The Resurgence of a Scotch Whisky Region That Almost Disappeared

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Courtesy Glen Scotia

There are five recognized whisky-distilling regions in Scotland: The Lowlands, home to Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, Glenkinchie; The Speyside, where you’ll find the likes of Aberlour, Balvenie, Cardhu,  Glenfiddich, The Macallan, The Glenlivet, and The Glenrothes; The Highlands, which produces some of the most famous, from Aberfeldy, Balblair, and Ben Nevis, to Dalmore, Dalwhinnie, Glen Ord, Glenmorangie, Oban, and Glendronach; In Islay, inhabitants distill peaty treats like Ardbeg, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig. The fifth region is one you likely haven’t heard of — it’s called Campbeltown, and it’s home to only three makers, Springbank, Glen Scotia, and Kilkerran.

But this wasn’t always the case. Campbeltown was once the largest producer of single-malt scotch whisky, with more than 30 distillers.

While the Scots have been distilling a spirit known as Uisge Beatha (water of life) since at least 1494, whisky production as we know it didn’t take off until the early 19th century, thanks to lower taxes and improvements in distilling technology.

In the 1880s, microscopic bugs decimated France’s vineyards, hobbling wine and cognac production. Before the French could get back on their feet, people had developed a taste for Scotch and it had supplanted brandy as the most popular spirit.

It was during this era that Campbeltown began to boom. According to Kenneth Hanley of the Scottish Tourist Guide Association, so much whisky was being made in Campbeltown, “People were inhaling the Angel Share 24/7.” Whisky was king, and the region became known as the go-to spot to source quality spirits for big-time blenders, including John Walker. “There were so many distilleries in Campbeltown, hardly anyone, at this point, can name them all,” Hanley said.

Of course, that’s not the end of the region’s story. After a boom usually comes a bust, and so it was for Campbeltown. After the roar of the ’20s, demand for Campbeltown whisky began to wane for multiple reasons. Tastes shifted as the railroad opened up the supply chain to other regions, including Speyside and the Highlands, where according to Hanley, big blenders like Dewar’s and Cutty Sark began to select their component spirits. The Great Depression rocked the world’s economy, and prohibition dried up much of the market in the United States. By 1935, only Springbank and Glen Scotia were left in Campbeltown.

Cut to the turn of the millennium, those remaining whisky makers received some bad news. The Scotch Whisky Association was going to revoke Campbeltown’s status as a whisky region because there were only two distillers.

Springbank‘s David Allen said this was a non-starter for his family-owned distiller. “We felt rightly aggrieved at the possibility of Campbeltown being wiped of the whisky map and pointed out to them that although we were just a small town with two distilleries, we had a long, rich heritage of making whisky and were often referred to as the ‘whisky capital of the world,'” Allen said.

So Springbank formulated a plan. “Our Chairman (Hedley G. Wright) who is the great-great-grandson of the founder of Springbank and the great-great-nephew of the founder of the original Glengyle distillery, bought the site of the former Glengyle Distillery,” according to Allen. “We then pointed out to the SWA that the Lowland region only had three operational distilleries; Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie. So if Campbeltown added a third, we deserved the same recognition.”

The old distillery had fallen into disrepair, but they managed to overhaul the site, install second-hand equipment and eventually fire up the stills in early 2004. With a third maker, known as Kilkerran, online, Campbeltown’s status as a region with the SWA was again on firm footing.

Today, Campbeltown is seeing a bit of resurgence. With global demand for whisky at near insatiable levels, drinkers are turning to makers that are less familiar. “People now have a taste for single malts,” Hanley said. Whisky lovers have developed a “very educated palate and a fine nose, driving demand for unique whiskies.” Limited supplies from more famous producers of malt whisky mean that the Campbeltown makers are now producing whiskies in which connoisseurs are extremely interested.

This is all music to the ears of Iain McAlister, Glen Scotia’s manager. The brand has recently reintroduced itself to the U.S. market. “We’re really proud of what we do and the type of whiskies that we make here,” he said. “The passion and the energy and the commitment that goes into making these whiskies is phenomenal, so (the renewed interest) is definitely going to be looked on with pride.”

In the world of whisky, Campbeltown is bringing something different to the table according to Hanley “That’s what people are looking for, and out of that comes a product that is totally brilliant.”

While Islays are know for their peaty flavor, Campbeltown whiskies, across brands, also have a profile that makes them special. “The saltiness and the oil in them are definitely unifying factors,” McAlister said. “Ours is a well-balanced whisky, great flavor through the whole profile, and it’s light, you get saltiness, you get a subtle oil, and just that complete balance.”

On a recent trip to Scotland we discovered many Scots were getting reacquainted with Campbeltown whiskies. When queried, bartenders often recommended a Campbeltown as one we should try.

At Edinburgh’s craft cocktail hotspot Bramble Bar, tender Mike Aikman created a drink called The Campbeltown in tribute to the region.

“I was really inspired by Campbeltown,” he said. “The thought of it being a bustling wee town with around 30 distilleries at one stage, to what it is now, made me want to create a drink to really celebrate the place, but particularly its history.”

The drink is delicious, an elegantly simple combination of Springbank 10, Yellow Chartreuse, and Cherry Heering that accentuates the whisky. “After much R&D and fiddling with the measurements, I was finally happy enough to present it at a drinks meeting at Bramble, which we do quarterly to assess what drinks we should put on the menu. I’m happy to say it has now been on the menu for seven years!”

“I love the style of whisky that comes from Campbeltown, Springbank and Longrow, Glen Scotia, and now Kilkerran,” Aikman said. “They all seem to have a certain oiliness and are full-flavored, which really appeals to me. It feels like quite an old-fashioned style of whisky, like what my grandfather would have enjoyed. I only wish that I had an opportunity to taste some of the whiskies from the lost distilleries in Campbeltown that he may have drunk!”

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