Whisky Regions – Part 2

A Wee Introduction to Campbeltown

It’s the 1870s, and Campbeltown is booming. A bustling fishing port located on the Kintyre peninsula on the west coast of Scotland, it’s an ideal location to drive Scotland’s tumultuous whisky industry in to the 20th century. The town’s sea loch, proximity to Glasgow, and the previous decades’ steam ship innovations, such as the screw propeller and compound engine, are connecting the world in faster and more economically viable ways, and Scotland’s ‘Whisky Capital of the World’ is perfectly placed to capitalise on this. The population gradually grows with expert distillers coming from Ireland, experienced fishermen from coastal villages, and newly-formed job opportunities in teaching created to cope with the influx of young families; optimism hangs in the air, and with good reason – rich peat bogs, an abundance of freshwater, coal from Scottish mines, and locally-grown barley are driving Campbeltown and Scotland’s whisky industry, with 30 distilleries up-and-running in the town. Hazelburn alone is producing over a quarter of a million gallons of spirit per year. Renowned distilleries are born and operated, with celebrated names such as Dalaruan growing in size and prospering in the new-found opportunities. In short, this is whisky’s first boom, with rapid commercial growth, increased production, and cheaper spirit signifying a new, prosperous dawn for the industry.

By 1891, Campbeltown is one of the richest areas in Britain and has approximately 20 operational distilleries. Glasgow Steamers sail in to the loch twice a day, demand for increased production continue to roll in from Blending Houses, and investors buy large quantities of stock to sit on as the value of whisky continued to rise. The sky is the limit for Campbeltown’s whisky industry.

Campbeltown Loch

And, most importantly, the whisky itself! Full-bodied, oily, salty, smoky. Although overproduction gradually led to a watered down and poorer whisky, prior to this the town had always been known for its distinctive nose and notes.

‘The double basses of the whisky orchestra . . . potent, full-bodied pungent whiskies, with a flavour that is not to the liking of everyone . . . so masterful and assertive are they that the marrying of them to obtain a smooth, evenly matched blend is an extremely difficult business.’

Aeneas MacDonald, from his seminal book, ‘Whisky’ (1930)

Today, although the town’s distinctive whisky flourishes, the vast majority of distilleries have fallen silent, in to ruin, and, in some instances, with only account books remaining to remind us of their storied existence. Almost 100 years have passed since the bulk of the town’s distilleries loaded their last casks and barrels, and watched as they were shipped to Glasgow via the Clyde River. It had taken just 4 decades to reach this point.

Over time it has transpired that there was never a single factor that contributed to this fall from the whisky throne, but rather a combination of occurrences all played a significant part in the town going from boom to bust. In a way, Campbeltown’s turbulent whisky history of the 19th and 20th century is a microcosm to the Scottish whisky industry’s own volatile existence, however, although the whisky industry as a whole would eventually realign itself on a seemingly-constant upward curve, Campbeltown itself has meandered along, on a much smaller scale in comparison to the heady days seen before, yet still producing its much-loved single malts.

The importance of the area and its deep-rooted impression on Scotland dates back as far as 503AD when the ancient seat of the first Scottish parliament was set up by King Fergus. It is even reported that the Stone of Destiny, on which Scottish monarchs were crowned, has its origins on the Kintyre peninsula. Uisge-beatha, though, has a slightly more recent relationship. Borne from over 400 years of distilling history, with records showing Campbeltown’s love for whisky dating back to 1591. By the early 1600s, the Kintyre peninsula, jutting out in to the Irish Sea and separating Islay and the Isle of Arran, is a hotbed for illegal distillation and smuggling. At the turn of the 1800s, the locals possess generations of distilling expertise, however the exorbitant taxes continue to drive the illicit industry, with the ominous shadow of the Crown’s Exciseman never far away. It is worth noting that it was legal to distill by this time, but the cost of taxes and duties meant the vast majority of distillers waited until the 1823 Excise Act was passed before applying for a license.

The 1823 Excise Act

1835 arrives, and there are 28 distilleries that are operational, including today’s stalwarts, Springbank (1828) and Glen Scotia (1835). Competition is fierce, yet the general condition of the industry is good and whilst issues such as religious opposition arise, these are negated by distillery owners providing sweeteners in the form of donations for churches to be built or renovations carried out. Of course, closures occurred during this time and for a decade there were no new distillery openings, but no-one knew this would be a precursor to the almost-total decimation of the town’s whisky industry less than a century later.

By the 1870s, the boom had truly arrived, and distilleries such as Glengyle (1872) are built, however by the 1880s notable distilleries were beginning to close – Meadowburn in 1885, for example – and, to some extent, the first warning signs that the bubble could burst were beginning to become noticeable. Nonetheless, the town’s whisky production continued unabated, the afore-mentioned investments rolled in, and stock continued to be bought in large quantities. Distilleries began to cut corners; they ran their stills harder, maximised production, and did not reinvest any money in to the machinery or maintenance of the stills. By the mid-1890s, the town’s whisky output was so great that the local fields were stripped bare of barley, so more had to be imported in from Ireland and, in some cases, from Denmark and Russia, and the town’s sea loch began to become polluted due to waste that was created and subsequently dumped by the distilleries.  

So, on the surface, cracks were beginning to appear, but it wasn’t until 1899 when the largest blending house, Pattison’s of Leith, went under after defaulting on several substantial debts. Those within the whisky industry began to realise the shaky foundations upon which it was built. Pattison’s had been created by two brothers, Robert and Walter, in 1887. After the Phylloxera Epidemic devastated France’s vineyards and brought brandy production almost to a halt, the demand for whisky increased, and the brothers had spotted an opening in the market. By the mid-1890s, they had expanded the business, and had bought large shares in distilleries including Glenfarclas and Oban. With a sales force and budget that dwarfed their nearest rivals, the extravagant brothers even purchased 500 Grey Parrots, taught them the phrase, “Pattison’s Whisky Is Best!”, and proceeded to give them away to vendors all over Scotland. Unfortunately, by 1899, the brothers were defaulting on loans, accruing vast debt, and were caught mixing large quantities of cheap whisky with tiny amounts of fine single malts to sell on as ‘Fine Old Glenlivet’. Their accounts were frozen, both were arrested on charges of fraud and embezzlement, and they were eventually found guilty and jailed; Robert for 18 months, Walter for 9.

Pattison’s of Leith advertisement

After Pattison’s closed, investors realised that their massive quantities of whisky stock were dramatically losing value because the demand was no longer there. In only a few years, the value of whisky had halved, and Campbeltown was hardest hit. Not only was there no longer demand, but the quality of whisky had also suffered – whilst Ardbeg was selling to blending houses for up to 18 shillings per gallon, Campbeltown’s whisky was barely achieving 8. Campbeltown’s whisky, once famed for its oily, potent, smokiness, was now a much-lighter whisky, and could no longer command competitive pricing.

As the dawn of the 20th century passed, Scotland’s whisky industry continued to wobble. The decrease in demand caused falling prices, the First Wold War led to grain shortages with some distilleries halting production altogether, coal mines were closed, taxes were increased, prohibition was implemented by the United States which destroyed the export market, and the Great Depression of 1929 was the final death knell with unemployment rife and disposable wages non-existent. The decimation of Campbeltown’s whisky industry truly took a hold in 1920, and to such an extent that it has never – and likely will never – recover to similar stature ever again.

From only 1920 to 1928, a total of 18 distilleries in Campbeltown alone were closed. By the 1930s, only 2 distilleries remained: Springbank and Glen Scotia. Neither had produced any whisky since the turn of the decade, and production has stopped intermittently since, particularly in the 80s when the industry was suffering another downturn, yet both still survive to ensure Campbeltown’s rich whisky history and regional importance remains.

Finally, the millennium arrives, but the future still looked bleak for Campbeltown. The Scotch Whisky Association are in discussion to remove the town from the list of Scotland’s 5 Official Whisky Regions and incorporate it in to the Highlands Region. They were concerned that the region’s significance had waned to a point that it was, almost, an irrelevance, and shaking up the official region list would breathe new life and interest in to the industry.

Up steps Mr Hedley Wright, owner of Springbank Distillery, which is Scotland’s oldest independent, family-owned distillery (and the only one to fully malt its own barley). He knew that the Lowlands Region had 3 operational distilleries, so what did he do? Well, he bought a second distillery, of course. By 2004, with much time, money, and love, Glengyle Distillery was complete, and Campbeltown’s status was secured.

Today, all 3 distilleries – Springbank, Glengyle (released under the name Kilkerran), and Glen Scotia – are still operating and continue to produce quality single malts. It is worth mentioning that the town is the base for Cadenhead’s, one of Scotland’s largest independent bottles as well.

Springbank have also reimagined and released Longrow (Heavily-peated + 50ppm) and Hazelburn (Unpeated + Triple Distilled). Whilst these 2 releases only make up 20% of Springbank’s output, they have already amassed a large cult fanbase, and their individual qualities and, in some ways, oddities, go hand-in-hand with Springbank’s unique two-and-a-half times distillation process (the majority of the whisky is distilled twice, whilst a smaller portion is distilled thrice).

Whilst Campbeltown is unlikely to boast 30 distilleries again, it’s permanent place in Scotland’s whisky industry is indisputable, and it’s turbulent-yet-prolific history will continue to hold a deep-rooted romanticism for many whisky enthusiasts. This is testament to the tenacity, perseverance, and resilience of Campbeltown, its distilleries, and its people.


2 thoughts on “Whisky Regions – Part 2

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s