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.

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Springbank 10 year old

Springbank 10Distillery: Springbank
Region: Campbeltown
Age: 10 years old
abv: 46%

The lone survivor of what was once termed the ‘Whisky Capital of the World’, Springbank is the quintessential Campbeltown malt. While in its heyday Campbeltown was a mighty force in whisky making, boasting no less than 28 distilleries, its fall was equally dramatic. Springbank was the only distillery to survive the onslaught and is the only Campbeltown whisky to remain in constant production since the 1820s. This was not entirely down to luck. Where Campbeltown’s commercial success led some distilleries to become complacent and produce inferior spirit  (there are even rumours of whisky being aged in herring barrels, although whether these are based on truth no one can say), Springbank never compromised on quality. As such it managed to stay popular with Glasgow’s blending houses, at a time when Speyside malts were much more in vogue.

Springbank distillery is still family-owned; something quite special in today’s corporate setting. In addition to Springbank, it also produces Hazelburn and Longrow. The distillery is the only in Scotland to malt all of its own barley, allowing it to carefully control the peat levels in the malt. While Hazelburn is unpeated and triple distilled, Longrow is heavily peated and double distilled. Springbank falls somewhere in between: lightly peated and distilled two and a half times.

With Glen Scotia and Glengyle distillery also back in production, Campbeltown is seeing a slow resurgence in popularity. Although the golden days may never quite return, thankfully Springbank is here to stay.

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