Port Ellen distillery

Where to find Port Ellen

Port Ellen (Portellen) Scotch Whisky

Port Ellen  (Pronounced: Just like it's written)
Islay
5538'3.86"N, 611'45.41"W
Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bowmore
1825
Closed
Unknown
2 Wash stills, 2 Spirit stills
None; Port Ellen was closed
Diageo > DCL (since 1929)
Port Ellen Distillery, Islay, Scotland, UK
-
No
No
No
Below, on WhiskyFun and on the Malt Maniacs Monitor

Port Ellen location

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Port Ellen whisky Islay

Port Ellen distillery in the new millennium

2001 - The first of a series of annual official releases of Port Ellen appears on the market. So far, Diageo has released a fresh bottling every year, but as stocks diminish over time they won't be able to continue at some point. In the same year the two oldest independent bottlings of Port Ellen we know of are released; the Port Ellen 31yo 1969/2001 (42.9%, Douglas Laing OMC for Alambic Germany, 41 Bts.) and the Port Ellen 31yo 1969/2001 (40%, Silver Seal, First Bottling, 156 Bts.)
 
2005 - The malt maniacs enjoy their first "official" visit to the Port Ellen maltings and the lovely island of Islay.
Serge, Olivier, Davin and yours truly had the honour of assisting in the production of a batch of peated malted barley which was destined for one of the remaining distilleries in Scotland. Sadly, we don't know which one exactly...
 

Port Ellen distillery, Islay, Scotland

The ownership of the distillery saw a few more changes before it was
mothballed by DCL / John Dewar & Sons in 1929. No whisky was distilled
at Port Ellen for almost 40 year, although the maltings and warehouses
that belonged to the distillery remained in use throughout this period.

As far as many people are concerned, Port Ellen is one of the great lost
distilleries of Scotland. Port Ellen was founded in 1825 on the south shore
of Islay by A. K. Mackay & Co. The distillery is located just a few miles west
of Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig on the 'Kildalton' coast. Between 1825
and 1836 the distillery changed hands a few times, but after John Ramsay
acquired Port Ellen in 1836 it was run by him and his decendants until the
distillery was sold to the Port Ellen Distillery Co. in 1920.

Port Ellen distillery profileInteractive whisky distillery mapScotland - whisky distillery informationScotch whisky bottlersScotch malt whisky brandsNew distillery projects
Port Ellen Scotch malt whisky - official bottling

In 1966 the number of stills was expanded from two to four and Port Ellen started producing whisky again in April 1967. Their four stills were initially heated by mechanical coal stokers but later the distillery switched to steam heated coils. The Port Ellen distillery was closed again in May 1983 and not long afterwards the license to distill whisky was cancelled. However, the nearby drum maltings that were built in 1973 (and that started production in 1974) are still used by Diageo UDV - they supplied the malted barley for a few other distilleries that belong to the group, Lagavulin, Caol Ila and Port Ellen (until the distillery was closed in 1983). Later on Port Ellen started to produce malted barley for other distilleries on Islay as well.

In fact, the factory of malted barley can be visited during the annual 'Feis Ile' whisky festival on Islay. In 2005 a few fortunate maniacs had the chance to help with the production of a batch of malted barley at Port Ellen. It was interesting to 'have a look in the kitchen' where we learned that the various distilleries require different 'recipes' for their malt with different peating levels.

Port Ellen maltings

In 1974 the old fashioned floor maltings at
Port Ellen were replaced with a brand new
type of installation to malt and dry barley;
so-called drum maltings. These drums are
fully automated installations, not unlike
modern domestic washing machines.

Port Ellen 1976 by Signatory Vintage

Initially Port Ellen malted barley exclusively for SMD.
Scottish Malt Distillers (a predecessor of Diageo) owned three distilleries on Islay
in the early 1970's; Port Ellen, Caol Ila and Lagavulin. The management of SMD
felt that the traditional floor maltings of these distilleries couldn't produce enough
malted barley cheap enough anymore. By building one single (modern) maltings
facility, SMD would be able to supply all three distilleries' with the malted barley
they needed. With that in mind, the Port Ellen maltings facility was built in 1972.
This facility (including nine barley silos) was commissioned in 1973; the malting
drums are the largest in the UK. Because the Port Ellen maltings supplied its
malted barley to three Islay distilleries all malted barley was (heavily) peasted.
The peat that is used at the Port Ellen maltings is harvested from Castlehill
moss, which is located less than three miles from the Port Ellen distillery.

The Port Ellen maltings worked normally until the early 1980's when the
whisky industry experienced a significant decline in demand. Almost two
dozen distilleries (including Port Ellen) were closed in the year 1983 while
others (including Caol Ila and Lagavulin) reduced their production. Due to
the reduction in production it appeared doubtful whether or not the Port
Ellen maltings would be able to remain active at these relatively low levels
of production. Fortunately, some other distilleries on Islay and Jura agreed
to start using malted barley from the Port Ellen maltings. It took a while to
arrive at an 'gentleman's agreement'; the Concordat of Islay Distillers.
 
The local distilleries agreed to take at least a proportion of their malt from
the Port Ellen maltings. In the future the maltings had to produce malt to
the requirements of each individual customer. As a result, the Port Ellen
maltings produce not only high peated, direct fired malt these days. 

Trivia about Port Ellen

1) One of the requirements of the Excise Act of 1824 was that distillers had to install a spirit safe, which allowed the government to monitor the production of a distillery. At the time some distillers claimed that a spirit safe might have a negative effect on the quality of the spirit. They felt that experiments with a spirit safe should be carried out - and they selected Port Ellen distillery to hold these trials.

2) The aforementioned Concordat of Islay Distillers is not as important as it used to be in the 1980's (due to changes in distillery ownership and senior management), but demand for malted barley from Port Ellen remains high, especially from the Lagavulin and Caol Ila malt whisky distilleries.
 

Port Ellen single malt whisky

Port Ellen NAS 'Pe2' (59.5%, Speciality Drinks Ltd., Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Extremely polished; great combination of fruit and peat. Whiffs of smoke and meaty notes.
Taste: Sweet, salty, peaty and smoky. Brilliant tannins. Lots of staying power with tar and creosote. Lovely!
Score: 89 points - and I could sympathise with people that even thought this deserves a score in the 90's.

Port Ellen 27yo 1982/2010 (61,3%, Wilson & Morgan Barrel Selection, C# 2347, Rossi Import)
Nose: Surprisingly polished and fruity. More phenolic notes emerge after two or three minutes.
Taste: Sweet, fruity explosion with smoke emerging within a few seconds. Liquorice and tannins.
Score: 88 points - this whisky has extremely slow "legs" at cask strength. I love the medicinal traits.

Port Ellen 27yo 1982/2009 (58.6%, Signatory for LMdW, Collector's Edition 3rd release, Cask#1523, 229 Bts.)
Nose: Sweet, fruity and peaty. Pleasant, but it doesn't show a lot of definition. It needs some breathing.
Taste: Sweet, fruity and smoky - almost exactly like the nose. Well, it feels much hotter than I expected.
Fairly hot and dry in the relatively bitter finish too. Chewy tannins. The mouth feel of this whisky is just great.
Score: 86 points - certainly on par with most of the official 'annual releases', but not as collectible. Mind you, as far as most malt maniacs are concerned, NOT being collectible is often a good thing - it means more reasonable prices.

Port Ellen 25yo 1982/2008 (58.2%, Douglas of Drumlarig for Kingfisher, Sherry Butt)
Nose: Peaty, but there's a good dose of sweet fruits as well. Hint of old ashes in an ashtray.
Complexity in the back of the nose. Coffee beans. Whiff of dark toffee. The smoke grows stronger over time.
Taste: Peat right from the start. It grows stronger and stronger in the finish - but so does the fruity element.
Remains balanced. Meaty with some subtle mint in the background. Smoky, growing more medicinal over time.
Score: 91 points - an excellent Port Ellen malt whisky that warms the entire body...

Port Ellen 25yo 1982/2008 (59.3%, Signatory Vintage CS Collection, Refill Sherry Butt #2846, 234 Bts.)
Nose: Slightly oily for a second, before growing more medicinal. Needs at least ten minutes to open up.
Taste: Hot, sweet and smoky. Initially it grows much drier in the centre, but it sweetens out over time.
Score: 87 points - this whisky reaches an excellent balance after circa ten minutes, especially on the palate.

Port Ellen 29yo 1978/2008 '8th Release' (55.3%, OB, 6618 Bts.)
Nose: Starts off relatively restrained. Peat emerges after a few minutes. The pinnacle of Scottish whisky.
Taste: Sweetish and smoky. A little harsh initially, but it mellows out with more fruits and meaty notes.
Score: 85 points - highly recommendable, but people looking for 'bang for their buck' better look elsewhere.

Port Ellen 25yo 1979/2005 '5th Annual Release' (57.4%, OB, 5280 Bts.)
Nose: Loads of organics and a touch of liquorice. Something oily as well. Rubber after a minute.
Complexity and development. Then some 'veggy' notes. More candy and dust later on. Spices too.
Palate: Fantastic mouth feel at cask strength, with sweetness and liquorice in the start. Long, smoky centre.
Score: 88 points - although it keeps developing, so if I would have stuck with it, it might have gone to 89.

Port Ellen 22yo 1982/2004 (61.1%, Douglas Laing for PLOWED Society, Cask #740, 264 Bottles)
Nose: Wowie! Organics, pepper and loads of barnyard aroma's. Smoke. A sweeter undercurrent.
This whisky grows more serious over time. A fruity echo in the background.
Taste: Sweet, medicinal start. Very big and peaty in the centre, transforming into smoke in the dry finish.
Chewy with dry tannins. Hot. Hint of liquorice. Maybe just a tad too dry for my tastes.
Score: 93 points - Blammo! What a brilliant malt whisky! Especially the palate is simply magnificent.

Port Ellen 21yo 1982/2004 (50%, Douglas Laing OMC, DL 414, 420 bottles, Full sherry)
Nose: Hamana, Hamana, Howie! What a feast for the nose. A fruity sherry monster.
Lots of good wood as well. Balsamico vinegar. This is something really special. Unique.
Sour and very strange fruits. More organics over time. Soy sauce. Pipe tobacco? Icing?
And it gets even better with time! Arguably the most amazing nose so far. Stunning.
Taste: Sweeter and not as woody as I had expected. Amazing centre with more smoke.
Fruit and a little 'winey' as well. Unfortunately, the smoke grows just too strong eventually.
Score: 95 points - although it lost one or two points in the extremely smoky finish.

Port Ellen 23yo 1979/2003 (46%, Wilson & Morgan Barrel Selection, Butt #6769)
Nose: Heavy sherry! Fruity and woody notes. Cough syrup. Pipe tobacco. Fruit sweets. Soy Sauce. Mint?
Taste: Smoke & sherry. Cool & dry. Coffee. A little bit 'winey'. Fruity. Woody towards the finish.
Score: 94 points - one of the very best Port Ellen malt whiskies I've ever tried.

Port Ellen 24yo 1978/2002 '2nd Annual Release' (59,35%, OB, USA, 12000 Bts.)
Nose: Smooth and polished in the nose. Let's add some water... Hmmmm...
A very nice whisky and it feels like there's a lot going on beneath the surface.
Taste: Sweet and chewy on the palate. Peat as well. Great body, but not complex enough for a silver medal.
It did notably better during rounds 2 and 3, first climbing to 85 and then finally to 87 points.
Score: 87 points - a silver medal nominee it is...

Port Ellen 24yo 1978/2002 '2nd Annual Release' (54.3%, OB, 70cl)
Nose: Peaty and smoky. Ammoniac and other horse stable aroma's. Austere like an Ardbeg from the early 70's.
Taste: Softly medicinal with a salty burn later on. Lemon and other fruity elements as well. Surprisingly subtle.
Score: 84 points - I personally preferred the American version (bottled at 59,35%) by a few points.

Port Ellen 22yo 1978/2000 (60.5%, UD Rare Malts, Code L15N03802610, Bottle #2204, 70cl)
Nose: Powerful start, becoming very complex. Organic. Salted peanuts. Fresh peat. Farmy ammoniak. Rubber?
Taste: Undiluted it's very sweet. With water more transparant. Wood & a pinch of peat in the long sweet finish.
Score: 93 points - a bottle of whisky that will probably become very collectible in the future. 
 

And there's more to tell about Port Ellen...

These were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Port Ellen Scotch whisky I've tried over the years.
Besides, these tasting notes only reflect my own, personal opinion; your tastes might be different from mine.
Fortunately, you can find the scores and tasting notes from up to two dozen other whisky lovers in the 'Malt Maniacs Monitor' - an independent whisky database with details on more than 15,000 different whiskies from Scotland and the rest of the world. Visit the Port Ellen page on the MMMonitor and select 'scorecard view' if you want to know how other whisky lovers felt about the dozens of Port Ellen expressions that were released in recent years. However, if you'd like to learn more about whisky in general (and single malt Scotch whisky in particular), you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky (10 chapters filled with everything you need to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky) or the mAlmanac (sort of a rudimentary whisky shopping guide.) 
 

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