Port Ellen Maltings

An active maltings and former distillery on the island of Islay in Argyll & Bute, Port Ellen Maltings is owned and operated by Diageo Plc, and now supplies malt to most of the nine distilleries on the island, together with the Isle of Jura Distillery. Located a half-mile (0.8 km) northwest of Port Ellen, the complex opened as a distillery in 1825 run by A. K. Mackay & Company. In 1833, ownership passed to John Ramsay of Kildalton (1815-92) and remained with his family until 1920. It was sold to Buchanan-Dewars which merged into the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) in 1925. However distilling here stopped in 1929 owing to a depressed market for whisky following prohibition in the USA. Port Ellen re-opened in 1967, with the original two stills increased to four; two 28,000-litre wash stills and two smaller 25,000-litre spirit stills. These were initially heated by coal, using a mechanical stoker, and later converted to steam-heated coils. The distillery had an annual output that peaked at around 1.7 million litres per year. It was said to have been the first to export malt whisky to North America in the mid-19th C. and the first to incorporate a spirit safe designed by Septimus Fox into the distillation process. Port Ellen Distillery closed once again in 1983 and, although the equipment was removed, the historic buildings remain and whisky is still stored in its bonded warehouses. Port Ellen whisky has become rare and expensive.

Both the former distillery and the current maltings draw distinctively-peated water from the Leorin Lochs, situated 2¼ miles (3.5 km) to the north northeast.

Originally, the distillery used a traditional malting floor. However, in 1974, Port Ellen Maltings began production on an industrial scale, initially supplying malted barley only to DCL's own distilleries, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, and Port Ellen. Some of the barley is locally-produced, but the majority is imported, with ships bringing up to 1200 tonnes arriving at Port Ellen harbour every fortnight. Up to 2040 tonnes of barley can be stored on site.

Malting is the process of converting the starch in barley into the sugar necessary to produce alcohol. To achieve this the barley needs to germinate. Here, it is first steeped in aerated water in one of eight 30,000-litre cylindrical tuns, and then transferred, 65 tonnes at a time, to one of seven large steel drums. Installed in 1973 and manufactured by Robert Boby Ltd., a defunct subsidiary of armaments manufacturer Vickers Engineering, these are the largest malting drums in the UK. They rotate like very large washing machines, blowing carefully-controlled volumes of warm air through the moist barley. Finally, the barley is transferred to a kiln, where germination is stopped by baking over a peat fire. This process introduces much of the distinctive aroma to the malt. Peat is sourced from nearby Castlehill Moss and the maltings consumes up to 2000 tonnes per year.

Following a downturn in the whisky industry in the 1980's, which brought about the closure of Port Ellen Distillery, amongst others, the Maltings was also at risk. However an agreement was reached with Islay's other distilleries that Port Ellen would supply them with malted barley, meeting their individual specifications. Thus continued viability was assured.

Port Ellen is said to be one of the greatest of the lost distilleries of Scotland, but tours of the buildings and maltings are by special arrangement only.

DCL was taken over by Guinness in 1986, merged with Arthur Bell & Sons to form United Distillers the following year, and then Guinness itself merged with Grand Metropolitan in 1997 to form Diageo Plc. In 2017, Diageo unveiled plans to re-open Port Ellen as a distillery, restoring the original buildings and construct a new still-house with two pairs of copper pot stills. This will allow two separate distillation processes, one to emulate the original character of the whisky and another to experiment with different flavour profiles.

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