Campbeltown is the lost region of Scotch Malt Whiskies. Once an internationally acclaimed whisky area combining spirit production in the winter with year-round mixed farming, the Campbeltown distilleries fell out of fashion when tastes turned from their peated style to the smoother, easier whiskies of Speyside. The softer whiskies were more accessible (in every way) to the public as the railways headed north giving links to Speyside, for the transport of both whisky and whisky lovers. Campbeltown does not have a railway to this day and, without your own wheels, getting there involves a coach from Glasgow or a summertime-only ferry - hardly what modern life in the fast lane finds acceptable! Campbeltown whiskies, in their heyday, were carried by sea to Glasgow and then beyond, but this was costly compared to the railways in other areas and added to the lost struggle for survival of most of the 37 distilleries that were in the town 100-150 years ago.
Now Campbeltown is fighting back! Thanks to the fifth generation of the Mitchell family, the owners of Springbank, Campbeltown may yet be recognised by the Scotch Whisky Association as a separate area of whisky production again. The Mitchells own the Springbank (lightly peated), Longrow (heavily peated) and Hazelburn labels, the latter unpeated and triple distilled in the style of traditional Lowland whiskies. Although they are all made in the same distillery the whiskies are highly individual. Then there is Glen Scotia, an independent distillery close by in the town. However, five seems to be the number of labels needed to be a whisky area (in the eyes of the rule makers) and so the Mitchells refitted the Glengyle distillery which will release its first age-statement whisky at 12yo in 2016 under the Kilkerran label. This should put Campbeltown back on the whisky map big time.
I first tasted Springbank at the end of the last century - doesn’t that sound dreadful?! I had written the history of Fortnum & Mason and become friendly with the then head of the Wine & Spirits department. She introduced me to Springbank and it was a revelation after the ‘high street’ blends that I had been used to. I distinctly remember spending over £50 on a bottle, a really expensive treat in those days.
Springbank distillery was established in 1828 and nothing much has changed in the way of buildings and equipment. It is the only distillery to complete the whole process of whisky making from steeping the grain right through to bottling and despatch. Indeed, as the Mitchells also own William Cadenhead, Scotland’s oldest independent bottler (also in Campbeltown) you could argue that they have a bit of the retail on the street - as well as on-line - tied up too. The newly installed modern distillery equipment at Glengyle must seem so very different for the distillery workers when they go along the road for a few weeks to make the Kilkerran whisky while the traditional equipment at Springbank is cleaned down between the makings of the other three labels! At Glengyle the grain is bought in ready malted. I tasted a Work In Progress bottling from Kilkerran at 60% abv cask strength: young, sweet, a bit brash, with coconut and mango in the mouth, it lingered on the finish with a warming heat which made me long to sup it with ice cream or even a chicken liver parfait - not that I make those all that often but I will when a bottle of the 8yo Kilkerran comes my way!
In the heyday of Campbeltown distilleries, then full warehouses lining a now desolate street made it one of the most valued - and valuable - addresses in Europe. Now there are two supermarkets, a garage and many other businesses where once distilleries turned water into spirit, transforming Campbeltown from an outpost to an internationally important whisky centre. I think Springbank and its associated companies with Glen Scotia will put this area back on the whisky map, bringing good cheer to residents and visitors alike.
Additional tasting notes (I never say everything I mean to in a short video!):
Springbank 15yo: an all olorosso cask maturation gives this easy and alluring whisky a surprising fruitiness suggesting apricots and guava with cinnamon and nutmeg and maybe a trace of banana and vanilla. Then sultanas - much more to be expected - kick in too. With water I found more fruit on the nose, it was softer, and a dried fruits, maple syrup and allspice (Jamaican pepper) finish.
Longrow 18yo: this is a sherry cask whisky but the sherry is not specified, so I guess it has been through different woods to arrive at this big, complex flavour. Fully peated, very complex and challenging, a whisky to chew and unpack. I found big dried fruits, lots of warming spices like ginger, mace and cassia or cinnamon. With a drop of water the whisky was slightly softer, still complex and contemplative but sweeter with notes of fudge and pepper.