By Mark Gillespie
February 9, 2021 – It takes three years of waiting before “new make” spirit can legally be called whisky in Scotland. It took almost that long for Elixir Distillers to get the plans approved for what will become the 11th malt whisky distillery on the Isle of Islay. Argyll & Bute Council has now cleared the way for construction to begin this summer on the site just east of Port Ellen along the A846 road that leads to Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries.
“For me, it’s the holy trinity of whisky distillery roads, but more importantly, the site was perfect…just perfect,” Elixir Distillers co-founder Sukhinder Singh told WhiskyCast in his first interview since planning permission was granted in December. The site is just east of Port Ellen Primary School along the island’s coast, and part of the delay was due to the need to acquire additional land to build a reservoir for the distillery’s water supply. With the island’s infrastructure already at peak demand, Singh and his brother Rajbir considered installing a desalination plant to treat sea water, but their desire to maintain traditional whisky production practices won out in the end.
However, that desire for “old-style” whisky production did not apply to the building’s design. The Singhs and their architects originally submitted plans to the council for a modern facility designed for maximum efficiency. That design did not go over well with the council’s planning team, who insisted on exterior changes intended to make the project fit in with the island’s other distilleries. While the redesign process added more than a year to the timeline, the Covid-19 pandemic also played a part when the council required a public consultation before final approval the design. Given restrictions on public gatherings because of the pandemic, that open meeting was delayed for several months before the council agreed to do it via Zoom last fall.
In the end, the re-design received unanimous support from the council over the objections of some Islay residents. 23 separate objections to the revised project were filed with the council, including one from the Islay Community Council outlining the potential impact on the island’s infrastructure. The island has around 3,000 permanent residents and virtually zero unemployment, leading to newly-created jobs being filled by people moving to Islay at a time when housing is already in short supply. It should be noted that the community council voiced similar objections in 2019 to Diageo’s application for planning approval for its revival of the Port Ellen Distillery.
In an email to WhiskyCast, Islay Community Council Secretary Jim Porteous explained the group’s position:
“We have noted that the distillery project has received planning approval, subject to conditions and have sent our congratulations to Elixir. It is now time for us all to move forward constructively and we have offered to provide any assistance that we can to help ensure that the outcome, so far as may be possible, will ultimately be to the benefit of all. The Community Council has no objections in principle to any such projects but does consider it important that sufficient infrastructure funding provision should be made available by the relevant authorities to keep pace.”
The plan originally called for eight houses to be built at the distillery for workers, but Singh said that commitment will be doubled to 16 houses to help address the island’s housing shortage. While the housing will be reserved initially for distillery workers moving to Islay and guests, Singh is not ruling out making surplus housing available for long-term rentals to Islay residents in the future.
Listen to a segment of Mark Gillespie’s interview with Sukhinder Singh:
Singh projected ground work at the site could take several months once it begins this summer, with work on the building itself to begin after that. The building will actually house two distilleries inside: the main facility with two sets of stills that will handle malt whisky production, along with a microdistillery that will be used for experimental projects and other spirits. While Singh had originally expected to distill gin in that microdistillery, the plans have now changed and will likely focus on rum. As of now, the distillery’s name has not been determined, and Singh is in the process of recruiting a distillery manager to help with the final distillery specifications before construction begins.
In addition to the usual visitors center, Singh is considering plans for a small restaurant and whisky bar. The noted whisky collector suggested that the bar would be geared more toward rare whiskies, which are his personal passion. Elixir Distillers is part of the Singh brothers’s Speciality Drinks company, which also owns The Whisky Exchange’s three retail shops in London, and Singh is not ruling out opening a fourth store at the distillery.
Pandemic-related travel restrictions have kept the Singhs from visiting Islay for nearly a year, and Sukhinder Singh is getting the itch to travel.
“I want to go to the island…I think that’s the best way to put it…just to touch the land and say yeah, we’re here, but unfortunately, we can’t at this stage.”
The entire interview with Sukhinder Singh will be part of the next episode of WhiskyCast coming this weekend. We’ll have more on the distillery project, along with updates on how The Whisky Exchange and the collector’s market have fared during the pandemic and the plans for the upcoming virtual Whisky Show: Old & Rare later this month.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from the Islay Community Council, along with additional details on housing to be built as part of the project.