On 19th March, the whisky world witnessed the rebirth of one of Scotland’s most famous ‘ghost’ distilleries when Port Ellen officially reopened after 40 years.

Port Ellen is one of the most revered names in Scotch whisky. Despite the distillery's closure in 1983, Port Ellen’s stature has only continued to grow in the subsequent years. From 2001 until 2017, owners Diageo included impressive, well-aged Port Ellen as part of their annual Special Releases which have been coveted by drinkers and collectors alike.

The reopening of the distillery comes as part of Diageo’s £185 million investment across the Scotch whisky industry. In addition to Port Ellen on Islay, the equally beloved Brora distillery was reopened in 2021 and several of Diageo’s other key Scotch whisky distilleries’ visitor centres were renovated.

It might be tempting to dismiss the reopening as a cynical cash-in on an iconic brand name, but Diageo are committed to honouring the legacy of Port Ellen.

As part of the restoration Diageo commissioned new stills to be built that are exact replicas of the original stills used at Port Ellen. These stills, dubbed The Phoenix Stills, will produce the smoky style of spirit the old distillery as famed for.

Port Ellen was also known for its innovation. With that in mind the new distillery is also home to The Experimental Stills. These stills are linked to a ten-part spirit safe (rather than the traditional three-part safes) that will allow unprecedented precision in the distillation process.

As well as the new stills, Port Ellen will also be home to a dedicated laboratory and full time technician to study and catalogue the experimental whiskies.

Master blender Aimée Morrison said of the experimental element of the new distillery: “Port Ellen will be defined as a distillery that will push boundaries, with our on-site laboratory giving us the opportunity to delve into scientific research, offering us a deeper look into this Islay malt… Collectively we will endeavour to maintain the undeniable quality of Port Ellen, create whiskies for the future and take the amazing opportunity to learn as much as we can about the enigma of smoke.”

Complementing the experimental approach of the whisky is the ultra-modern design of the distillery itself. The main feature is the visually striking glass still house that offers enviable views of the Islay coastline and the Carraig Fhada lighthouse.

Diageo are committed to becoming carbon neutral in its production business by 2030, and Port Ellen ties in with these aims. The distillery will be carbon neutral from the start. Every aspect of the production process allows heat and water to be recycled, while all energy used by the site comes from a renewable biofuel boiler.

Port Ellen’s reopening is undoubtedly a welcome addition to Islay’s whisky landscape. The rebirth of a ‘ghost’ distillery, especially one as renowned as Port Ellen, is an occasion worth celebrating.

Whether or not the spirit produced at the distillery lives up to the weighty reputation its name carries is another matter. That said, Diageo’s dedication to both tradition and innovation is a promising sign for fans of Port Ellen.