Hugh Smith’s let­ter from Is­lay

The Oban Times - - News -

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 810 658

Port Ellen whisky can now fetch a very high price.

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