Established on Islay's south coast in 1825 by A K Mackay and Co., Port Ellen is reputed to have been the first distillery to have incorporated Septimus Fox's spirit safe design into the distillation process. Its innovations did not stop there, however. After having been taken over by the shrewd and energetic John Ramsay in 1836, Port Ellen became the first distillery to trade with North America in 1848. Ramsay secured the right to export in larger casks and store the casks in bonded warehouses prior to export, a system which persists to this day.
Ramsay was a busy man, it would seem. As well as helping Robert Stein and Aeneas Coffey develop their continuous stills at his distillery, he was also instrumental in the establishment of the Islay to Glasgow steamboat service, imported Sherry and Madeira into Glasgow, was at one time the Liberal MP for Stirling and served as the chairman of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce.
After John Ramsay's death Port Ellen stayed in the hands of his family, but they sold their interest in the 1920s and it was acquired by DCL in 1925. DCL closed the distillery in 1929, but it continued to operate a maltings and bonded warehouses until it was re-opened with two more stills in 1966-67. In 1973 a large drum maltings was built that continues to supply malt to all the distilleries on Islay to this day.
Port Ellen was closed in the slump of 1983, but the whisky made in the 17 or so years between its re-opening and final closure has acquired a reputation as some of the finest to have been made on Islay in that time. Following two outstandingly successful Rare Malt bottlings in 1998 and 2000, Diageo has released an official bottling of Port Ellen every year since 2001, although it is presently unknown how many more of these bottlings will be forthcoming as stocks get lower. There have also been myriad independent bottlings, particularly from Signatory and Douglas Laing.
Prices for Port Ellen have increased steadily over the last decade as the reputation of the distillery grows and supplies dwindle. The first official bottling from Diageo, released in 2001, has more than trebled in price to around £350 at the time of writing, while older independent bottlings can now fetch prices up to £500-£600.
Port Ellen is a versatile malt, with considerable differences of style evident between different bottlings. Some sherry-casked Port Ellen can be beautifully rich, spicy, sweet and leathery; bourbon and refill casks often show a more austere, peppery medium-weighted style. Common characteristics, though, are a high level of peatiness and, in the best examples, a phenomenal complexity which Islay fans adore. For these reasons Port Ellen has become one of the most sought-after of the lost distilleries by collectors, investors and aficionados.