My thoughts and views on the recent Port Ellen distillery announcement

let’s begin

So, by now I would have hoped you have all seen the news about the Port Ellen distillery being rebuilt, if not, click here to read through the press release for the full details about all the goings on.

In essence, if you cannot be bothered to read that link, and fair play to you there is a hell of a lot of copy to go through, here is the sentiment:

“Port Ellen and Brora, two of the most revered “lost” distilleries in the global spirits industry, are to be brought back to life in a powerful statement of confidence in the future of Scotch whisky.

The distilleries, which have been silent since they were closed in 1983, will be brought back into production through a £35 million investment by Diageo, the world’s leading Scotch whisky company.

The new Brora and Port Ellen distilleries will be among Diageo’s smallest distilleries, capable of producing 800,000 litres of alcohol per year. They will replicate as closely as possible the previous taste profiles of Port Ellen and Brora, with medium peated character at both sites. Subject to planning permission and regulatory consents, detailed design, construction and commissioning work, it is expected the distilleries will be in production by 2020.” 

There you have it, two of the icons of dead distilleries past, present and future are now being rebuilt, thus, in my view creating a curious cauldron of curiosity around how they will be branded, bottled and marketed.

Why? Obvious.

Port Ellen and Brora get so much attention, love and celebration at the annual Diageo Special Releases because they are dead, silent, non-existent, unable to be recreated, over, in the past, a snapshot of time. In short: their stock ‘should’ be limited, therefor the £2,500 a bottle should be justified as that flavour, provenance and distillate can never be recreated again.

But wait, now it can… or can it?

I wonder, fully with my brand consultant hat on, how consumers, collects and quaffers the world over will feel when, in 2023 there is a new-to-market NAS (non-age statement) Port Ellen, likely called Resurrection or Rebirth or something suitably emotive. Then two years later, a five year old, then a ten year old, then a range of 12, 15, 18 year old Port Ellen whiskies.

How will we all feel?

I ask as this ia brand built on mythology, of moments past and casks long filled, not one of energy, rejuvenation, reinvention and anything to do with being of the present.

And I might as well add that this is not the same as the early naughties when distilleries such as Ardbeg was resurrected; they could get away with Still Young, Almost There and those sorts of names as there, at the time, was relatively little brand equity in the Ardbeg name, but there is a TONNE of equity in the Brora and Port Ellen distillery name and brand, a lot of whisky folk have been collecting the stuff over the years hoping for a massive pay day when the juice eventually runs out, let alone the rich and enabled who buy these buy the bottle or case load to enjoy at their leisure and as a self-kudos.

Full disclosure, I have two bottles of Port Ellen myself, one is a bottle from the 2nd Release of the Diageo Special Releases set and remains sealed (but will be opened, and I mean that), and the other is a 32 Year Old Port Ellen bottled by Douglas Laing that I bought as a present to self when my wife and I moved north out of London to Poynton in 2016 as a way of marking something truly momentous and as a treat to me, a lifelong Londoner, to welcome me and us into our new home… although Kirsty was pregnant at the time so mostly to welcome me into the new home. Boom.

I really am curious as to how this will play out, and what will happen in a few years time when these distilleries are switched on, and what their spirit will be like as, some of you may not know that Port Ellen distillery does not exist any more… the site was decommissioned and now all that remains are warehouses and the Port Ellen Maltings that services a lot of Islay’s malt requirement.

Will investments go up? Personally I really do not think so, I think they will plateau then fall as the recent releases are already priced to take the margin of the secondary market out of the equation, so older releases may see some initial uplift, but the reality is that a brand built on myth, even when old stock is factored in, will not last when it goes back to producing.

One thing for sure, the ~£40million investment into reigniting these old workhorses is a snip compared with the billions being thrown around for distillery and brand acquisition at the minute, so I’m sure they have played a blinder and will have a lot of success with them. I cannot wait to see what happens.

Really keen to hear your thoughts on this GreatDrammers, please leave a comment and let me know – the Facebook Page has been going NUTS since the news broke with both positive comments and negative comments and the obvious one, summarised as ‘so now we know when the old stock will run out’.


Tags: BroraDiageoPort EllenPort Ellen distillery
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My name is Greg, and I’m a brand strategy consultant, writer, speaker, host and judge specialising in premium spirits. My mission is to experience, share and inspire with everything great about whisky, whiskey, gin, beer and fine dining through my writing, my brand building and my whisky tastings.

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