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Revival of Scotland’s Dormant Whisky Distilleries: A Resurgence of ‘Ghost’ Spirits

Everything you need to understand about whiskey and its intrinsic connection to Scottish identity can be discovered in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Drams.”

“Barley, water, peat, climate, scenery, history; Malted. Consumed neat.”

The lines of the UK’s former poet laureate resonate in the Scandi-inspired lounge of the revitalized Port Ellen distillery on the Isle of Islay, where guests are initially greeted with a serving of pine-smoked Lapsang tea from the Wuyi Mountains in China.

This unexpected choice of beverage in a modern distilling temple on a Hebridean island serves a purpose: it primes the palate for the indulgence of sampling exquisitely crafted, luxurious, and aromatic single malt whiskies.

The immersive visitor experience at Port Ellen promises a deep exploration of the smokier side of whiskey, reminiscent of the sensory journey depicted in Duffy’s “Drams.”

“The aromatic notes – marsh myrtle, licorice, dried grass, rose essence.”


“The essence of location, marine aroma on peaty breeze, heather kissed by rain.”

‘Whiskey loch’

Port Ellen is the 10th whisky distillery on Islay, which is now a magnet for

Port Ellen, under the ownership of global beverage conglomerate Diageo, ceased operations in 1983 due to a combination of worldwide economic downturn and excess production leading to an oversupply of Scotch whiskey known as the “whiskey loch.”

Today, it joins the ranks of formerly dormant “ghost” distilleries that have been meticulously refurbished to cater to the surging demand for single malt whiskeys, a trend that has recently shown signs of plateauing.

During its forty-year hiatus, Port Ellen garnered a devoted following among whiskey enthusiasts who appreciated the unique qualities imparted by aging the spirit in predominantly older, well-seasoned “refill” casks at unusually high strengths.

Roy Duff, the editor of , an independent whiskey review platform and podcast, reflects on this phenomenon: “Independent bottlers and passionate aficionados played a pivotal role in cultivating a dedicated following for these exceptional whiskeys that, more often than not, were truly exceptional. The alchemy occurred when the whiskey was left undisturbed in the less active refill casks, allowing the spirit to flourish. The extended maturation in the Scottish climate only enhanced its quality.”

With a rich heritage dating back to its establishment in 1825 and its picturesque seaside setting on Islay, a revered destination for whiskey enthusiasts globally, Port Ellen stands as a celebrated member of the whiskey industry’s ghost distillery revival.

Other distilleries that have resurfaced from dormancy include the Highland-based Brora, also under Diageo’s umbrella, and Rosebank, situated near Falkirk in Scotland’s central region.

The resurrection of these distilleries symbolizes the lucrative rewards awaiting those who revive these dormant spirits. However, this endeavor demands substantial financial investment. Port Ellen’s revival, initially announced in 2017, faced delays of over three years due to various challenges including the impact of Covid-19, post-Brexit supply chain disruptions, and transportation constraints.

Despite these obstacles, the distillery, blending traditional and contemporary architectural elements adorned with whiskey-themed artwork, is now operational as Islay’s tenth active distillery. By 2030, the island could host up to 14 distilleries, a remarkable concentration considering its modest size and population.

Duffy’s evocative descriptions of the seaside ambiance and peaty air find resonance on the balcony overlooking Kilnaughton Bay from the first-floor visitors lounge, nestled amidst the remnants of the old distillery’s pagodas and whitewashed warehouses.

Alchemical atmosphere

The distillery has adorned some of its newly opened spaces with contemporary artworks.

Across the courtyard, the newly constructed still room resembles a sprawling industrial greenhouse housing four gleaming copper stills akin to exotic botanicals. Two towering “Phoenix” stills, faithful replicas of the originals that defined Port Ellen’s legacy, take center stage, complemented by a smaller pair dedicated to experimental whiskey production.

In the backdrop, the Maltings, a Diageo-owned facility supplying custom malted barley to Port Ellen and neighboring distilleries, releases intermittent plumes of gray smoke, infusing the air with the essence of a peat-fired brewery.

On days when dolphins or Caledonian MacBrayne ferries are absent from the bay, the gaze drifts towards the Antrim hills in Northern Ireland and the Mull of Kintyre on the Scottish mainland. In clear weather, these landforms loom large on the horizon, evoking visions of Viking longboats navigating the waters as they once did.

Returning indoors, the tea service offers further inspiration. Guests, having savored Hijiri Hojicha, a roasted green tea with imperial court origins in Japan, to refine their palates for hay-like nuances, may discern similar aromas in the experimental spirit samples freshly distilled under the guidance of Master Distiller Alexander McDonald.

The stark contrasts between consecutive batches of newly distilled spirit, separated by as little as thirty minutes, provide insights into the distillery’s future trajectory as a hub of innovation, particularly in the management of peat smoke throughout the distillation process.

McDonald’s agenda includes over a thousand experiments exploring variables such as peat intensity, copper interaction, and even the design of the stills. The presence of an on-site laboratory and a hands-on whiskey crafting area adds to the distillery’s alchemical allure.

Innovation has been integral to the distillery’s legacy, notably as one of the pioneering Scottish distilleries to export to North America, and this tradition of pushing boundaries continues.

“It’s crucial for us to preserve the beloved classic Port Ellen essence while venturing into uncharted territories,” remarks McDonald. “Relying solely on past practices is insufficient for me.”

Peat and fruit

Alexander McDonald, Port Ellen’s master distiller, says innovation will be key to the brand’s success.

A glimpse into the past unfolds within the musky confines of warehouse number two, where a dram drawn from a cask filled in 1979 embodies the quintessential Port Ellen flavor profile — a harmonious interplay of peat and fruit against a backdrop of brine. Subsequent sips reveal hints of clove rock, a traditional hard candy.

Port Ellen aims to allure discerning whiskey enthusiasts with the exclusive Atlas of Smoke Experience, available by appointment only.

Tailored for groups of up to eight individuals, this premium experience, rumored to cost around £900 ($1,120), encompasses a locally sourced meal and a tasting session featuring Port Ellen Gemini, a duo of 44-year-old Port Ellen expressions aged in distinct casks, each with its own narrative to share with visitors.

Crafted to commemorate the distillery’s revival, merely 274 sets of Gemini pairs were released, retailing at £45,000 (approximately $57,000) each — translating to slightly over £800 for a standard 25-milliliter UK pub pour.

While such ambitious pricing reflects the soaring popularity of single malts, it also raises concerns within the whiskey community about a potential market bubble.

Diageo has already felt the impact of challenges affecting the broader luxury sector, with its stock price plummeting by a quarter since the beginning of 2022. Following a profit warning in November prompted by sluggish sales in Latin America, the latest financial reports revealed a 27% decline in single malt sales to the United States in the latter half of 2023.

There is a growing unease that enthusiasts are being priced out of their beloved spirit.

“Whiskey has always been a drink for the people. Now, it seems to be slipping away into the hands of the affluent,” observes Dramface’s Duff. “Enthusiasts played a pivotal role in elevating these distilleries to a point where Diageo can command premium prices — which is understandable, considering they are a business.

“However, consumers have the power to choose not to indulge, and ultimately, it will be the enthusiasts, not marketing strategies, who determine the true premium whiskies.”

Emily Burnham, a distillery host at Port Ellen, emphasizes the company’s thoughtful approach to visitor experiences, offering a more accessible £200 (approximately $250) option for groups of up to twelve (available for booking from June) alongside complimentary open days held once a month.

“We must tread carefully to ensure that the average whiskey lover is not priced out of the market,” she asserts. “Simultaneously, there is a demand for these elevated experiences.

“At present, the high cost of Port Ellen whiskey is attributed to its rarity and age. This dynamic will shift once we release the freshly distilled spirit in the coming years — pricing will not consistently reach tens of thousands of pounds per bottle.”