The Campbeltown Boom and Bust

If you’ve ever visited Dufftown in Speyside, chances are a local will have proudly told you that “Rome was built on seven hills, but Dufftown stands on seven stills”. And while a cluster of seven distilleries in a village of 1600 people is indeed impressive, there was once a time when Dufftown’s claim to be the whisky capital of the world would have been brushed aside without a second thought.

Nowadays, few whisky fans make the long drive down the Kintyre peninsula. In fact, many are even unaware that Campbeltown is a whisky region in its own right. And this is perhaps not surprising, given that there are now only three distilleries operational. How different this once was. In its heyday, Campbeltown was the undisputed Whisky Metropolis (to use Alfred Barnard’s words), boasting no less than 26 distilleries. Coming in by sea through the Campbeltown Loch, the sight of all those chimneys belching out smoke must have been quite something to behold. The town, never housing more than a few thousand inhabitants, was a bustle of whisky making activity, buildings blackened with soot and the smell of peat reek permeating everything. So successful were Campbeltown’s whisky barons in attracting the business of large Lowland blenders such as Johnnie Walker and Dewar’s, that by the 1890s, Campbeltown boasted the highest per capita income anywhere in Britain. And not only the local economy was thriving. Converted into today’s money, every inhabitant was contributing the equivalent of £30.000 a year to the Treasury in excise duty. Clearly, Campbeltown distillers were getting things very right. The sky was the limit and one could not imagine a Scotch whisky industry without Campbeltown at its forefront. But fast-forward 30 years and Campbeltown paints a much bleaker, more desolate picture, one of financial struggle, distillery closures and rampant unemployment. At its very lowest point, only Springbank distillery remained open, and even they ceased production for a few seasons. How did Campbeltown’s fortunes reverse so dramatically? What were the factors that brought down this mighty force in whisky making? And what might the future hold for this proud town that once lived and breathed whisky? This is a story of impossible highs, heart-wrenching lows and glimmers of hope on the horizon. This is the story of the Campbeltown boom and bust.

Campbeltown

The many chimneys of Campbeltown

Like any good tale about whisky should, Campbeltown’s story starts off with Irish monks, illicit distillers and nosy excisemen. It has been fairly well established that Ireland is where the distilling of whisky first took place. Considering that the Kintyre peninsula is just 12 miles away from the Irish coast of Antrim, and that Saint Columba is known to have spent three years in Campbeltown before moving to Iona, it is not wholly unlikely that Campbeltown is in fact the true cradle of Scottish whisky making. Alas, we will never know, but it can be said with certainty that distilling took place on the Kintyre peninsula as early as the 16th century. There are few records from this time, but if we fast-forward two centuries, it is clear that distilling had become part and parcel of life. Water, barley and peat were all available in abundance, but what really made Campbeltown an ideal location was its natural harbour and proximity to Glasgow. During the Industrial Revolution, Glasgow was referred to as the ‘Second City of the Empire’ and numerous ships made a stop at Campbeltown, eager to pick up some whisky along the way.

Not that any legal businesses had sprung up; the tax regime was far too onerous for this. As a result, between 1797-1999, no less than 292 illicit stills were confiscated by excisemen. Although Campbeltown Distillery was the first to take out a legal license in 1817, others did not follow suit until after the Excise Act significantly lowered taxes in 1823. Over the next 5 years, 15 new legal distilleries sprang up. While this should have been enough, distillers, blenders and investors all chased ever-increasing profits, and a further 13 distilleries were built between 1830 and 1835. At this point, competition was fierce, resources were stretched and it was clear that the first casualties would soon fall. Indeed, no new distilleries were built for almost a decade, and several smaller, less financially viable distilleries were forced to close up shop. Even so, the whisky industry as a whole remained in relatively good shape, with economic stagnation and increasing church opposition to alcohol the only clouds on the horizon. In response, many distillery owners put their wealth to building churches, which much mellowed the church’s attitude to this ‘devil’s drink’. In fact, on his tour of Campbeltown, Alfred Barnard remarked that “there are nearly as many places of worship as distilleries in town”. It was a fine example of what we would now call corporate social responsibility.

Temperance Poster

Alcohol was not always so popular with the church and the government…

Another few distilleries closed just as Glen Nevis and Ardlussa opened its doors. At the turn of the 20th century, the number of distilleries had levelled off to around 20. This was a time of unprecedented growth in the whisky industry, in no small part due to the Phylloxera epidemic that had ravaged the vineyards in France. Campbeltown distillers ramped up production significantly in the face of ever-increasing demand from the blending houses. So large was Campbeltown’s production that the Kintyre farmland was stripped bare, and barley was shipped in from as far away as Denmark and Russia. Everything indicated that Campbeltown had a golden future ahead of it and money continued to pour in achieve ever higher output. Annual production was around the 10 million litre mark, a staggering amount for that time. Speculation was rife, as investors bought up huge quantities of whisky for future resale, thereby further fuelling overproduction. Distillers naively assumed that demand would always be there, leading to a sense of complacency. During this Golden Age of Whisky, not a lot of investments were made in hardware or upkeep, which would negatively affect the quality of the whisky later on. Although no one realised it, the Scotch whisky industry was a bubble ready to burst, with Campbeltown at its very forefront. When the bubble did burst, it did so in spectacular fashion, bringing giants crashing down and almost decimating the whisky industry altogether. The landscape of Scotch whisky production would never be the same, as Campbeltown distillers would soon find out.

The trouble started when Pattison’s of Leith – a major blending company – defaulted on its loans, dragging 10 other firms down with it into bankruptcy. Suddenly, investors became shaky, confidence was gone and loans could no longer be repaid. Years of overproduction left distillers with huge quantities of stock, for which demand simply did not exist (and in truth hadn’t existed even before the bubble burst). The price of whisky fell dramatically, tumbling to half its previous value within a matter of years. Due to its huge stocks, Campbeltown whisky was even harder hit. Where spirit sold from Hazelburn to blending houses was valued at 8 shilling per gallon, distilleries such as Craigellachie and Ardbeg were able to command up to 18 shillings.

In the decades that followed, external factors were also at play, brewing up a perfect storm of adverse conditions that almost toppled the whisky industry. The First World War depressed the internal market and saw curbs on the availability of grain. In Campbeltown, not a single distillery was active during the War, and many distillers simply gave up and relocated to London or Glasgow. Around the same time, the Temperance movement gained traction under the leadership of David Lloyd George. While there had always been a somewhat adversarial relationship between alcohol and the government, Lloyd George now claimed that alcohol was more damaging “than all the German submarines put together. We are at war with Austria, Germany and drink; and as far as I can see the greatest of these deadly foes is drink”. As a result, the tax on alcohol production was increased sixfold, further dampening consumption in the light of higher prices. In the United States, as similar sentiment had taken hold, and Prohibition officially came into force in 1920, removing an important export market for Scottish distillers. To top it all off, the stock market crash of 1929 heralded in the Great Depression, a time of poverty and hardship for many. In Glasgow, unemployment reached 30%, and people had far more pressing items on their shopping lists than whisky.

In the face of all this adversity, you can hardly blame the Campbeltown distillers for cutting some corners and trying to reduce costs. Rumours of whisky being aged in barrels that previously held herring were never proven, and it seems likely that the phrase “stinking fish” was simply a derogatory term introduced by Speyside distillers who were in direct competition with their Campbeltown counterparts. Either way, it is undeniably true that some poor quality spirit was being aged in very substandard casks, putting a big dent in Campbeltown’s previously sterling reputation for quality whisky. As a result, most blending houses began sourcing their whisky in the Speyside. This was a trend that had been ongoing for some time, to the detriment of Campbeltown distillers. In order to accommodate the more delicate tastes of the English upper classes, the softer, sweeter Speyside style was much in fashion with blenders. Campbeltown whiskies had traditionally been heavily peated, but now distillers started using coal fuelled fires to dry their barley, resulting in the lighter style of Campbeltown whisky that we know today. Alas, it was not enough to stem the tide. With Speyside now more accessible due to the Strathspey Railway, Campbeltown lost many of the transport advantages that had fuelled its initial growth.

The results for Campbeltown were outright disastrous, as distilleries closed in rapid succession. Most were able to stay afloat for a few years simply by selling their stock, but very little distillation took place during these years. The following overview of closures pretty much tells the whole story.

Campbeltown Distillery Closures Timeline

The closures of distilleries came thick and fast after 1920. Each red flag indicates a distillery closing its doors and never reopening.

By 1935, only Springbank and Scotia distillery remained, and neither of them had produced whisky during the previous 5 years. This took a serious toll on the local population. The distilleries used to employ numerous locals, with many more working in supporting jobs such as carting, coopering, bottling, or even growing barley. Unemployment was rampant and these were certainly hard times for the Campbeltonians, who had worked in the whisky trade for generations. Many left for Glasgow in search of new opportunities. Abandoned distilleries were knocked down and converted into housing projects, garages, or even just a parking lot. In 1930, it all became a bit too much for Duncan Maccallum, then owner of the Scotia distillery. After a business deal reportedly went very wrong, he committed suicide by drowning himself in Campbeltown Loch. His ghost is said to haunt the distillery, although this is of course not actively marketed by Glen Scotia.

Further periods of inactivity notwithstanding, Springbank and Glen Scotia continued to make quality malts. Yet around the turn of the millennium they were in for some bad news. The Scotch Whisky Association was deciding to scrap Campbeltown’s status as a whisky region, owing to the fact that there were only two distilleries operational. It seemed that despite its proud heritage and long tradition of whisky making, Campbeltown would be demoted to just another town that happened to boast a distillery or two. This was too bitter a pill to swallow for Hedley Wright, owner of the Springbank distillery and descendent of its original founder. He decided to buy up the dysfunctional Glengyle distillery and breathe new life into it. This put the number of distilleries in Campbeltown at three, on par with the Lowland region. The Scotch Whisky Association agreed that Campbeltown deserved the same recognition, and the town’s future as a distinct whisky region was secure once more.

Campbeltown Distilleries Timeline

Each green flag indicates a new distillery being opened, whereas a red flag depicts a distillery that closed its doors forever. The periods of boom and bust are clear: a flurry of new distilleries after 1823, and a huge amount of closures after 1920.

By 2004, the new Glengyle distillery became operational, and now produces whisky marketed under the name Kilkerran. With Springbank also producing three different styles of whisky (unpeated Hazelburn, medium peated Springbank and heavily peated Longrow), Campbeltown distilling is seeing a bit of a resurgence. Malt whisky enjoys an enormous popularity at the moment, and many whisky fans are rediscovering Campbeltown. And with distilleries springing up like mushrooms everywhere, who knows if Campbeltown can further expand its portfolio. Times will never be like they were, but perhaps that’s for the best. With branding more important than ever, the uniqueness of Campbeltown whiskies certainly helps to boost sales. Without a doubt though, Campbeltown has had a major impact on the development and popularity of Scotch whisky. Now a useful reminder of the dangers of boundless optimism, Campbeltown has weathered more than its fair share of bad fortune. It is a testament to the sheer perseverance of the current distillers (as well as the quality of their whiskies) that Campbeltown drams continue to be enjoyed the world over. And that’s a good thing, because a place with the heritage and pedigree of Campbeltown should not disappear from the whisky regions map. So here’s to both the turbulent past and the future of Scotland’s most historic whisky town: slàinte!

A Visit to Eimverk Distillery

With its frosty temperatures and dark winter months, Iceland seems as good a place as any to pour yourself a warming dram of whisky. And while you’re at it, why not opt for a locally distilled whisky, as the perfect companion for exploring Iceland’s stunning natural beauty. Until recently this would not have been possible, but fortunately Eimverk distillery has since entered the scene.

Apparently in Icelandic, there is no word for ‘distillery’, so a bit of linguistic creativity was required.  Eim is short for distilling in Icelandic, while verk means ‘a job being done’, and this is exactly what this small distillery has enthusiastically kept busy with since 2009. The result is not only the Flóki whisky range, but also a selection of award winning gins and the traditional Icelandic spirit called Brennivín.

Eimverk Distillery Logo

The Eimverk logo displays the Vegvísir runic compass, as well as the three ravens used by Hrafna-Flóki, the first person to deliberately navigate to Iceland. The runes around the compass read ‘the way from home is the way to home’. Not only is this an excellent adage for exploring and settling on new shores, it is also useful advice for drunkenly making your way back home after a few too many whiskies!

Based in the outskirts of Reykjavik on an industrial estate, the distillery is not exactly located in a very picturesque location. But although unassuming from the outside, on the inside the distillery is bustling with activity and brimming with enthusiasm. Eimverk was started by three brothers, initially operating out of their garage. The first few years were spent experimenting with a home-made still. Many tries and 165 different recipes later, the first Flóki-to-be was left in casks to mature.

Eimverk Distillery 01

From the outside, you’d not suspect the massive surprise that waits within…

To create Flóki, Eimverk uses organically grown Icelandic barley. As you can imagine, Iceland’s sub-arctic climate and short growing season do not provide ideal conditions for crops to flourish. As such, Icelandic barley is not very rich in sugars, meaning that Eimverk uses up to 50% more barley per batch than distilleries in other countries. Although uneconomical, this does have a positive effect on the flavour of the whisky and helps to create Flóki’s distinctive spicy, oily character. For producing the wash, Eimverk has found a convenient water source: tap water! Having been naturally filtered over layers of volcanic rock, Iceland’s tap water is of exceptional quality, something which was confirmed by a Scottish expert, who declared it perfect for making whisky. The water is heated using geothermal energy, making Eimverk a lot more environmentally friendly than most other distilleries. Plastic fermentation tanks are used instead of the traditional oak or stainless steel washbacks, after which the entire contents are transferred to the wash still, itself a repurposed milk tank. This includes even the dregs at the bottom the tank (husks, grist, etc.), which supposedly contributes to Flóki’s smoothness. The final distillation takes place in a still called Elizabeth, named after the great grandmother of the distiller – a tradition among whisky makers. Everything is rather makeshift, but this is what makes this distillery so fascinating, like a masterclass in start-up whisky entrepreneurship. In many ways, Eimverk distillery seems more like a hobby gotten out of hand, and I do believe this passion translates into the quality of the whisky.

Eimverk Distillery 02

One of the plastic fermentation tanks at Eimverk

To create the Flóki Young Malt, the spirit is placed in North American virgin oak barrels. Since the wood has never been used before, it has tonnes of flavour to add to the spirit, meaning that the maturation happens rather quickly. Once the Young Malt is bottled, the casks are then re-used as refill barrels to create the 3 year old Flóki Single Malt, which will be released in November 2017.

The result is a drink that is astoundingly smooth and flavourful for a spirit so young. I won’t spend too much time describing the whisky in this post, as you can read a full review here. Suffice it to say that all the signs indicate that Flóki whisky has a bright future ahead of it!

Eimverk Distillery 03

Elizabeth, the spirit still at Eimverk

The Flóki range also consists of the Sheep Dung Smoked Reserve, Eimverk’s answer to smoky whiskies. Since Iceland does not have any peat bogs to speak of, the barley for this whisky has been smoked over a fire fuelled by sheep shit. While this may sound a bit unappetising at first, it is actually a common way of curing food in Iceland. All over the island, you will find salmon or ham that’s been smoked this way, and although pungent, it doesn’t taste the least bit shitty. The Sheep Dung whisky is bottled at only 10 months, but the smoke masks some of the impurities. This spirit is sweeter and a bit lighter than the Young Malt, like a boisterous younger brother. Although the Sheep Dung Reserve does display a definite degree of smokiness, it’s completely different to the peated whiskies you’ll find in Scotland, and particularly unlike the medicinal type produced on Islay. While I love these peaty whiskies, it’s very refreshing to see smoky whisky done differently.

Although the whiskies were the main draw for me, the Vor gin selection is definitely worth a try. Made using largely the same process, but with a third distillation, during which botanicals are added to the gin to provide extra flavour. Although it comes with challenges, only herbs and plants that naturally grow in Iceland are used, meaning that Vor really is a reflection of the Icelandic climate. In addition to the standard expression that received double gold at the World Spirits Competition, there is also a bottling at higher strength, as well as a version that’s received a short maturation in oak casks. All of these make a delightful gin and tonic, but if you add splash of Vor Blueberry sloe gin it becomes an absolute treat.

Eimverk Distillery 04

Icelandic botanicals, ready to be mixed with the Vor gin

With these products being sold in the duty free store at Keflavik airport, at bars all over Iceland and even in web shops abroad, Eimverk is certainly off to a good start. The main question now is not one of quality but of quantity: how is poor old Elizabeth going to handle the immense popularity of Vor and Flóki? With an annual production of just 300.000 litres (whisky, gin and Brennivín combined), it seems clear that extra stills may need to be installed to really be able to present Icelandic distilling to a global audience. Whether this might make the distillery lose some of its current charm is another matter. For now, if you are visiting Reykjavik, be sure to drop by Eimverk distillery for a tour and a tasting, it’s absolutely worth the effort! Even if you have nowhere near as much passion for distilled spirits as the folks at Eimverk, their enthusiasm and the sheer quality of their drinks is sure to put a smile on your face.

Eimverk Distillery 05

The distillery tour comes with an extensive tasting of all Eimverk’s products

Laphroaig Distillery

Laphroaig Water to Whisky Experience

I’ve visited quite some distilleries over the years, and at most you will be warmly received with a short tour of the premises, followed by a generous helping of the local liquid. While I love these distillery visits, there is no denying that by and large, they mostly show the same thing. This is why it’s so refreshing that Laphroaig has put on something more extensive for the die-hard whisky fan. The tour is called the Water to Whisky Experience, it takes around 4,5 hours and will currently set you back £90 (it was much cheaper when I went in 2011, but did admittedly not involve taking home your own bottle). A trip to Islay is always something special, but this distillery experience really is the icing on the proverbial cake.

Laphroaig Visitor Centre

Like the distillery itself, Laphroaig’s visitor centre is located right by the seaside

The tour starts at the distillery’s visitor centre, where you can gear up in wellington boots if you like. While I was there, the weather was gorgeous, but on a typical rainy Islay day, I can imagine the wellies are essential. Once ready, the first part of the tour takes you to the very origins of Laphroaig’s whisky making process: the water source. Laphroaig sources its water from the Kilbride steam, which was long a matter of dispute between Laphroaig and the neighbouring Ardenistiel distillery. Needless to say, Laphroaig prevailed, and decided to dam the stream in 1930, creating the Kilbride Reservoir. It’s quite an idyllic location, and an ideal spot for a picnic, along with some Laphroaig whisky of course. Along the way, we even spotted some deer, further adding to the bucolic charm of this very pleasant day.

Kilbride Dam

The Kilbride Dam ensures a consistent water supply for Laphroaig

Next it was off to the peat beds, located near Islay’s only airport. This is where Laphroaig still hand cuts much of its peat, using traditional tools. Islay peat is different in composition from mainland peat, owing to the fact that tree growth is very sparse on the island. Peat is essentially decomposed organic matter, so while mainland peat might be made up of tree leaves and branches, Islay peat consists of moss, heather and lichens. This gives Islay whiskies their distinctive medicinal character, of which Laphroaig is one of the finest examples.

Laphroaig Peat Beds

The peat beds at Laphroaig

We were invited to give the peat cutting a go ourselves, but I quickly found out I’m absolutely no good at it. The idea is to remove the top soil and then cut straight down with a special type of shovel, and afterwards stack up the neatly cut slices for drying. The top soil is then placed back, allowing the peat bog to slowly regenerate over time. After struggling badly for about 10 minutes, I sat down among the beautiful peat bogs for another whisky instead, watching the others do the hard work. While the Laphroaig peat beds were a fun experience, they’re an even more fitting place to fill up your glass with some of the world’s peatiest whiskies.

Laphroaig Peat Beds

Enjoying a dram amongst the peat

With the peat cutting done and invigorated by another dram, we headed back for the actual distillery tour. This started off at the malting floor, where Laphroaig still malts some of its own barley, quite unusual in today’s industry (although two-thirds of the barley comes from Port Ellen Maltings just down the road). The rest of the tour followed the usual recipe, with an extensive tasting at the end. At the time I went, filling up your own bottle was purely optional (at an additional charge), but by now it has been included in the increased price for the tour. Either way, there is something very satisfying about filling up your own bottle using a traditional valinch, and later drinking it, knowing exactly where it came from.

Laphroaig Still House

Laphroaig’s stills

By then, the level of tipsiness had steadily increased, but not enough to stop me from planting a flag at my “personal square foot of Islay” in the Friends of Laphroaig fields. After some quick work with the tape measure, the rough location was found and the Dutch flag proudly planted on Scottish soil.

Friends of Laphroaig

The Laphroaig Water to Whisky Experience is a full day filled with whisky fun, which I can recommend to any Islay whisky fan. It just adds that little bit of extra uniqueness when visiting an island that lives and breathes whisky. It’s true that £90 is quite a splurge, but in return Laphroaig will make sure that you have an unforgettable day!

The Unbreakable Malt Mill That Was Simply Too Successful

If you’ve ever been on a distillery tour, chances are that the milling room wasn’t exactly the highlight of your trip. Sure, looking at the boxes with husks, grit and flour can be fun, but unless the machinery is running, there really isn’t all that much to see. And if the mill is in fact operational, the noise level is so deafening that you will quickly be ushered into the next room, where the tour guide can give an explanation.

Ardbeg Robert Boby Malt Mill

The malt mill at Ardbeg distillery, old despite its shiny paint job

While washbacks might be made out of fresh pine wood and a newly replaced still may yet be shiny, the malt mill is always the same old, worn machine, like something straight out of a dusty shed with antique, discarded equipment. There is a reason for this though, and that reason is simple: almost all the malt mills currently in use do date back a few generations. You sometimes hear the phrase “They don’t make them like this anymore”, and in the case of the malt mill, this is actually true: they stopped being produced in the 1970s. But the reason the malt mill went out of production wasn’t because it wasn’t working properly or had somehow become obsolete. Quite the contrary, malt mills were so effective and durable, that they forced the companies that produced them into bankruptcy. Never breaking down, never malfunctioning, just grinding away the tonnes of barley that are thrown at it, year in, year out. Since they hardly ever needed to be replaced, there wasn’t a whole lot of money to be made by selling them. Malt mills are an example of something that was simply too well made, and contemporary manufacturers have taken notice. While a malt mill could easily last a lifetime, cars or phones these days are made to break down in mere years, thereby boosting sales.

Bowmore Porteus Malt Mill

The Porteus malt mill at Bowmore distillery

Most Scottish whisky distilleries own one of two brands of malt mill: either a Robert Boby or a Porteus, both of which work largely in the same way. Before entering the actual mill, the barley passes through a dresser, which acts as a sieve to filter out any larger objects, such as stones or pieces of straw. These dressers are also fitted with magnets to stop any small metallic objects from getting stuck in the mill. The mill itself consists of two rollers. The first roller cracks the husks of the barley, while the second pulvarises the grain. The resulting mixture is called grist, and can range from a light and powdery dust to a rough, coarse mixture. If the grist is too fine, it will clog up the mash tun, whereas valuable sugars will be lost if the mixture is too coarse.

From malt to grist, along with its components

Clearly then, the malt mill performs an important task. Yet despite the fact that that it may grind up thousands of kilograms of barley per year, it hardly requires any maintenance. In fact, distilleries take a strange pleasure in showing off how old their mills are and comparing when the last repairs took place. For example, Deanston proudly states that their mill was only recalibrated twice since the 1960s, while Glenfarclas proclaims that they’ve not had to replace their rollers in over 30 years. When a malt mill does break down however, this can spell trouble for the distillery. Since both Robert Boby and Porteus are now defunct, spare parts are very hard to come by and must be made to order. As such, malfunctioning mills can take days to repair, forcing a distillery to fall silent the moment it runs out of barley. For a business that is normally operational nonstop, this can be a costly distraction. Spare parts aside, since these machines are now so arcane, it can even be tricky to find a skilled mechanic to service them. The Bruichladdich website states that their mill was “refurbished by the only man in the country with the expertise to do so, two weeks before he died”. I can hardly imagine that there was only a single capable mechanic left, so while this may be an exaggeration, it does illustrate the fact quite nicely.

A Robert Boby Ltd letterhead

Buying a new mill is not really an option either. When Ardbeg installed its Robert Boby mill in 1921, it cost £300. A new (second hand) mill would cost around £60.000 nowadays, quite an outlay for a machine that’s over 50 years old! Yet obtaining a newer form of equipment is apparently not done, as even newly established distilleries do not commission a new, state-of-the-art mill to be built, but instead go in search for a Porteus or Boby mill from a mothballed distillery or brewery. To illustrate, although Kilchoman was established in 2005, they managed to acquire an 80 year old Porteus mill from a local brewery, which is now easily the oldest piece of equipment in the distillery. I suspect that in another 80 years, that same mill will still be running smoothly, outlasting other equipment, staff and perhaps even the distillery itself. And while producing a malt mill this durable may not have made good commercial sense, it is definitely something to be proud of. Porteus and Boby may disagree, but I would certainly like to raise a glass to the unbreakable malt mill!

Kilchoman Malt Mill

This malt mill at Kilchoman is in fact much older than the distillery itself

 

Whisky Royal Family

Whisky: A Drink Fit for a King (or Queen)

Ruling a country is hard work. It should therefore come as no surprise that some monarchs need a drink from time to time. History is littered with examples of royalty who liked their booze perhaps a bit too much. William IV broke his arm while drunkenly falling down a flight of stairs, George IV was known as a party animal to rival even Prince Harry, and Queen Mother Elizabeth would famously tell her attendants to hide a bottle of gin in a hatbox while being about her official duties. Henry VII spent the equivalent of £900.000 a year replenishing his wine cellar, while Queen Victoria was known for adding a splash of malt whisky to her claret. And although Queen Elizabeth II declined to drink Guinness on a recent visit to Dublin, she does enjoy a gin before lunch, wine during, and Martini and champagne in the evening, according to her cousin Margaret Rhodes.

Prince Charles - Whisky

Prince Charles is a well known whisky enthusiast

Of course not all monarchs were notorious drinkers, but there has long been an appreciation for Scotch whisky within royal circles. One way in which this can be acknowledged is through the issuing of a Royal Warrant. A Royal Warrant is a sign of recognition to a company which has provided goods or services to the royal family for at least five years. It can only be granted by the king or queen and his or her consort, as well as the heir apparent. Currently this means Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Prince Charles can issue Royal Warrants. Warrants are valid for a period of five years, after which they are reviewed. Examples include typical British brands such as Twinings, HP Sauce, Cadbury and Aston Martin, but also more exotic products such as Tabasco and Veuve Clicquot.

By Appointment To - Royal Warrant

The crests of those currently able to issue Royal Warrants

The only whisky distillery to currently hold a Royal Warrant is Laphroaig. It was granted on a visit to the distillery by Prince Charles in 1994. Considering Charles is the current Lord of the Isles, it is of course only fitting for him to bestow his personal patronage on an Islay distillery. In celebration, Laphroaig launched the 10 year old Royal Warrant edition, which currently sells for around £325. Charles himself supposedly prefers the 15 year old, which is said to be his favourite malt whisky. He is such a fan of the distillery that he decided to spend part of his 60th birthday there, while also returning to Laphroaig to celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2015.

Laphroaig Royal Warrant

Laphroaig’s Royal Warrant is displayed on every bottle sold

Throughout history, there have been other distilleries that were awarded a Royal Warrant, but at some point did not get it renewed. They are easy to identify, as it was customary to attach ‘Royal’ as a prefix or suffix to the distillery name. I speak of course of Royal Brackla, Royal Lochnagar and Glenury Royal.

Royal Brackla
Royal Brackla was the first whisky distillery ever to be awarded a Royal Warrant in 1833, just 23 years into its existence.  As one of the few licensed highland distilleries, it can’t have been easy for Brackla to compete with the illegal moonshiners of Glen Livet, but once William IV bestowed his personal patronage, things became decidedly easier. Still marketed as ‘The King’s Own Whisky’, this slogan was in need of an overhaul when Queen Victoria decided to renew the Warrant in 1838. Although Royal Brackla remains a relatively small and unknown distillery, it has continued producing quality whiskies ever since.

Royal Brackla Label

Royal Brackla continues to be marketed as ‘The King’s Own Whisky’

Royal Lochnagar
With the Queen’s holiday home at Balmoral Castle just a mile away from Lochnagar, it is perhaps no surprise that the distillery can now boast a royal prefix. After having been burnt down by a rival smuggler, Lochnagar distillery reopened in 1845, just three years before Victoria and Albert moved into Balmoral. The distillery manager invited them and their children over for what was possibly the world’s first distillery tour. At the end of the visit, the royal party (children included) tasted the whisky, and were duly impressed. Not only did the royals become big customers, the queen also bestowed her Royal Warrant, prompting the distillery to rename itself ‘Royal Lochnagar’ for increased exposure. The Warrant was renewed by both Edward VII and George V, but has since expired. The royal connection is now somewhat played down, as Lochnagar distillery is used mostly as a training facility for Diageo’s up and coming whisky makers. Even so, occasional visits from Balmoral still take place, like when Charles visited the distillery to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

Royal Lochnagar Label

Even historical Warrants may still be displayed on the packaging

Glenury Royal
Glenury Royal illustrates the fact that even a Royal Warrant is no guarantee for success. The distillery was founded in 1825, near Aberdeen, by a man named Robert Barclay. Whisky distilling was only a side business for him though, as Barclay was one of the greatest pedestrians of all time, winning great renown (and millions of pounds by today’s equivalent) in the sport. His most famous feat was walking 1000 miles without a break – take that Proclaimers! Born into an aristocratic family, Barclay struck up a friendship with the Duke of Clarence, who would later become King William IV. Eventually, Barclay persuaded the king to issue a Royal Warrant for his distillery. This was perhaps not only down to favouritism, as Glenury produced a fine dram, which William is said to have re-ordered frequently. Despite its initial success and the royal appellation, the distillery could not escape being mothballed several times. The release of a blend called King William IV did not help reverse fortunes, and the distillery finally fell silent in 1985. Although there were hopes as late as the 1990s that Glenury might reopen, the distillery site has now been sold off to make room for a housing development, meaning that Glenury Royal is at last consigned to history.

Robert Barclay - Glenury Royal

Robert Barclay, the illustrious founder of Glenury distillery

It appears the royal family not only appreciates malt whisky, but also rewards blending houses for their commercial success. Currently, whisky giants such as Johnny Walker, Famous Grouse and Dewar’s also hold a Royal Warrant, issued by Queen Elizabeth. Yet the connection between whisky and the royal family goes far beyond the issuing of Warrants. Such is the prestige and popularity of the royals that they continue to inspire various blends, bottlings and limited editions. For example, Glenlivet released a 25 year old Royal Wedding Reserve for Prince William’s nuptials, while Johnny Walker bottled the Diamond Jubilee edition to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 60th anniversary. Macallan even released a whole Coronation Collection for the same occasion. But even relatively minor events may tempt whisky makers into dedicating limited editions to the royals. Glenfiddich for example marked Prince Harry’s expedition to the South Pole with a 29 year old whisky (Harry’s age at the time). Meanwhile the royal family doesn’t seem to mind at all, showing that whisky truly is a drink fit for a king.

Cameronbridge: The Unsung Hero of Scottish Whisky Production

Ask someone to name the largest producing whisky distillery in Scotland, and people will invariably choose Glenlivet or Glenfiddich, one of the single malts that is ubiquitous in shops and bars around the world. The real answer however is a distillery few will ever have heard about: Cameronbridge. With a production as high as the 20 largest malt whisky distilleries combined, Cameronbridge truly is the unknown giant of the Scottish whisky industry.

The reason so few people have heard of Cameronbridge is because it does not have its own single malt on the shelves. In fact, it does not even produce malt whisky at all. Instead, Cameronbridge is a grain distillery, and forms the foundation upon which Diageo built its whisky empire. Nothing like the picturesque distilleries often associated with the traditional art of whisky making, Cameronbridge is a huge industrial complex, an efficient machine that spews out over 200 litres of alcohol every minute. Each week, the distillery uses 50 million litres of water, 3500 tonnes of wheat and 15 tonnes of yeast, to achieve an annual production of 120 million litres of alcohol. By comparison, the output of all Islay distilleries combined adds up to only around 16 million litres. Cameronbridge’s grain whisky is used in practically all of Diageo’s big selling blends, from Johnnie Walker to J&B’s, to Bell’s and Vat 69, to name but a few. Moreover, the distillery now also produces gin and vodka, since Gordon’s and Smirnoff moved their production to Cameronbridge. Add to this schnapps such as Malibu, Pimm’s and Archers and it is easy to see why Cameronbridge produces over 80% of all white spirit consumed in the UK. Despite this fact, whisky continues to account for over two-thirds of the distillery’s output.

Cameronbridge distillery

An aerial view of Cameronbridge distillery.

The story of Cameronbridge begins in 1824, when John Haig started the eponymous Haig distillery on the river Leven in Fife. He was the offshoot of a long line of proud whisky makers, going as far back as 1655, when Robert Haig was ordered to appear in front of church elders to explain why he dared defile the holy Sabbath with his whisky distilling. John Haig married into another dynasty of distillers when he wed Margaret Stein. This did not come without its advantages: Margaret’s cousin designed a still that could run continuously, and Haig Distillery was the first to adopt it, dramatically increasing its productivity. Because of the Stein still’s penchant to spontaneously explode, Haig set family loyalty aside and replaced it with the more reliable Coffey still, which remains the most popular way of producing grain whisky, bourbon and Armagnac to this day. Even so, at this stage output was not limited to grain whisky, as the distillery also owned some pot stills, used for making malt.
In 1877, John Haig & Co. merged with five other grain distilleries to form the Distillers Company Limited (DCL), controlling some 75% of Scotland’s grain whisky production. Cameronbridge was the powerhouse behind this mighty monopoly and has remained so even after DCL slowly evolved to become today’s drinks giant Diageo. The distillery switched to exclusively producing grain whisky in 1929, and has in recent years released single grain whiskies such as Cameron Brig and Haig’s Club.

Cameronbridge may be Diageo’s only grain distillery in production, but that does not mean it is unique in Scotland. Sites such as Invergordon, Girvan and Strathclyde also produce grain whisky used in blends including Whyte & Mackay, Grant’s and Ballantine’s. What does make Cameronbridge unique however is the sheer scale of its production. Although it is hard to underplay the immense output of Scotland’s other grain distilleries, Cameronbridge simply operates on another level altogether. Where Diageo’s marketing machine keeps propelling Johnnie Walker to the spot of world’s best selling whisky, Cameronbridge continues to dutifully provide the raw ingredients.

And while a true whisky connoisseur may be somewhat disdainful of blended whiskies, they are a large part of what allows single malts to exist in the first place. Although grain whiskies form the heart of many blends, these blends also provide a vital lifeline to many a malt distillery, which could not survive without the revenue that the blending industry brings. Take Caol Ila as an example: the vast majority of its production disappears into Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle, but this does enable the distillery to produce some fine malts. In many ways then, blended whiskies allow for the vast range of malt whiskies that are on the shelves today, and malt enthusiasts should be happy for every blended whisky sold in a night club that is subsequently drowned in coke. As I take another sip of malt whisky, I for one am thankful that Cameronbridge keeps on grinding away in obscurity.

Phylloxera

Phylloxera: The Bug that Saved the Whisky Industry

Looking at the worldwide popularity of whisky these days, few whisky drinkers would guess that the contents of their glass might have been very different, had it not been for the interference of a tiny insect native to North America. 1mm long,  0.5mm wide, and listening to the name of daktulosphaira vitifoliae, this bug does not sound like much of a superhero. Yet it played a huge role in popularising whisky, at a time when the industry’s future looked far from bright.

During the Victorian era, the UK spirit market was a very stratified place. As a general rule of thumb, the working classes drank gin, while Britain’s high society enjoyed brandy. Towns with a strong naval tradition would typically drink rum, leaving whisky to fight an uphill battle, particularly outside of Scotland. Yet help arrived from a very unexpected corner, in the form of a tiny unassuming aphid called Phylloxera.

It is well known that the French have always had a love for wine. So when French colonists went to settle in the New World, they naturally brought their grapevines with them. Yet they quickly found out that European strains simply would not thrive in America, as the plants invariably withered and died. Desperate for a taste of their national drink, they turned instead to grapevines native to North America, which did bear fruit. Such became the popularity of these New World wines that the reverse process became a reality: North American grapevines being imported into Europe. While this development had been going on for some years previously, Phylloxera was not introduced to France until around 1860. Some argue that the advent of steamships was a major factor in allowing the Phylloxera aphid to survive the voyage across the Atlantic, as it greatly reduced the journey time.

Either way, in the early 1860s, French vineyard owners started noticing some of their vines dying, for reasons little understood at the time. Yet within a few years, it became clear that a serious new problem was ravaging the vineyards of southern France. The culprit was of course Phylloxera. When feeding on the roots of grapevines, the Phylloxera aphid secretes a poison that damages the root system. Over time, growth of the vine becomes stunted and it will eventually wither and die. While North American strains developed a resistance to this pest, European varieties decidedly did not. Although the problem was identified at last, a solution took even longer to materialise.

phylloxera-eggs2

Phylloxera eggs on a grapevine’s roots

With the epidemic initially confined to France’s southern départements, Phylloxera was not given much national attention. It was not until 1870 that the French government became sufficiently concerned to establish a research commission and offer a reward to whoever found a cure. In the meantime, sheer desperation gripped vineyard owners further south. All but powerless in the face of such destruction, farmers employed the strangest methods to deal with the outbreak. These included burying a live toad under each vine, spraying fields with urine, irrigating with holy water from Lourdes, and even hiring marching bands to drum the aphids from their subterranean hideouts.  While several chemical treatments met with some success, they could not prevent re-infestation. The turning point came in 1881, when it was accepted (oh so reluctantly) that the best solution would be to graft French vines onto American rootstocks. This involved swallowing a great deal of national pride and was not welcomed in all quarters. As such, the response to Phylloxera remained slow, but by the 1920s, virtually all French grapes grew on vines with American roots. By then however, the damage was done.

Grape_leaf_showing_galls_from_Phylloxera

A grape leaf visibly affected by Phylloxera

It is estimated that over 40% of all French vineyards were devastated between 1860 and 1875. Many businesses were forced to close and wages in the wine industry were slashed to less than half their pre-Phylloxera levels. The loss to the French economy stood at over 10 billion Francs, while the price of wine soared. Among the worst hit areas were the vineyards of Cognac and Charente, the traditional heartland of brandy production. Such was the destruction that for a few years in the 1870s, brandy was all but unavailable on the market, except at prices that only the very rich could afford.

This in turn caused some merchants to resort to fraud, and a steady stream of fake brandy permeated the market. This was particularly true for imports into Britain. Much of this fake spirit was quite undrinkable, if not outright poisonous, and severely blemished the stellar reputation that brandy enjoyed. Coupled with extortionate prices and low availability, the British upper classes began to search for alternatives. While this was the perfect chance for Scotch to step in and save the day,  many English were quite wary of Scotland and knew little of the whisky produced there. Such was the unawareness that writer Alfred Barnard was commissioned by a London-based magazine to visit every whisky distillery in the UK and report on his experiences. The resulting book The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom has become an absolute classic and helped create a more nationwide interest in Scotch.  Nevertheless, many brandy drinkers found the comparatively rough flavours of whisky quite unpalatable, and turned to sherry instead. This was imported from Spain in large oak casks, which were impractical to be shipped back to their country of origin. Scottish whisky makers pounced gratefully and started ageing their whiskies in these ex-sherry casks. Resulting in a smoother, more complex drink, whisky matured in this way tasted passably like brandy, and became a popular substitute. Many brandy drinkers who were initially reluctant to drink Scotch were won over by this new style of maturation and remained loyal whisky drinkers when brandy returned to the market a few years later. Although it did not happen overnight, whisky had become fashionable and the industry was set for an unprecedented boom.

Responding to the spike in consumer demand, 33 new distilleries opened their doors in the 1890s alone. Existing distilleries ramped up their production and investors were more than happy to speculate with huge quantities of whisky. Even the popular Wine Trade Review declared that “the future of the wine trade is whisky”. Indeed, the amount of whisky stored in warehouses rose from 2 million gallons in 1891 to 13.5 million gallons in 1899. While this Golden Age of whisky is a classic example of  a bubble (not at all dissimilar to the dot-com bubble of a century later) which did eventually pop, it is undeniable that the Scottish whisky industry underwent a period of immense growth at the turn of the 20th century. It had gone from a localised industry without a large home market to a global player in the international spirits arena. These early successes are a large part of what allowed Scottish whisky to survive the combined setbacks of the First World War, Prohibition and the Great Depression. Even so Scotch hung on only by a thread, and at some point in the 1930s the number of active distilleries actually dropped into the single digits. We cannot be sure, but under the conditions of the pre-Phylloxera epidemic, the Scottish whisky industry might not have survived such a slump. In comparison, the much smaller Irish whisky industry fared far worse, and is only now starting to recover from the devastating blow.

Although brandy did eventually return to the market, Scottish whisky went on to become the international premium spirit of choice. It is now enjoyed in over 200 countries and generates over £4 billion in export earnings each year. Although breakthroughs such as the invention of the Coffey still and the introduction of blending have also had a huge impact on whisky’s success story, do not forget to raise a glass to that tiny insect from North America next time you pour yourself a dram!

The waterfront of the abandoned Port Ellen distillery.

Longing for Islay’s Lost Distillery

On the shores of Kilnaughton Bay on Islay stands one of the most important buildings of the global whisky industry. Diageo’s Port Ellen Maltings, responsible for providing malted barley to all of Islay’s distilleries. Touch (almost) any bottle of Islay whisky anywhere in the world, and its raw ingredients will have passed through the Port Ellen plant. Yet for all its industrial success, the maltings form but a sad remnant of one of Scotland’s most beloved whisky producing sites. For in the shadows of the big, grey factory lies the now dysfunctional Port Ellen distillery. Its twin pagodas still contrast proudly against the Islay sky, while wafts of peat smoke can still be caught in the air. Yet for all its beauty, the distillery is now an eerie place. After years of inactivity, the stillhouse and the surrounding buildings have become a veritable ghost town, its warehouses reduced to storage space for its more commercially successful counterparts.

 

The Port Ellen distillery, with the still operational maltings on the right.

The Port Ellen distillery, with the still operational maltings on the right.

Although no longer operational, the distillery continues to capture the imagination of whisky fans everywhere. Much like a Van Gogh painting or an Emily Dickinson poem, Port Ellen whisky gained huge fame posthumously. The mere mention of Port Ellen often evokes a sense of excitement mixed with a tinge of sadness. For its spirit is of undeniable quality; its character typical of the Islay whiskies so loved around the globe. The dwindling stocks of Port Ellen whisky have now become so popular that Royal Mile Whiskies advertises one of its expressions by claiming that “we could tell the world this tastes of rotten fish and stagnant sewers and it would still sell out instantly”. Indeed, the 2013 annual release sold out before it even hit the website. As a result, Port Ellen has become so expensive as to be out of reach for all but the most affluent whisky aficionados. Selling at just £30 a bottle three decades ago, it now easily commands £1500 or over. A quick search on Master of Malt will bring up many more sold out and discontinued bottlings, while Port Ellen’s ‘dearly departed’ section on Royal Mile Whiskies is among the longest of any distillery. Port Ellen whisky can occasionally still be found at festivals, but in addition to a wonderful tasting experience provides the drinker with a lingering sense of regret for what might have been. How is it that a whisky so universally loved came to be resigned to the pages of history?

The distillery buildings now lie abandoned.

The distillery buildings now lie abandoned.

The story of Port Ellen of course ties in with the broader narrative of the whisky industry, and the booms and busts it experienced throughout the ages. Like so many other distilleries, Port Ellen was started in the mid-1820s, when the signing of the 1823 Excise Act made legal whisky distilling a viable option for the first time. Yet the enterprise quickly went bankrupt and ownership changed hands several times, all with limited degrees of success. Until the distillery passed to John Ramsay, a young wine merchant from Glasgow. Only 18 at the time, Port Ellen owes its very existence to the business acumen and entrepreneurial ability of the young Scot. He was the first to export whisky directly to the United States and oversaw the rise of Port Ellen as Islay’s main harbour, making transport to the mainland both cheaper and easier. Under his leadership, the distillery went from strength to strength. Production was ramped up, new warehouses were built and Ramsay acquired an additional four distilleries. Yet all good things must come to an end and Port Ellen could not escape the downturn that gripped the industry in the early 20th century. After a major whisky boom in the 1890s, during which 25 distilleries opened its doors, the industry was all but brought to its knees in the following decades. The Temperance movement became influential in politics, ultimately leading to the era of Prohibition in the United States. While alcohol consumption was never officially outlawed in the United Kingdom, the excise tax on liquor did rise six fold, rendering whisky unaffordable for the masses. Meanwhile, the outbreak of World War I meant severe curbs on the availability of barley for distilling, as all resources were needed for the war effort. Add into the mix the Great Depression and the results were downright catastrophic. While around 170 distilleries were operational in the 1890s, this figure had plummeted to just 40 in 1933, with the remainder either mothballed or closed permanently. In the face of such adversity, Port Ellen proved no exception. The Ramsay family was forced to sell off the business to distilling conglomerate DCL in 1925. In a move that probably ensured the industry’s long term survival, DCL bought up a huge number of distilleries and closed them down in order to limit supply. Port Ellen subsequently joined the ranks of mothballed distilleries in 1930. Although the end of Prohibition and the Great Depression did encourage many whisky producers to reopen, Port Ellen would stay closed until 1967, when DCL decided that its blending companies could use an extra flow of peaty whisky. The whisky industry was once again booming, but for Port Ellen the new golden age was short-lived. By its very nature, whisky is a product that doesn’t hit the shelves until years after its production, which makes anticipating consumer demand inherently difficult. Record production in the 1970s resulted in the age old problem of over-capacity, and DCL was once again forced to close distilleries. It did so in 1983, and Port Ellen was among the dozen unfortunate victims. At this point, Port Ellen whisky was used exclusively in blends and it was decided Lagavulin and Caol Ila would simply take on Port Ellen’s portfolio. The decision to close Port Ellen was therefore taken at a time when DCL could not have guessed that Port Ellen would one day become popular as a single malt. While the maltings remained active, Port Ellen distillery never reopened.

Port Ellen's warehouses are now used to mature whisky from its neighbouring distilleries.

Port Ellen’s warehouses are now used to mature whisky from its neighbouring distilleries.

In many ways Ports Ellen’s story is typical of other distilleries that closed down, its fortunes determined by the booms and busts of the whisky industry. Why then does the Port Ellen enjoy its current popularity? What is the reason for its enduring fame, where other distilleries have long since been forgotten?

It may have been Diageo’s smart management decision to keep some stock available for future releases. Over 30 years after the last spirit left Port Ellen’s stills, its whisky is still maturing in the warehouses. Many other closed distilleries simply sold off their remaining whisky to cover their losses and faded into obscurity within a matter of years. Nevertheless, the current hype for Port Ellen is one of scarcity. With supply limited to so few bottles, demand is always going to be high. If Port Ellen’s neighbour Laphroaig suddenly went out of production, I would expect a similar rush to occur on the last of its stock.

It may also be the fact that Port Ellen has for some time now been bottled at the advanced age of 30 years or over, giving the whisky a deep, complex flavour. With very few exceptions, recent bottlings of Port Ellen received outstanding reviews by whisky critics. Unlike distilleries that need to provide an affordable standard expression, every release of Port Ellen is something old and special.

Yet perhaps the simplest reason may be that Port Ellen was a remarkable distillery and we are all sad to see it go. With it dies one of the defining names of Scottish whisky heritage and a true Islay great. So don your impulsive hat, raise your credit card limit and hold your finger firmly on the mouse button, for in May 2016, Diageo will once again release an annual bottling of Port Ellen. It may well be the last time.

For an excellent overview of all of Scotland’s other distilleries that met a similar unfortunate end, I recommend Brian Townsend’s Scotch Missed: The Lost Distilleries of Scotland.