Campbeltown – the forgotten whisky region. Or so it seems. One hundred years ago, Campbeltown was the center of the Scottish whisky industry, with thirty active distilleries. Today, it is, by far, the smallest. Three active distilleries. A region in name only that produces a meager 1% of Scotland’s whisky. A shadow of its former greatness.
So what happened? During the mid-twentieth century, the whisky industry suffered a general decline, bottoming out in the post WW2 era and not recovering until the latter part of the century. But the Campbeltown distilleries suffered more. Over-production in the early part of the century, combined with a perceived decline in whisky quality, added to its demise.
Located at the bottom of the Kintyre Peninsula, the Campbeltown Region and former “Whisky Capital of the World” reaches out towards Ireland, on the west Scottish coast. Strategically located to receive raw materials and to ship their whisky, the region thrived in the steamship era, shipping product worldwide. Today, only three distilleries remain to carry on the proud Campbeltown traditions.
But first, a little about the Kintyre Peninsula. It is, of course, home to Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre, located at the southern tip and home to Scotland’s second oldest lighthouse. And the basis of the Mull of Kintyre Rule. You see, Kintyre is shaped (with a bit of imagination) like a giant penis. Which protrudes at a specific angle. Urban legend has it, that the British film industry dictates that no film shall show a penis that protrudes at a higher angle than the Kintyre peninsula. While we mull that over, let’s get back to the whisky.
The Springbank Distillery, the largest and best known of the three remaining in Campbeltown, has a very cool and unique whisky production strategy. They produce whisky under three separate and distinct labels. Best known are the traditional Springbank single malts, which are light to medium peated, in a 10,12,15, 18, 21 year and cask strength in their core range. It’s distilled 2.5 times. How is that possible? During the second distillation, they divert some of the distillate back into the wash a third time, creating a partial third cycle. Result? 2.5 times. More or less.
The Hazelburn line of single malts, first produced in 2006, is triple distilled, producing a mild, sweet dram ranging between 10 and 21 years. Completely unpeated. Hazelburn malt is air dried for 30 hours, without the use of peat smoke. In fact, 100% of production is carried out on site for all Springbank products. Including malting. Springbank is dried for 6 hours in peat smoke and then 30 hours of air drying.
The final in the Springbank line is Longrow, double distilled and heavily peat smoked for 48 hours. The flagship product, Longrow Red, is then aged in a variety of wine casks for a really unique taste.
Next is Glen Scotia, a small (half million liters per year) but highly regarded distillery in the heart of Campbeltown. Established in 1832, it has closed, re-opened, and re-invented itself many times. It’s currently owned by the Loch Lomand Group, a private firm who also own the Loch Lomand Distillery, and the Glen Catrine bonded warehouse, the largest independent bottling facility in Scotland.
Local folklore says that the distillery is haunted by the ghost of former owner, Duncan McCallum. In 1930, after losing his entire fortune, McCallum drowned himself in the nearby Campbeltown Loch, which is the primary water supply to the distillery. So there may be a little bit of Duncan in every Glen Scotia offering. Nonetheless, in 2021, Glen Scotia was named Scottish Distillery of the Year, and in the same year, their single malt won Whisky of the Year at the the World Whisky Competition in San Francisco. Not bad for a little, haunted distillery.
Glengyle, the last Campbeltown distillery, was founded in 1872, after John Mitchell left the Springbank distillery following an argument with his brother over sheep. If I had a nickel for every Scottish sheep argument… The distillery has a colorful history, including having the roof blown off, and having served as the local rifle range during a period of closure in the 1930’s.
So, why is all the whisky produced at the Glengyle Distillery called Kilkerran? For two reasons – the name Glengyle was already in use in a Highland malt, so they didn’t want to confuse the two whiskies. They tried, but were unable to purchase the rights to the Glengyle name. Secondly, the name Glen was commonly associated with Speyside whisky, so they wanted to create something more Campbeltownish. They came up with Kilkerran, after name of the original Gaelic settlement where Campbeltown now stands.
Finally, since 1972, the Campbeltown Region has been home to Wm Cadenheads, Scotland’s oldest independent bottler. All of their products are aged and bottled at their Campbelton facility.
Why has Campbeltown survived as an official whisky region? I think that its history and the unique nature of its whisky earns it the right to continue on. And it’s growing. Two new distilleries, Dal Riata and Machrhanish are in the works, as well as a new independent bottler, Watt Whisky, who currently have several products on the market.
Who knows. Maybe Campbeltown will return to its former glory. Until then, let’s enjoy a dram from the forgotten gem. Cheers!