Room which contained seven Fermenting backs and in the Still Room, two old Pot Stills with there also being present two receivers. 

Further he described Port Ellen as having six handsome warehouses containing 3,700 cask or 240,000 gallons of whisky of different ages and stated that Port Ellen had a capacity of producing 140,000 gallons of Islay Malt per year. Barnard made further note of the peats; that only the peats cut locally were used in the drying process and that the water derived from two lochs, one for distilling noted for ‘its clearness and purity’ and the other for driving machinery. The distillery also had it’s own cooperage and Seasoning House for casks, a fine Spirit Store and one of Morton’s Refrigerators (for cooling the wort). 

In 1966 & 7 the distillery was reopened and the number of stills was extended from two to four. The extensive re-build of the distillery involved improvements to the malt barns, steeps and kilns plus other improvements costing £400,000. 

Despite this investment in producing malt in 1973 the Port Ellen Maltings were completed. In May 1983 trucks ceased to deliver malt from next door to the distillery when SMD (Distillers Company) closed Port Ellen forever. 

Shame on them. 

In 1992 the license was returned to the Excise.


[1] The Scottish Whisky Distilleries by Misako Udo

[2] The Island Whisky Trail by Neil Wilson & The Scotch Whisky Industry Record by H Charles Craig.

[3] The Scottish Whisky Distilleries by Misako Udo

[4] The Island Whisky Trail by Neil Wilson

[5] The Scotch Whisky Industry Record by H Charles Craig. 

[6] The Island Whisky Trail by Neil Wilson

This article was originally published on the Malt Maniacs and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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