Reborn distillery Port Ellen welcomes Islay whisky pilgrims with smoky delights

The resurrection of Islay whisky distillery Port Ellen has been hailed by connoisseurs, among them Neil Ridley, who explored the smoky delights of this Scottish west coast gem

Exterior of Port Ellen whisky distillery, Islay, Scotland
(Image credit: Courtesy of Port Ellen Distillery)

Islay is one of the seven wonders of the whisky world. For a location as remote as it is – situated off the west coast of Scotland, adjacent to the Kintyre Peninsula – it has certainly had a profound and long-lasting effect on the glowing reputation and unique flavour profile of Scotch whisky.

Islay’s whisky is famed for its peaty, smoke-driven characteristics and robust aroma; it’s a divisive and often challenging style of the spirit for those new to the category. However, for connoisseurs, such challenges represent great commitment and reward: the distinct profiles of local whiskies such as Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore, Caol Ila and Kilchoman have come to define Islay’s style, winning legions of fans the world over. Now, another name will proudly sit alongside these legendary distilleries, itself perhaps the most fabled of all.

Inside Port Ellen’s revival

Port Ellen distillery entrance

The entrance to the distillery

(Image credit: Courtesy of Port Ellen)

The story of Port Ellen is one that can almost bring a tear to the eye of the true Scotch whisky connoisseur. The distillery was founded in 1825, but ‘mothballed’ in 1930 – a whisky term used when production grinds to a halt. It was then reopened briefly between 1967 and 1983, its smoke-laden spirit used to embolden the popular blends of the time.

However, during the early 1980s, the whisky business hit a major slump and Port Ellen’s owner, the Distillers Company Ltd, faced a dilemma: close the newer, more modern Caol Ila distillery (which it also owned) or call time on Port Ellen forever. With the sad decision made, in April 1983, Port Ellen’s last casks were filled, and the stills and other distilling equipment dismantled, removed and sold.

copper stills in glass distillery

The glass-encased stillhouse

(Image credit: Courtesy of Port Ellen Distillery)

But every story deserves a happy ending, and remarkably, the last remaining casks of Port Ellen slumbered away unhurried, developing into a whisky of such unique character and quality that those who got to taste it could scarcely believe their palates. Once bottled, Port Ellen gained an extraordinary cult following amongst enthusiasts, who paid small fortunes for the highly limited releases, savouring the oily, smoky, some would say, almost ‘chamois leather' notes it possessed.

Fast-forward to 2017 and drinks giant Diageo, which owned the remaining stock and the Port Ellen name, announced the unthinkable: that it planned to rebuild and resurrect this lost Islay gem.

Contemporary interior in Port Ellen with sea view and wood burner

The Bay Room

(Image credit: Courtesy of Port Ellen Distillery)

This arduous undertaking was finally completed in spring 2024 and the newly commissioned Port Ellen is a staggering testament to the faith and hope of those who had longed to see spirit run from the stills again. As the old site was completely gutted, new copper stills had to be designed and built from the original plans. The stillhouse is entirely encased in glass and also features a pair of scaled-down stills to produce experimental spirit styles for the future.

The visitors’ centre experience is what will perhaps gain the most attention. Designed around a minimalist, Scandinavian-influenced aesthetic, from June 2024, it will allow guests to relax on beautifully appointed furniture especially commissioned from London-based designers Object Studio and award-winning Scottish artist Lucy May Schofield. Visitors will get the opportunity to explore a range of tour options (starting at £200 per person, ranging up to a Price-On-Application tour, for up to eight people,) to explore the smoky flavours of Port Ellen in a unique way: from utilising high-end small-batch teas curated by Postcard Tea of London, as well as being able to draw Port Ellen directly from historic casks and explore the new make spirit.

Islay’s growing whisky tourism, from tastings to driving tours

Port Ellen whisky bottles on artist-designed columns

A display of Port Ellen whisky on upon Reborn Triptych by artist Harry Morgan

(Image credit: Courtesy of Port Ellen)

A short drive up the main Islay road, Bowmore distillery, which recently partnered with Aston Martin on a series of very limited releases, offers a similarly luxurious, £500 per person, two-and-a-half-hour private tasting experience, with five rare and exclusive whiskies, one of which has matured for over five decades. In addition to the warehouse tasting, a curated day of adventure is also on offer, a chance to explore Islay’s rich history, craftsmanship, and Bowmore’s island home. Hosted by a dedicated Bowmore guide, guests will explore the island in a chauffeur-driven Aston Martin DBX Bowmore Edition.

Entrance to the Port Ellen distillery with curved wooden stairway and amber art installation

(Image credit: Courtesy of Port Ellen Distillery)

The hospitality element to the island has also developed significantly in the last decade, with the award-winning Machrie golf-course hotel (one of the UK’s top hotels in the Condé Nast Traveller Awards in 2022) offering fine dining experiences, showcasing the best of locally sourced Scottish produce. 

In 2025, Ardbeg House will officially open too, a multi-million-pound renovation of the old Port Ellen Hotel by the distillery’s parent company, Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy. It will feature interior design by Russell Sage Studios, planned private dining experiences, and exclusive areas for hotel residents and members of the Ardbeg Committee, the global community of whisky fans the distillery was carefully cultivated over the last decade.

As a soulful coastal retreat, Islay certainly makes a strong case for being one of the very best locations in the UK. For global whisky fans, however, it’s the pinnacle of spiritual pilgrimages. A world of truly unique flavour awaits.

Neil Ridley is a London-based, award-winning drinks writer and presenter.  He is the co-author of eight books on spirits and cocktails including Distilled, which is now published in 14 different language editions. For the past eight years he has also served as a drinks expert on TV show Sunday Brunch on Channel 4