Why The “Ghost” Whisky Of Scottish Distilleries Are Reopening

Ardbog Day - part of the Islay Festival of Music and Malt at the Ardbeg Distillery on the Isle of Islay, Inner Hebrides.

In the Scandi-inspired lounge of the reopened Port Ellen Scottish distillery on the Isle of Islay, some guests are greeted with a cup of pine-smoked Lapsang tea from China’s Wuyi Mountains, evoking the words of the former poet laureate of the United Kingdom. It isn’t quite what you would anticipate sipping on a Hebridean island, and it certainly isn’t in a shrine to the craft of distilling made of glass and black metal. However, it all becomes clear after a while: the key is to prepare your palate for the experience of a very pricey, smooth, and aromatically complex single malt. Owned by multinational beverage behemoth Diageo, Port Ellen was shut down in 1983 as an excess of undesired Scotch known as the “whisky loch (lake)” resulted from overproduction and the worldwide slump.

Now, it is the newest distillery to join a group of once-closed “ghost” Scottish distilleries that are being lavishly renovated as a result of a decades-long surge in single malt demand that, rather uncannily, has suddenly begun to wane. Between its closure and reopening forty years later, Port Ellen developed a cult following among self-described whisky geeks who saw unusually strong whisky being aged in mostly older, well-used “refill” casks and noticed all kinds of interesting and varied things happening to the spirit.

According to Roy Duff, editor of Dramface.com, an independent whisky review website and podcast, “a following for these whiskies that, more often than not, were just sublime” eventually grew thanks to independent bottlers and a few powerful devotees. It was just coincidental. The whisky was left alone and forgotten, and that’s why the miracle happened. The spirit could shine since it was in the (less active) refill barrels, and it improved with age and the Scottish environment.

Being a renowned member of Whisky’s ghost club, Port Ellen has a lengthy history dating back to 1825. Its beachfront position on the island of Islay, a popular destination for whisky enthusiasts worldwide, further contributes to its allure. The Highland distillery of Brora, which is a member of the Diageo stable, and Rosebank, which is located in Scotland’s central belt close to Falkirk, are two more that have lately made a full recovery. It was just coincidental. The whisky was left alone and forgotten, and that’s why the miracle happened. Ardbeg, another legendary Islay whisky, was put on hold for most of the 1980s but has come back to life magnificently after being acquired by the mainland distillery Glenmorangie in 1997. A single 1975 Ardbeg cask was reportedly sold to a bidder in Hong Kong in 2022 for a sum of £16 million ($20 million), which is more than double the amount Glenmorangie spent for the distillery and its inventory.

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When Port Ellen, a Scottish distillery’s resurrection was first announced in 2017, it was put off for more than three years due to a mix of COVID-19, post-Brexit issues with the price and availability of building supplies, and a lack of ferry capacity. For now, those headaches don’t appear to exist. Now operating as Islay’s tenth operational Scottish distillery, the old and new buildings—the latter adorned with modern art with a whisky theme—are back in service. With slightly over 3,000 full-time residents, the island is just 25 miles (40 kilometers) long and 8 miles (13 kilometers) broad. By 2030, there may be 14 of them, a stunning concentration. With its four sparkling new copper stills serving as its exotic flora, the new still room across the courtyard seems like a massive industrial greenhouse. The two enormous “Phoenix” stills are exact duplicates of the ones that brought fame to Port Ellen. A second, smaller pair is used for more creative whisky-making.

The Maltings, a Diageo-owned facility that provides custom malted barley to Port Ellen and other island Scottish distilleries, sits in the backdrop, filling the air with the aroma of a peat-fired brewery and emitting a rarely broken cloud of grey smoke. Looking out, the eyes are directed to the hills of Antrim in Northern Ireland and the Mull of Kintyre on the Scottish mainland, if no dolphins or Caledonian MacBrayne ships are floating over the water. When the sky is clear, you can easily see Viking longboats dashing back and forth as they once did because they loom so enormous on the horizon.

Once inside, the tea service provides more motivation. After being served Hijiri Hojicha, a roasted green tea from a supplier to the Japanese imperial court, to help them tune in to hay notes, guests may notice similar aromas in one of the experimental spirit samples made directly from the stills under the supervision of Master Distiller Alexander McDonald.

Upon comparing newly produced batches of spirit that were separated by as little as thirty minutes, one may discern the Scottish distillery’s potential as a hub for innovation, especially in terms of the way peat smoke is regulated during the distillation process. McDonald already has more than a thousand tests on his to-do list, many of which will require experimenting with different parameters including the copper and peat contact as well as the stills’ design. The alchemical atmosphere is further enhanced with an on-site laboratory and what can only be called a make-your-own-whisky playground. The historic Scottish distillery has a history of innovation—it was among the first in Scotland to export to North America, for example—and it hopes to keep inventing.

“We must bring back the beloved classic Port Ellen character, but we also want to be trying new things,” McDonald adds. “Relying on the past isn’t quite good enough for me.” In the smoky confines of Warehouse Number Two, a dram taken directly from a barrel filled in 1979 offers a window into that history. Speaking from within an empty cavern, McDonald notes that the 45-year-old spirit is a fine representation of the traditional Port Ellen flavor, with fruit and peat contrasting against a saline backdrop. This is true for the first 20 or so fresh barrels that have been filled thus far. He is accurate. Later sip notes reveal clove rock, a typical hard-boiled candy.

Elevated Scottish whisky connoisseurs are the target audience Port Ellen wants to draw in with an appointment-only Atlas of Smoke Experience. Designed to accommodate groups of up to eight people, it has a hefty price tag of around £900 ($1,120), which is thought to be in the region of the cost of a locally sourced lunch and a tasting of Port Ellen Gemini, a pair of 44-year-old Port Ellens finished in two different casks, each with a unique story to tell guests.

Limited to just 274 pairs, the Gemini was bottled in honor of the Scottish distillery’s reopening. At £45,000 (about $57,000) apiece, the sets are retailing for somewhat more than £800 per typical 25-milliliter UK pub serving. One may view this aggressive price as a measure of the remarkable success of single malt. However, some members of the whisky community worry that it should be seen as an amber alert signifying an impending burst bubble.