The Campbeltown Distilleries: Springbank and Glen Scotia
First Society bottling in 1991.
It was, however regrettably, an Englishman, living in London, who first sensed the extraordinary quality and variety of Scotch whisky. A director of Harper's Weekly Gazette, Alfred Barnard between 1885 and 1886 visited every licensed whisky distillery in Scotland, Ireland and England to produce his monumental 'The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom' in 1887.
The enthusiasm and dedication of the man must have been enormous: reaching East Tarbert by rail and steamer, it took him another six hours by horse-drawn coach to reach Campbeltown near the tip of the Mull of Kintyre. From his base at the White Hart Hotel, he then gave another fortnight to visiting the twenty-one active distilleries in and about Campbeltown.
To get a sense of the place you have to dismiss the slurpy romanticism of Paul McCartney's song and the feckless cheeriness of the music-hall's 'Campbeltown Loch, I wish you were whisky'. The economy of Kintyre, stretching its long promontory into the Atlantic, has for most of this century been precarious. It was not always so. When distilling was legalised in 1823, new commercial distilleries grew up overnight, frequently on the very sites of previously illegal stills.
By the time Alfred Barnard reached Campbeltown in 1885, down just the one road, 'Longrow', leading him to the heart of the town, he would pass no fewer than seven distilleries: Argyll, Campbeltown, Hazelburn, Springbank, Kinloch, Longrow and Rieclachan. By the end of the century the economy was booming and the distillery owners could build their large mansions overlooking the town and endow the local churches. Few begrudged their wealth since the distilleries afforded employment also to farmers, maltsters, millers, carters, stillworkers, peat-cutters, miners, coopers, traders and seamen.
The only casualty was a stinking Campbeltown Loch which had to absorb millions of gallons of pot ale discarded from the distilleries. Springbank and Glen Scotia were part of the boom-time; by 1935 they were the only survivors. The debacle had many causes. During and after the First World War, the public mood changed and the Temperance Movement certainly influenced the habits of the half-hearted.
In America, Prohibition cut off sales of whisky, leaving only a small percentage of bootleg trade. In Campbeltown, Drumlemble colliery was exhausted by 1923, leaving the distillers without access to cheap fuel. When they cut corners to stay competitive, the reputation of Campbeltown whisky was tarnished to such an extent that the big blenders ceased to use them.
In addition, popular taste shifted to the Speyside whiskies which the railways made more marketable and plentiful. Just a century after the astonishing emergence in Campbeltown of the distilling industry, it dramatically and, for its populace, catastrophically, collapsed. On my visit what I wanted to find out was how Springbank not only survived but developed into the primus inter pares of whiskies.
The answers were to be found in the character of its owners and managers. It is the oldest continuously owned family distillery in Scotland. The Managing Director, Hedley Wright, who is descended directly from the original Archibald Mitchell who established the distillery in 1828, is adamant.
In his retention of strictly traditional processes in the making of whisky, pays little heed to the views of accountants, and keeps Springbank out of the mainstream of the Malt Distillers' Association and the Scotch Whisky Association. He and the distillery's manager, Frank McHardy, see themselves as temporary custodians of a great Springbank whisky making tradition and are determined, for their time in charge, to preserve its international reputation.
Frank McHardy, who worked in his early days for a number of distilleries, including Springbank, at one point extended his experience at Bushmills in Ireland, but was happy to return to the Springbank fold where he will see out his career. He thinks that, along with the fact that 'Springbank' was a lighter spirit than most of the other thirty perished distilleries, it was the dedication to quality and better marketing which ensured its survival in the 1920s.
The worst time for Springbank was in the depression of the 1980's when it stopped production for two years. It is now working ten months of the year, presently at 50% of capacity, increasing next year to 60%. Frank McHardy who now sees his main job as marketing the whisky, hopes to increase sales by 4% per year from now on and is correspondingly laying down stocks to meet that estimated goal in ten, twelve and twenty-one years time.
At the moment, in addition to 'Springbank', the distillery also produces a heavily peated malt called 'Longrow'. Interestingly, since his return in 1996, Frank McHardy has developed a new malt to be called 'Hazelburn' (like 'Longrow' named after one of the lost distilleries of the 19th Century) and intends soon to explore sales for a ten-year old version of 'Springbank'. Tradition asserts itself particularly in the barley being hand-turned on the original malting floors, in the seventy-two hour fermentation, and in the refusal either to chill-filter or standardise the colour of the spirit. The real skill, however, is in matching the distilling to the malting. There is one wash still with a light oil burner (and a rummager) in addition to steam coils. There are two low-wine stills, one with a worm, the other a condenser. 'Springbank' barley is dried over peat for six hours, over hot air for thirty.
At distillation, the wash is boiled to get the low wines which are boiled again to get the feints; then 80% of the feints and 20% of the low wines are boiled together to produce the 'middle cut' of spirit - a two and a half distillation. By contrast, 'Longrow' is malted only in peat smoke (phenol level 50 parts per million), followed by a normal double distillation. 'Hazelburn' is not peated at all. The wash is distilled to get the low wines which are then further distilled to get the feints. The feints are then finally boiled to produce spirit: a genuine triple distillation.
Nothing prepares you for a 21 year old Springbank. It is like the dram of your dreams. For the aficionados of good whisky it is love at first taste and, at the bottom of the glass, the recognition that they are in a relationship which is almost sexual and unquestionably permanent. The story of the Glen Scotia distillery is that of tenacious survival.
Established in 1832, it shared in the prosperity of the late 19th century. In the 1920's when most other distilleries went to the wall, Duncan MacCallum, who bought it in 1924, somehow preserved the distillery's existence. Sadly in 1930 he took his own life after, it is
said, being swindled out of his fortune by people he met on a cruise. The staff claim that he hanged himself from a door in the distillery where one of the present workers swears there is still a 'presence'; others say that he drowned himself in Campeltown Loch. But the distillery survived and since the Second World War has had a succession of owners.
In the 90's alone, it was in the hands of Gibson International until 1994, since when ownership has passed from Glen Catrine to Sandy Bulloch of Loch Lomond Distillery. It may now be in the process of being sold again. It deserves to survive. It once produced two blends, 'Scotia Royale' and 'Old Court', neither of which are now obtainable.
The malt is scarce and mainly available as an 8 and 14 year old, the distillations dating before the closure in 1984. Now, however, by special arrangement between Loch Lomond and Springbank, it is the Springbank distillers along with one of the Glen Scotia team who, in the months when Springbank is closed, are producing 'Glen Scotia' malt once more. They have changed the production to a slower, more traditional process to make a heavily peated single malt.
It is the new whisky which the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (us!) has just selected as new fillings to put into port casks and sherry gordas to be left at Campbeltown to mature into the distant future. Laying a hand on them in the darkness of the vaults at Springbank, I suddenly realised their longevity might well exceed mine! My heart was only lifted by the contemplation that by Christmas, God willing, I will at least be able to wet my lips with the bottles of 'Springbank' and 'Glen Scotia' on the Society's Winter List. On the July day that I drove down the promontory I was forcibly reminded of the influence of the weather on maturation. On one side Loch Fyne was grey and girny if not gurly.
The trees hung drookit in the second day of continuous rain. Nearer Campbeltown on the Atlantic side, the barley fields were green and windswept and for mile after mile the enraged white headdresses of an angry sea besieged the clustered wagons of the holiday caravaners.
On departure the next day, I drove into an even worse storm. The blown salt which clouded my windscreen was that which I knew was finding its way into the barns, onto the hogsheads, butts and barrels, and into Campbeltown's whiskies. In varying degrees it is the salt which makes them distinctive. Gordon Liddell is a member who enjoys writing about whisky.