Knowledge & Learning, Producers & Regions, Vint Perspective, Whisky

Campbeltown: The Renaissance of the Former Whisky Capital of the World

In light of recent submissions for a third new distillery in Campbeltown to the Argyll & Bute Council, we are eager to delve into the history of a region largely recognized for its association with the esteemed Springbank.

Campbeltown’s contribution to whisky is both historic and profound, anchored in the Kintyre Peninsula of Scotland. This quaint town rose to prominence as a whisky production hub in the 19th and early 20th centuries, thanks to its abundant natural resources and strategic port location in the era of sailing and steam. Alfred Barnard, in his 1887 publication “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom,” highlighted Campbeltown’s superior anchorage in Scotland.

The late 17th century marked the beginning of Campbeltown’s whisky journey, amidst widespread illegal distillation across Scotland. By the close of the 18th century, the area was home to 31 illicit stills. The enactment of the 1823 Excise Act transformed many of these illicit operations into legitimate distilleries. Alfred Barnard documented that this transition faced considerable resistance from those involved in the previous illegal trade, who found the pre-regulation era more profitable.

Following the Excise Act, Campbeltown quickly established itself as a producer of exceptional whisky, earning the title of “whisky capital of the world” by the early 19th century. Alfred Barnard reported 21 distilleries during his visit in 1885, with the town’s distillery count once surpassing 30. Campbeltown whisky was known for its unique robust, salty, and subtly peaty flavor.

However, the industry faced decline after the 20th century’s onset, attributed to overproduction, diminished quality, shifting consumer preferences, and rising competition, particularly with the advent of railways. Economic downturns and global conflicts further exacerbated the industry’s struggles, leaving Springbank and Glen Scotia as the sole survivors by the mid-1930s.

The region’s whisky scene remained dormant until the late 20th century when Springbank Distillery initiated a revival, emphasizing traditional methods and quality. This revival spurred significant interest among collectors, notably increasing demand for Springbank’s whisky, with a notable surge in its value over recent years. The turn of the millennium saw further revitalization efforts with J & A Mitchell & Company reopening Glengyle distillery, and introducing Kilkerran, Longrow, and Hazelburn expressions.

With the ongoing resurgence in interest towards Campbeltown’s distinctive whiskies, characterized by their complexity and maritime nuances, the industry sees new entrants aspiring to establish additional distilleries. Presently, plans for three new distilleries—Witchburn, Machrihanish, and Dál Riata—are underway, with Witchburn potentially becoming the first distillery operated by Brave New Spirits.

As Campbeltown leaves its tumultuous past behind, the prospect of a bright future for its whisky industry looms large. We promise to keep our readers informed on all forthcoming news and developments from this historic whisky region.