Each distillery is different, and visiting them gives a deeper understanding of their output, which is why we felt it wise to make a detour to one of Campbeltown’s three remaining distilleries.
Chugging down the Kintyre Peninsula, we watched the gentle, blue swell paw at yellow sands and black rock. Green fields of barley unfurled across the flats to our left. Our target, once the capital of the whisky world, was a shell of its former self. We walked through the streets off the main road, between compact lines of terrace houses, eventually sneaking down an alley to find a much larger building, with walls as thick as a castle and heather growing from the cracks in the mortar. Inside was a courtyard where a tower of barrels stood. We saw a man nonchalantly walking away from a large fire, petrol can in hand, showing little concern for the black cloud of smoke blowing into the surrounding homes. We peered through a doorway that opened onto a low-ceilinged room with a wood floor, upon which lay a carpet of neatly-raked barley seeds.
Even the ledgers that distillers use to record each stage of the process are scribbled into with pen and pencil. “Computers make mistakes,” explained master distiller Frank McHardy.
Springbank is one of only two distilleries in Scotland that still undertakes each stage of production on site. Everything is traditional. Even the ledgers that distillers use to record each stage of the process are scribbled into with pen and pencil. “Computers make mistakes,” explained master distiller Frank McHardy.
The result of Springbank’s resistance to more industrial production methods was evident in our post-tour tasting. Of all the whisky we tasted in Scotland, it was the most memorable, its flavor heightened by our witnessing of traditional Scotch production that flies in the face of the modern corporate techniques that have crept into so many other distilleries.
To oversimplify things it can be said that single malt Scotch whisky is made from just water, barley, peat, yeast and time. Barley is malted over peat smoke, water and yeast is added to the fermenting mash, distillation purifies, then the cask matures. But to simplify it such is to cheapen the skill of the artist and diminish the hand that nature plays.
The rock from which the water rises will influence the character of the whisky. The vegetation over which it flows may affect the flavor. The peat smoke which dries the partially germinated barley will impart a smokiness in the taste. The yeast may create spicy or fruity flavors. The shape and size of the stills will affect the richness and weight of the spirit, as too will the portion of the cut and whether it is double or triple distilled. Then, during the maturation further aromas and flavors are summoned from the wood of the barrel, the preceding contents of the cask, the atmosphere it breathes and even the duration it is left to sit will develop the liquid’s character. There is no one way to create the ideal single malt, but instead the intricate alchemy of all stages can result in a myriad of distinct characters. Despite Scotland’s relatively small size the subtle complexity in landscape and provincial variances in production creates radically differing single malts.
The single malts are identified by not only their country of origin but the region within it. To know where in Scotland a whisky was produced is to have a very general idea of its likely character. The five single malt distilling regions – Highlands, Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay, Speyside – all produce unique Scotches that are infused with local elements and are as different as the areas that they hail from. The differences arise from terroir and tradition. In their aroma and palate, some whiskies speak of their region more clearly than others. Despite Scotland’s relatively small size the subtle complexity in landscape and cultural variances in production creates a portfolio of radically differing single malt Scotches.
Highland whiskies tend to be round, firm and dry with some peatiness and the spicy, heathery flavors reflect their coastal influences. Speysides tend to be sweeter and of varying strengths and often display a refined, earthy, elegant smokiness. Whiskies from the Lowland region often showcase a softness of malt and are sometimes called “Lowland Ladies” because of their light, smooth and sometimes floral characteristics. Campbeltown whiskies are distinguished by their briny character. The peaty soil of windswept Islay, plentiful rain and sea exposure contributes to producing some of the boldest single malts anywhere. They are strong, smoky and salty with lashings of seaweed and iodine.
No one distillery is the same, and even each distillery will produce many distinct expressions. If you don’t like single malt Scotch then you just haven’t found one that suits your palate. It’s an endless task to find your own personal dearest, but thankfully it’s a joyful undertaking.
Campbeltown was once the center of the universe for whisky. In 1910 there were 34 distilleries present in this remote area of Scotland. But then for various reasons, none of them noble, Campbeltown lost the good reputation it once held and business stumbled. By 1934 only two distilleries were left.
Campbeltown almost lost its status as a recognized whisky region because of the collapse. With only two distilleries to its name, Campbeltown was not considered worthy of the designation. Fortunately, local advocates pointed out that the Lowlands region only had three active distilleries and if they could resurrect a third in Campbeltown, then surely it was eligible. With a head of steam behind them, Glengyle distillery resumed production in 2004, after being mothballed for 79 years. It was renovated and restored by Hedley Wright, whose great, great, great grandfather had founded Glengyle. Today there are just three distilleries – Springbank, Glen Scotia and Glengyle – but Campbeltown has retained its regional status by the Scotch Whisky Association, and for that we should be thankful, because the batches that bubble from there are still made in the most traditional and authentic fashion.
Despite being home to this jewel of single-malt distilling, Campbeltown is far from booming, isolated by its location at the far finger of the Kintyre Peninsula. To help mitigate the needs of locals and help bring people to the area, the Forestry Commission has built two short mountain-bike loops on Beinn Ghuilean, a forested peak that overlooks the town, and Crosshill Loch, which supplies the Springbank distillery with water – “potential Scotch” as Callum referred to it. The machine-made trails gave us a glimpse of a government-funded trail center—something we would see much more of during our trip.
What Campbeltown lacked in quantity it made up for in quality. The trails delivered an evening of hooting and hollering, followed by a private whisky tasting on a beautiful white sand shore later that night; both the ride and the cheers gave us ample reward for our drive there.