Western losses

Campbeltown once boasted scores of distilleries. Now most are gone. Gavin D. Smith tells their story
By Gavin D. Smith
In issue 83 we focused on the Campbeltown distillery of Hazelburn, ultimately the largest plant operating in what whisky chronicler Alfred Barnard termed 'whisky city' when he visited the fishing port on the Kintyre peninsula in 1885. But Barnard toured no fewer than 21 Campbeltown distilleries during his two week stay at the White Hart Hotel. Output at the time was 1,938,000 gallons per year, with more than 250 men directly employed in the distilling industry.

Overall, distilling has taken place in Campbeltown on some 35 sites, and the first written reference to whisky in relation to the area occurs in 1591. Long before the 1823 Excise Act stimulated legal distilling, the remote land of the Kintyre peninsula enjoyed a reputation for illicit distillation.

The location is blessed with abundant pure water, plenty of peat, and relatively easy access to supplies of that barley. There was even a local source of coal in the shape of Drumlemble mine, while the thirsty, expanding industrial towns of the west of Scotland were just a short sea journey away.

Although it was the 1823 Act that stimulated legal distillery construction, the first significant distillery was built in 1817 by John MacTaggart and John Beith. It was called Campbeltown distillery and stood at the head of Longrow.

Following the passing of the Excise Act, Campbeltown became a veritable boom town in terms of distillery construction with Caledonian, Kinloch, Dalaruan, Longrow, Lochead, Meadowburn, Burnside, Kintyre, Rieclachan, Hazelburn, Highland, Springbank, Albyn, Springside, Lochside, Dalintober, Broombrae, Drumore, Glenside, Glen Scotia, Mossfield, Mountain Dew, Lochruan and Tober an Righ all being built between 1823 and 1835.

The previous thriving trade in illicit whisky between Campbeltown and Glasgow meant that Campbeltown's new distilleries enjoyed an advantage over many of their competitors.

For by 1925 only 12 Campbeltown distilleries were working, and in 1935 just Glen Scotia and Springbank were operational, with both having previously endured periods of silence. Global economic depression during the inter-war years led to a significant downsizing of the industry, but nowhere else was decimated in the manner of Campbeltown.

The streets of Campbeltown are filled with the ghosts of distilling

The reasons for the town's dramatic decline as a distilling centre are various and complex.Campbeltown was, in part, a victim of its own success, as some of the less scrupulous distillers began to turn out inferior spirit, distilled too quickly and containing undesirable congeners, which they then filled into poor quality casks. This was done to satisfy the voracious appetite of the blenders, and Campbeltown's muscular, peaty whiskies began to gain an undesirable reputation.

They were widely known as 'stinking fish,' due to the effect of overly-rapid distillation, and in an effort to distance themselves from such pejorative descriptions, the owners of the largest distillery in the town, Hazelburn, wrote to customers stating that they were no longer making Campbeltown whisky, but were now producing 'Kintyre whisky.'

US Prohibition (1919 to 1933) gave some distillers an opportunity to market their second-rate spirit through the 'speakeasies' of American cities. At the same time Prohibition was a major blow to the Campbeltown whisky establishment as a whole, as it enjoyed extensive trade with North America.

Another factor in Campbeltown's distilling demise was the closure of the Drumlemble coal mine in 1923, which ended the supply of comparatively cheap fuel, while the extremely poor road links and lack of railways to Glasgow and other key markets were also beginning to take their toll. Furthermore, blenders had come to prefer the more sophisticated and less intense malts of north-east Scotland.

The result is that today the streets of Campbeltown are filled with the ghosts of the burgh's illustrious distilling heritage. Some 'lost' distilleries survive externally quite intact, with Benmore, for example, now operating as a bus depot, while here and there a bonded warehouse remains. A Campbeltown Distilling Heritage Trail is in the pipeline, and this will offer welcome recognition of the fact that at one time the little Argyllshire port was the centre of the whisky universe.