Port Ellen was opened in 1824, later than its neighbours on Islay’s south coast. It was built by Alexander Mackay, on the site of a malt mill which had possibly been supplying the many illicit distillers on the Oa Peninsula. Mackay struggled and in 1836 the lease of the distillery was taken by the 21-year-old John Ramsay whose uncle Ebenezer was a distiller based in Clackmannanshire and related to the Steins.
Ramsay was a man of his time. As well as establishing the distillery, he became the business partner of Walter Frederick Campbell who owned Islay. Between them they started the bi-weekly steamer between the island and Glasgow which undoubtedly helped cement whisky-making as a major industry on the island. It also made Port Ellen, rather than Bowmore, the island’s main ferry terminal.
He also introduced ‘improved’ agricultural practises to Islay. One reason for the island not suffering from the worst of the Clearances is down to the open and benign attitude of its then laird to his tenants. In 1869, the sales of Port Ellen were handed to W.P. Lowrie, the blender and broker who among many other things loaned James Buchanan money (and supplied stock) for the young tyro blender. By this time Campbell’s Port Ellen had already started to be exported to the United States.