For many years Springbank has led the way in keeping the old ‘whisky capital’ of Campbeltown on the Scotch whisky map, while the Argyllshire port’s second historic distillery of Glen Scotia has lurked in the background like a slightly seedy and unkempt relative at a family gathering. But Glen Scotia – both distillery and brand - is now in the process of undergoing a major makeover, and will soon be in a position to share centre stage with its higher profile neighbour.
The two are close contemporaries, with Glen Scotia having been founded in 1832, four years after Springbank. They were established during a remarkable boom in the Campbeltown whisky industry, which saw 24 new distilleries commence production between 1823 and 1835.
Times have been hard for Campbeltown distilling since the 1920s, but while Springbank has been bolstered through the difficult years by committed family ownership, Glen Scotia has not been so fortunate.
The distillery was established by Stewart, Galbraith & Co Ltd, and having thrived for a century, in common with the rest of the Campbeltown distilling industry, it closed in 1928, as the region’s whisky-making momentum ground to a near halt. At the time of its closure, Glen Scotia was in the hands of Campbeltown businessman Duncan MacCallum.
“I’ve always resisted the opportunity to move away. It’s important for the town to have Glen Scotia Distillery doing well”
Production resumed at Glen Scotia in 1933, with the distillery owned by Bloch Brothers (Distillers) Ltd, from whom it passed via Hiram Walker (Scotland) Ltd to the Glasgow blender A Gillies & Co, which became part of Amalgamated Distillers Products (ADP) in 1970. Between 1979 and 1982 more than £1 million was spent refurbishing Glen Scotia, but another period of silence was just two years away.
Whisky-making recommenced in 1989 under ADP’s new parent Gibson International, but a further change of ownership saw the distillery acquired by Glen Catrine Bonded Warehouse Ltd in 1994.
Glen Catrine purchased Glen Scotia primarily for its stocks of malt whisky, and at first the distillery was silent, but distilling began again on a modest scale in 1999, though the site continued to present a somewhat run-down image to the world. But then four years ago, Iain McAlister was appointed distillery manager and the black and white distillery exterior was soon repainted. This may seem a small thing, but as former Scottish Water engineer Iain McAlister says, “First impressions do matter,” and the paint job was a symbol of intent.
“The distillery has changed a lot in the last four years,” reckons McAlister. “It’s come on in leaps and bounds. From an engineering point of view, we are building our sustainability for long term production. We’ve improved both the appearance and the production capability of the place. Six new washbacks were installed last year and a new wash still condenser was fitted this summer, following the previous replacement of the condenser on the spirit still. We’ve also done a lot of internal work to make the distillery more accessible for the public, and now we’re installing a new effluent plant.”
Future projects include: “more structural modifications and work on warehousing,” says McAlister. “We currently use a warehouse which dates from 1971 and is racked. It’s a good warehouse, but in the middle of the complex we also have the old warehouse, which is unused and has no racking in it, but we are looking at the possibility of using it again. We are talking about on-going major capital expenditure, with lots still to do.”
So just what is the philosophy behind so much investment at Glen Scotia? Commercial sales director Andrew Gray outlines the strategy now in place, noting in the first instance: “We have a group of companies which are very successful in the UK drinks business, particularly with Glen’s vodka and High Commissioner blended Scotch, but the next step is to develop our single malts internationally as well as domestically.”
Gray makes the valid point:
“Campbeltown whiskies are rare. We see Glen Scotia as a premium quality malt with superb potential. We plan to develop sales over the next 10 years and a distillation plan to go beyond that.
The company is being serious about the brand on a long term, strategic basis.
“All our focus with Glen Scotia will be as a single malt. It has principally been used in blends in the past, but now the amount used for blending is being dramatically reduced. We aim to grow Glen Scotia for 10 years, and to begin with growth of around 500 per cent during this calendar year. The intention is to take it to 20 international markets.”
The most immediate effect of all this ambition is the launch of an entirely new range of Glen Scotia expressions, embracing 10, 12, 16, 18 and 21 Years Olds.
“This year we have also released a 1973 vintage expression in hand-crafted, copper pot still decanters,” says Gray: “additionally, we have peated stock and we will be bringing out peated expressions at a variety of ages.”
Meanwhile, the revamped and expanded line up benefits from new packaging, while the whisky itself is not chill-filtered, it is natural in colour, and will be bottled at 46% ABV.
Away from the marketing offices and back at the distillery, manager Iain McAlister discusses the actual production regime. “The mash tun is a 1970s cast iron lauter tun, and each of the six stainless steel washbacks has a capacity of 20,000 litres. We have one 11,000 litre wash still and a 7,000 litre spirit still.
“We are making 120-130,000 lpa at present, with three mashes per week. We have two production men. We could do around 480,000 lpa with 10 mashes per week, if we had another two employees.
“We will certainly be raising the output in future, and we plan to distil batches of heavily-peated spirit. We did two periods of lightly peated production last year, making 12,000 litres.”
McAlister says: “Glen Scotia is a classic Campbeltown single malt, and high quality new-make spirit is being matured in very good quality ex-Bourbon casks, though we also intend to fill into sherry and even rum casks in future.”
A Campbeltown man born and bred, McAlister declares that: “The place is dear to me. I’ve always resisted the opportunity to move away. It’s important for the town to have Glen Scotia Distillery doing well. The distillery has had it hard for longer than most.
“I think it’s definitely time that it had a break!”
12 Years Old 46% ABVNose:
Hand-rolling tobacco, nougat, tinned peaches in syrup.Palate:
Nicely textured, with allspice, walnuts and dried fruit.Finish:
Relatively lengthy, drying, with a hint of aniseed.
21 Years Old 46% ABVNose:
Initially, slightly savoury, herbal, then sweetness develops. Vanilla ice cream. Finally, caramel.Palate:
Smooth, sweet and rounded, with brittle toffee, lots of spice and emerging molasses. Finish:
Lingering ginger and ultimately, orange wine gums.