The importance of Campbeltown to whisky in Scotland historically or even today, cannot be underestimated. This small town is the major settlement on the remote Kintyre peninsula. With a population of around just 6000 currently, it can only be reached via a long drive across Argyll or the small regional airport. Originally founded by the Seventh Earl of Argyll in 1609, many enthusiasts flock to Campbeltown for its whisky heritage on an annual basis to enjoy its legacy and whisky festival.
Formerly in the early 1900’s, Campbeltown was enthusiastically dubbed the whisky capital of the world for its prominence with producing and exporting whisky. The area has a strong tradition with whisky and in the late 1700’s was populated with abundant illicit stills. The introduction of the Excise Act in 1823 changed the face of whisky in Scotland forever and none more so than in Campbeltown. An initial handful of legal distilleries were soon joined by an onslaught of new arrivals and just a couple of years later Campbeltown played host to 25 distilleries and this number continued to grow. The majority of the distilleries from this boom period have been lost to time and their names are not widely recognised today, but a handful are thanks to the work of Springbank that has taken inspiration from the town to revive fallen comrades such as Hazelburn and Longrow.
All of Campbeltown’s distilleries could count upon an abundance of the raw ingredients to produce whisky such as water, coal, peat and barley from nearby farms. Despite its geographical remoteness, Campbeltown was self-sufficient and this legacy endures today. The style of the Campbeltown whisky from this era was a sooty, oily, dense and peated spirit. The quality of the product varied greatly with some distilleries showing great promise such as Hazelburn and others merely content to churn out a variable product.
Whilst the town was still a difficult journey by land during its rapid growth, its port allowed swift access to Ireland, Scotland and further afield. This was in contrast to other parts of Scotland that were still being connected by rail and reliant on treacherous roads. This meant that Campbeltown could supply its wares more efficiently and cheaply that its competitors and for a while it was a winning combination. Money flowed through the streets as much as the whisky but then things started to change for a variety of reasons.
The tastes of blenders and the consumers started to change and favoured the lighter more approachable Speyside style of whisky. In 1898 the Pattison crisis dented consumer confidence and demand, but the Campbeltown region managed to survive relatively unscathed. The ensuing drop-in demand was more related to the domestic market, whilst appetite for Scotch abroad still remained buoyant. Campbeltown could count on North America, that is until the Great Depression and Prohibition delivered their knockout blows. It’s speculated that the demise of the region was not because of a drop-in demand from this major market. In essence, the exact opposite happened and the distilleries could not satisfy the demand from the bootleggers and importers seeking whisky. The only way to even keep up with the demand was to cut corners in distillation and maturation that then created a bad product. Sales were only be buoyant for the short term and potential customers would look elsewhere.
The effects were catastrophic as by 1930, Campbeltown only had 3 remaining distilleries in the form of Rieclachan, Scotia and Springbank. Soon this number dwindled to 2 with the closure of Rieclachan in 1934, despite the help from the Mitchell family who own Springbank. After this the legacy of Campbeltown was all but a mere memory and in 2010 the Scotch Whisky Association no longer recognised it as an official whisky region. This was only a temporary blip as the Mitchell family quite rightly gauged how many distilleries it took to be recognised as a region from those remaining. The custodians of Springbank have been strong supporters of the town by creating local jobs and opportunities even during the harsh times. Urged on to regain the whisky regional status, they revived a lost Campbeltown distillery in the form of Glengyle that is known as Kilkerran for today’s market.
Surprisingly, this remains the only new distillery in Campbeltown despite the ongoing whisky boom that has heralded countless new distilleries across Scotland. However, it’s a welcome addition to the longstanding duo of Glen Scotia and the formidable Springbank, which attracts such devotion from enthusiasts across the world. You can read about each individual distillery in greater detail via its own specific page.