It may be the smallest of Scotland’s whisky regions today, but Campbeltown used to be THE whisky capital of the world.
Located on the Kintyre peninsula on the south-west coast of Scotland, Campbeltown is a small town of about 5,000 people. At first, it seems strange that this little town is actually classified as one of Scotland’s main whisky regions alongside Islay, Speyside, Highlands and the Lowlands.
According to Springbank Distillery’s regional sales manager David Allen, this is all down to the region’s history.
“Yes, it does seem a bit bizarre that a small town with only 5,000 people and three distilleries is a whisky region on its own. But for a period of time, Campbeltown was actually considered the whisky capital of the world,” he said during an interview in Petaling Jaya recently.
“Back in the 1890s to 1920s, Campbeltown had over 30 legal distilleries, and many more illegal ones, which is quite incredible considering there were only about 2,000 people living there at the time,” he said.
“We have our own style of whisky – very robust, complex with maritime notes, and a distinct flavour profile that was sought after by the big blenders of the day and also in the US market.”
Among the reasons for Campbeltown’s booming whisky business was the fact that it had all the right ingredients for a whisky industry, including barley farms, peat bogs to supply peat, and coal mines to fuel the stills. The town itself also had a deep sea harbour which made it easy to transport the whisky by boats from Campbeltown, either further into Scotland, or west, towards America.
According to him, there were a lot of reasons for the decline of Campbeltown whisky, including the World Wars, Prohibition and the Great Depression in America, and even Al Capone, who was said to have made low-quality bootleg whisky and put them in Campbel-town casks to try to pass it off as genuine Scotch whisky.
“When there was a lot of demand for Campbeltown whisky, some distillers started cutting corners and the quality of the whisky came down. There was even a story of a distiller who started ageing his whisky in herring casks, which had held fish before! That sort of thing probably damaged the reputation of the whisky as well,” Allen said.
Around the same time, distilleries from the Speyside region also began getting more popular, with their easier, more palatable style. That region also had a railway line that could transport the whisky to Glasgow easily, which Campbeltown did not have.
“Eventually all the distilleries started closing down, and now there are only three distilleries today – Springbank, our neighbours Glen Scotia, and Glengyle, which we reopened in 2004,” said Allen.
The scarce number of distilleries nearly cost Campbeltown its whisky region status at one point. “The Scottish Whisky Association approached us around the year 2000 to say they were going to put us into the Highland region, because we were a small town with only two distilleries, and we couldn’t call ourselves a whisky region anymore!” he recalled.
“But at the time, the Lowland region only had three distilleries, and so we argued that if we had the same number, they would have to let us keep our status. And so we went and rebuilt the Glengyle distillery and that probably saved our whisky region status!”
Production at Glengyle distillery only began in 2004, and last year, it produced its first aged expression, a 12-year-old spirit bottled under the name Kilkerran, to avoid confusion with blended malt Glengyle.
While Glengyle was the distillery that saved Campbeltown’s status as a whisky region, it is Springbank that has been keeping the Campbeltown fire burning all this time. Established in 1828, it is a family-owned distillery under J & A Mitchell & Company, and produces three different single malts using three distinct production methods.
“Hazelburn is triple distilled and non-peated, so it’s lighter in style and less complex than the other two. Springbank is a partial triple-distillation (two and half times), and is slightly peated. Longrow is double distilled and is heavily peated,” Allen explained. “Glengyle produces Kilkerran, which is a Campbeltown style – oily, relatively complex, and slightly peated as well.”
“Our Springbank 10 Year Old is probably the most reflective of a Campbeltown style. Lightly peated, complex, briny, quite robust, and a sweet saltiness in the aftertaste. That for me is a classic Campbel-town malt,” said Allen.
In a world where demand for whiskies is growing exponentially, Springbank has held on tight to its traditions by being currently the only distillery in Scotland to perform every step in the whisky making process on site – from malting the barley all the way to bottling the spirit. They even do 100% of their own floor maltings, which is very rare in the Scotch industry. It’s this dedication to their craft that has earned them a sort of cult status among whisky enthusiasts worldwide.
“We don’t produce a lot of whisky, and that allows us to control the quality. It’s not mass produced, we don’t have big flashy marketing campaign behind it… we don’t even have a marketing department at Springbank!” Allen said with a laugh.
“Our whisky is sold based on reputation and word of mouth, and that’s so important for us. I think people just appreciate the pureness and honesty of our whiskies.”
Springbank, Longrow, Hazelburn and Kilkerran whiskies are currently available at Single And Available whisky stores at Bangsar Shopping Centre and Pavilion KL in Kuala Lumpur.
Michael Cheang has a soft spot for Campbeltown whiskies, especially the Springbank cask strength whiskies. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page or follow him on Instagram (@mytipsyturvy)