Port Ellen Resurrection: How to bring a distillery back from the dead

Drinks: Whisky
Location: Scotland

So, just how do you bring a Scotch distillery (or two) back from the dead? Diageo’s Nick Morgan explains all to Imbibe

The ‘once in a lifetime’ move by Diageo to revive the lost Port Ellen and Brora distilleries has already been warmly received by the world’s whisky-lovers since it was announced yesterday.

Both distilleries – Port Ellen on Islay and Brora on the lesser-travelled east coast of Sutherland – are to be reinstated to distil in controlled quantities, and will be among the smallest of Diageo’s distilleries, capable of producing 800,000 litres of liquid per year.

The spirits giant has said it aims to recreate the character of the whiskies originally produced in these ghost distilleries – now highly-prized rarities – as closely as possible.

So without a time-machine, how will they go about this, and what has triggered the developments?

‘Port Ellen and Brora are names which have a uniquely powerful resonance with whisky-lovers around the world. We have invested resources and effort in building the global reputation of the brands and the liquid. That, along with the developing opportunities in the global whisky marketplace, is what has created the opportunity to restart distillation,’ Dr Nick Morgan, Diageo’s head of whisky outreach, told Imbibe.

‘For many years reopening the distilleries was not a practical option which was under consideration, but you can see from the work we put into the Special Releases over almost two decades, the love we have for these whiskies,’ he says.

To bring the liquids back to life, Diageo has promised to stick as closely as possible to original production methods and distillation regimes, aiming to replicate the original character of the spirits.

In terms of hardware, Dr Morgan says, the original Brora copper pot stills are in situ awaiting refurbishment, while detailed drawings of the Port Ellen stills will be used by coppersmiths in Abercrombie and Alloa to create replicas.

‘The Diageo archive holds comprehensive, detailed information on the distillation regimes of both distilleries and we will use that to guide our work in the new distilleries,’ he adds, describing Diageo’s plan for production. ‘We also still have employees who worked at both sites so will be able to call upon their wisdom and knowledge.’

The whiskies from both sites will be medium-peated, once again aiming to stay as close to the style of the original liquids as possible.

‘However,’ Dr Morgan says, ‘this is not about being enslaved by the past. We recognise that technology has moved on and where appropriate we will use innovation and state-of-the-art technology to ensure we have the most energy-efficient, consistent quality production possible, but it will all be channelled towards the goal of producing the highest quality spirit in the style and characters for which Port Ellen and Brora are renowned.’

Cask filling and traditional warehousing will also be included on the sites of both distilleries as well as ‘Brand Homes’ to welcome guests; the rebirth of the distilleries is expected to boost tourism to both areas.

Though still subject to planning permission, Dr Morgan is confident both distilleries will make it past the final hurdle, after the announcement was met positively by Scottish Secretary David Mundel, who hailed it as ‘good news for one of Scotland’s most important industries’.

With well over a decade until the new whiskies hit shelves and back bars, the waiting game is on, and though Dr Morgan is reluctant to speculate about price points, he is understandably bullish about the future.

‘This is the whisky story of a lifetime,’ he says, ‘a gift to malt whisky enthusiasts all over the world.’

Imbibe can’t wait to try them in ten years’ time…

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