After 40 Years, Port Ellen Distillery on the Island of Islay is Reborn

After 40 Years, Port Ellen Distillery on the Island of Islay is Reborn

In a landmark moment for the Scotch Whisky industry, Diageo’s Port Ellen Distillery, on the world-famous whisky island of Islay, reopened today more than 40 years after it closed.

As the finale in Diageo‘s £185 million investment in Scotch Whisky distilleries and experiences, Port Ellen has been specially designed from the ground up to push the boundaries of Scotch through visionary experimentation and uncover the mysterious dimensions of flavour in smoke.

The legendary Islay distillery has undergone a radical transformation, drawing on its pioneering heritage to lead a trailblazing future. Established on Islay’s south coast in 1825, Port Ellen produced a distinctively smoky Scotch Whisky used primarily in blends. However, it ceased operating in 1983 alongside many other distilleries at the time.

During closure, the whisky received incredible global acclaim and was eagerly sought out by collectors for its quality, character, and increasing rarity. In 2017, Diageo announced its intention to bring about the return of the Port Ellen distillery, and today marks that final step.

The re-envisioned distillery features an ultra-modern design with an unobstructed line of sight through the transparent glass stillhouse to the stunning coastline of Islay, across the bay to Carraig Fhada lighthouse.

Distillery workers next to the new copper stills

At the centre of this rebirth are two new pairs of copper pot stills that will produce the first Port Ellen in over forty years. The Phoenix stills recreated as replicas of the original stills from 1983, will run alongside a smaller set of experimental stills to allow innovation to flourish from inception.

The underlying mission at Port Ellen is to chart an Atlas of Smoke and explore this flavour profile using a range of experimental elements uniquely designed to support this investigation. A distillery with a pioneering past, Port Ellen was the first to export whisky to North America as early as 1848, which led to the introduction of a bonded warehouse system that is still used today.

Legend has it that Port Ellen housed one of the first ‘spirit safes’ in Scotland, now an industry-wide mainstay. The new distillery has drawn inspiration from this past storied connection to reimagine it for a new generation of whisky explorers and innovators as a Ten Part Spirit Safe.

This standout addition allows multiple cuts to be drawn from the heart of the run, accessing previously unexplored flavours and characters and propelling the whisky-making art to new heights of intricacy and complexity.

Further distillery innovations include a Six-part Roller Mill to give added precision and an on-site laboratory that will support this exploration into the mysterious flavour of smoke.

The laboratory grants immediate testing of experiments on-site, which reduces environmental impact. Furthermore, Port Ellen Distillery will be carbon neutral from the start.

The team have employed various methods to ensure it met this target, including leveraging electricity sourced from neutral resources and deploying innovative systems to optimise water and heat usage. The energy used across the distillery is all obtained from renewable sources, including liquid biofuel, thus supporting our ambition to be a carbon-neutral distillery, which is also in line with Diageo’s Society 2030 Spirit of Progress plans.

Ali McDonald standing in front of one of the new copper stills

Ali McDonald, Master Distiller at Port Ellen, says of the return, “It is an honour to take up this new position at the helm of an iconic distillery and build on Port Ellen’s pioneering past.

Port Ellen holds a very special place in the hearts of passionate whisky aficionados, and to see spirit flow off these stills once again is an incredible moment for the Islay community and the wider whisky world. We are deeply committed to pushing the boundaries of Scotch through experimentation – I’m excited to see what we can now create.”

The two versions of Port Gemini

From today, Port Ellen Gemini, a new release to celebrate the rebirth of the trailblazing Islay distillery, is now available to purchase. Presented as two illuminating dimensions of Port Ellen, each housed in spectacular crystal decanters, these are twin whiskies set on individual paths to mark a bright future for the distillery.

The 44-year-old Scotch Whisky was drawn from three exceptional 1978 European oak casks, specifically selected long ago for this new experiment, before being split into two whiskies, which took diverging paths of maturation.

This moment is also marked by the reveal of an incredible scientifically routed digital artwork, Out of the Ether, that forms the first chapter in the Port Ellen distillery’s mission to chart an Atlas of Smoke.

The Out of the Ether digital artwork

Using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and gas chromatography, the chemical composition of the two Port Ellen Gemini whiskies has been analysed at key points over the last two years of their maturation to give a detailed dataset that reveals precisely the differences in the additive and extractive impact of both casks.

With data visualisation experts Bose Collins, Port Ellen then developed a bespoke algorithm, “Smoke DNAi” (Digital Neoteric Algorithmic image), to decode and visualise this data and explore whisky smoke’s intricate composition and evolution during ageing. The artwork brings the magic of maturation to life: a stunning synesthetic visual simile of the flavour profile of these very rare, non-identical twin whiskies.

In the future, Port Ellen’s SmokeDNAi has the power to be used by the distillery team to visually compare and contrast other liquids—developed at the distillery or even beyond—to shine a fresh light on the smoky flavours within Scotch Whisky in an ongoing quest to chart the Atlas of Smoke.

Aimée Morrison seated in front of a visual display

Aimée Morrison, Port Ellen Master Blender, speaks of the future, “Port Ellen will be defined as a distillery that will push boundaries. Each element of the production process allows us to innovate from day one. With an on-site laboratory, we can delve into scientific research to examine the possibilities of this legendary Islay malt.

We will better understand how the nuanced flavours from cask-to-cask shine in different ways, with the rolling smoke weaving its way through the heart of Port Ellen. Collectively, we will endeavour to maintain the undeniable quality of Port Ellen and create whiskies for the future. Through our bespoke algorithmic image machine, we reveal today that we can learn even more about the enigma of smoke and bring people with us on this journey – from Islay to the world!”

The Bay Room at the distilleryPort Ellen distillery will welcome the whisky community, connoisseurs, collectors, and invited guests to experience a world-leading immersion into experimentation in Scotch. From June, a range of experiences will be available to book, from a full-day private immersion for connoisseurs to shorter introductions to the production process at this exceptional distillery.

Port Ellen will also hold a monthly open day to ensure that passionate followers from around the world will have a chance to see inside the re-envisioned distillery and witness Port Ellen spirit be crafted once again.

These experiences provide standout tastings of Port Ellen Gemini, the opportunity to draw from casks of Port Ellen’s historic stock and explore the maltings that have provided smoky malt to Islay distilleries since the 1970s.

Within the original Port Ellen Pagoda, a new ideas and experimentation space allows visitors to act as auteurs—to consider current and future experiments and explore what could possibly be created—in service of Port Ellen’s mission to examine every facet of flavour as it charts an Atlas of Smoke.

The Whisky Orb by Scot Associates

The distillery also features work by award-winning artists, including multiple Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (of which Diageo is a long-term supporter) scholars Lucy May Schofield, Fung + Bedford, Eleanor Lakelin, Harry Morgan, Daniel Brophy, and Object Studio.

Guests can register their interest by visiting

Whiskies from across the decades placed upon Harry Morgan's 'Reborn Triptych'After 40 Years, Port Ellen Distillery on the Island of Islay is Reborn 2

Editorial Team

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