Hugh Smith’s Letter from Islay

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Port Ellen Distillery

Port Ellen Distillery, which stands on the outskirts of the island village and port, had more than its share of ups and downs since it first opened its doors as a malt mill in 1825.

In charge of the initial development was A K MacKay and Company, with Alex Kerr MacKay at the helm. Shortly after production began, MacKay ran into serious financial trouble and had no choice but to hand control over to a trio of his relatives – John Morrison, Patrick Thomson and George MacLellan.

Financially, they did not fare much better and in 1833 the production was taken over by landowner and politician John Ramsay, and so began a period of development and improvement at both the distillery and at the local port facilities.

Ramsay, who owned the Kildalton and Oa Estates and was the MP for both Stirling and Falkirk burghs, realised the potential market for whisky in America and set about to tirelessly promote his product in the new world.

Following his death in 1892, his widow Lucy continued to run the distillery until she passed away in 1906. It then came into the possession of John and Lucy’s son, Captain Ian Ramsay, who decided in 1920 to end his family’s close on 100-year association with the distillery when he sold it to Buchanan-Dewars.

They, in turn, passed the running of the distillery on to the newly established Port Ellen Distillery Co Ltd, which, in 1925, transferred ownership to the rapidly burgeoning Distillers’ Co Ltd, probably best known as the DCL.

The introduction of prohibition in the United States had a far-reaching effect on the global whisky market and saw DCL stop production at Port Ellen in 1929. This led DCL to transfer its Port Ellen operations in 1930 to Scottish Malt Distillers, which mothballed the site.

Production resumed in 1967 and the number of stills was increased to four. Six years later saw the building of a large drum malting plant, but the writing was again on the wall.

As the British recession began to bite in 1983, the distillery was again mothballed but on this occasion it remained closed. The site was officially closed in 1987 and the equipment used in the production was dismantled.

Happily, the warehouses built during the Ramsay tenure remain and are now classed as listed buildings.

The building now houses a malting facility which supplies other local distilleries as well as further afield sources.

The maltings are now the property of the drinks giant Diageo, which also owns the island distilleries at Lagavulin and Caol Ila.

If you have a bottle of Port Ellen single malt in your drinks cabinet, tread warily ere you pull the cork as it is now regarded as a collectors’ item and quite capable of fetching prices greatly in excess of £1,500. Be warned.

Photo exhibition

Photographer and film-maker Clive Booth has enjoyed a close working relationship with various folk on the island and with the Port Askaig-based lifeboat crew and coxswain in particular.

A selection of photographs featuring the crew of the Helmut Schroder II of Dunlossit are currently on display in Ionad Chaluim Chille Ìle (the St Columba Gaelic Centre) and will remain on show until the end of the month. The exhibition is open daily, Monday to Friday, during normal office hours.

During his many visits to the island, the ace photographer Clive has captured on camera many aspects of local life, ranging from farming and fishing interests, distilling and charity events. And not forgetting raging seas and giant waves.

And still he comes back for more.

Hugh Smith, 4 Flora Street, Bowmore, Islay PA43 7JX. Tel: 01496 810658

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