Another New Islay Distillery
My former colleagues on Islay and whisky enthusiasts around the globe are in for an exciting period in the next few years as the continuing boom in sales of single malt whisky and soaring interest in the whisky category has led to Diageo announcing that Port Ellen Distillery on Islay and Brora Distillery in Sutherland are both to reopen in 2020.
Port Ellen Distillery
Both Port Ellen and Brora were forced to close down in 1983 when whisky found itself out of favour and sales plummeted. Port Ellen has operated as a commercial maltings ever since malting 550 tonnes of barley every week to chiefly supply Caol Ila, Lagavulin but also smaller amounts for competitor distilleries on Islay.
Port Ellen Single Malt Whisky
Port Ellen and Brora single malts have regularly featured in the Diageo annual special releases and command very high retail prices running in to thousands of pounds. Collectors and enthusiasts will be delighted that these iconic distilleries and brands are being brought back to life, albeit on a small scale. Diageo have hinted that the distilleries will produce on a small scale, probably around 800,000 ltrs of alcohol per year between the two new sites, with meticulous attention to detail in an effort to closely replicate the style of the old distillates. Brora and Port Ellen will be the smallest distilleries in the Diageo portfolio of 30 whisky producing sites.
The New Port Ellen Distillery
The new Port Ellen Distillery will be housed in a new building alongside the existing Port Ellen Maltings, presumably making use of some of the empty original distillery buildings in Kiln Square. Diageo will have given much thought to water sources, the old distillery used two lochs, one of which will now be supplying the maltings with steeping water, perhaps the other will supply the new distillery. In any case permission and consents will have been sought with SEPA, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, to abstract enough water for mashing, cooling and cleaning purposes. The old water holding reservoir is still visible behind the houses at Bay View in Port Ellen, this will no doubt be put to use again once the distillery is open.
The malted barley won’t have to travel far of course, it will either come directly from the maltings next door, or, like many other new craft distilleries, the owners may decide to install their own floor maltings, particularly as the site will have huge visitor numbers who would enjoy seeing the traditional method of malting. The peat will be exclusively from Islay as you would expect. In order to produce 400,000 ltrs of alcohol per year, the new distillery will require around 1000 tonnes of malted barley each year, this equates to around 20 tonnes per week if you take in to account likely down time in silent season. 20 tonnes of malted barley doesn’t sound a lot but when you consider that when Caol Ila is running at full pelt it requires 350 tonnes per week and Lagavulin uses around 122 tonnes per week, this doesn’t leave a lot of surplus for the competitor sites, just 78 tonnes in fact. 20 tonnes for the new distillery could potentially mean a reduction of 25% of surplus malt for the other distilling sites which is a huge difference so I would imagine that plans are in place for either extra malting capacity at the existing maltings or a traditional kiln and malting floor to be installed at the new distillery. We’ll have to wait and see!
Given the small production figures, I would have thought it likely that the new distillery will only have one wash and one spirit still, the old distillery had a wash still with around 16000 ltr capacity and a spirit still with around 9500 ltrs capacity so it will be interesting to see if the new stills are of similar sizes. Diageo will without doubt be keen to ensure that the stills replicate in shape the original stills at Port Ellen so as to create a very similar spirit.
The warehouses from the old Port Ellen distillery still stand, and most must now be nearly empty as the old stocks are depleted and now that warehousing space is no longer being let out to competitor distillers such as Kilchoman. It will be great to see these old traditional dunnage warehouses filling up again with casks full of Port Ellen spirit. Sitting right on the sea shore, these warehouses will make the perfect place to once again mature Port Ellen single malt whisky.
Port Ellen will also have a new Brand Home, a visitor centre where enthusiasts from around the world will be able to enjoy tours and tastings. I have to say that I’m quite envious of my former colleagues who will see the iconic Port Ellen Distillery come back to life bringing the number of distilleries on Islay to 10.
There will be people who challenge what Diageo are doing, there will be sceptics who say the spirit doesn’t resemble the old Port Ellen style, indeed someone left me a comment to say that Port Ellen isn’t reopening, it wasn’t mothballed, it was completely closed, but in answer to this I would say, would we rather not have a new Port Ellen Distillery, are we not excited about the single malt whisky being made on this historic site? Yes the equipment will be new, the mill, the mash tun and the stills but if anyone can come close to replicating the old spirit profile it is Diageo. They have an exceptional wealth of talent at their disposal, both within Diageo Malt Distilling and within the team on Islay. They have employees and contractors who remember the old distillery, who visited it frequently, who had brothers, fathers and grand fathers who worked in the old distillery. Above all they have an abundance of distilling experience and this will ensure that the spirit is as close to the old Port Ellen spirit style as possible. At the very least the opening of the new distillery will mean a dozen new jobs in all probability which will be great for the economy of the island.
This is great news for the whisky industry, brilliant news for Islay but also fantastic news for our guests on our Guided Islay Distillery Experiences which we arrange regularly as they’ll get to visit Port Ellen Distillery!
Visit Islay and Port Ellen With Distilled Events!
Click here for more information about our Guided Islay Distillery Experiences. We are taking bookings for a week long guided tour of Islay and her distilleries commencing on Saturday 24th March 2018.
We will also have accommodation available in a large luxury house for upto 10 guests during Feis Ile – Islay Whisky Festival 2018. Please contact us here if you would like more information.
Slainte and happy drams!
All pictures courtesy of Joe Scrivens of One Little Daisy Photography