A great loss

Gavin D Smith charts the rise and fall of one of the largest distilleries in the Whisky City.
By Gavin D. Smith
As fortunes go in the whisky business, Campbeltown has had it tough. Described by Alfred Barnard as "The Whisky City" during the 1880s, the fishing port on the Kintyre peninsula of Argyllshire boasted no fewer than 20 working distilleries at the time of his visit.

By the mid-1930s that number had fallen to just two, and even with the revival of the former Glengyle distillery in 2004, the historic town can even now only boast three productive distilleries. Of these, Glen Scotia's output falls far short of its capacity, though Springbank gives real meaning to the much-overused term 'iconic.'

Of all the lost distilleries of Campbeltown, Hazelburn was ultimately the largest and most significant, and the first record of its existence dates from 1825, though it is thought that distilling may well have taken place on the site in Longrow prior to that time. Alfred Barnard writes in his Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (1887) that Hazelburn "...was founded in the last century."

The distillery was licensed to Greenlees, Colville & Co, and members of the Colville family were at the forefront of Campbeltown distilling for a century or more. They had active involvement in the Campbeltown, Kinloch and Dalaruan distilleries, as well as Hazelburn,where Archibald Colville was in partnership with Daniel and Matthew Greenlees.

In 1845, with business booming, a new, enlarged Hazelburn distillery was constructed in Millknowe Street, where the Parliament House of King James IV had reputedly once stood. In the same year, Archibald Colville left the business, being replaced by Samuel Greenlees, although the distillery traded as Greenlees & Colville until 1920.

The new Hazelburn boasted no fewer than nine 6,000 gallon washbacks and three stills. The 7,000 gallon wash still was the largest in Campbeltown. Alfred Barnard describes an interesting variation to the stills, writing that "...there is a peculiarity in the form of the heads which we have not seen at any other Distillery. The tops instead of being of the ordinary pear-shaped heads are composed of 32 chambers or tubes in each Still, terminating in a dome just before passing into the worm.

"These tubes are enclosed in a copper case which serves as a condenser, a stream of cold water being kept flowing around the pipes whilst the Stills are 'at work.' By this means a large proportion of the fusel oil which otherwise would pass off in the form of vapour along with the spirit is thrown back into the Still, and the pure spirit is allowed to pass through the columns into the worm free from impurity."

The distillery had a theoretical capacity of 250,000 gallons per annum, though records suggest it never exceeded the 200,000 gallons mark, while nine warehouses could hold some 500,000 gallons of spirit.

However, by the 1880s, the firm of Greenlees Brothers had expanded its interests to embrace both Glasgow and London,and quantities of Hazelburn spirit were transported by sea from Campbeltown to Glasgow to mature there. Greenlees marketed Hazelburn as a single malt or 'self whisky', as well as creating a number of blended Scotch whiskies, while Irish whiskey also made up a significant part of the firm's business.

With the Scotch whisky industry in general facing hard times in the post-First World War period, and Campbeltown feeling the pinch particularly fiercely, the firm was sold to Mackie & Co Ltd, of White Horse whisky fame, in 1920.

The company changed its name to White Horse Distillers Ltd in 1924, and the following year ceased distilling at Hazelburn, having operated the plant only intermittently since 1921.With White Horse Distillers Ltd absorbed into the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), Hazelburn's extensive warehousing continued to be utilised for the maturation of whisky from a number of DCL distilleries until 1983, and exdistillery buildings also served to provide laboratory facilities.

Today, only a comparatively small section of the Hazelburn complex survives, with the former offices and one of the old malt barns forming, in part, the Hazelburn Business Park

Although anyone discovering a sample of the original Hazelburn whisky would have come across a truly historic prize, the distillery name lives on in a triple distilled expression, launched in 1997 and produced by J&A Mitchell at nearby Springbank distillery.