Talk of whisky being ‘about people’ is a regular narrative wherever you turn in the industry. And to be fair, all told, it IS about people: from the people (past and present) who make it, through to the people with whom you choose share it, the whole spectrum of individuals involved in the ultimate consumption of the drink play a part in the enjoyment of it.
However, in a world of multinational companies that own portfolios of distilleries in various countries around the world, it’s easy for the view of the traditional distillery – with its individual geographical and production characteristics and the people at the heart of it – to be tainted by the shadow of the accountants in the offices of faraway parent companies.
Enter J&A Mitchell and Company. Established in 1837, they have steered Springbank Distillery in Campbeltown through some of the most traumatic situations imaginable for a distillery perfectly placed for exporting goods across the Atlantic and simultaneously remote enough to be considered surplus to requirements if hard times hit.
History confirms a feast and famine story, peaking in the mid to late 19th century when Campbeltown was known as ’The Whisky City’ and was home to up to 34 distilleries. The town subsequently faced horrific social, economic and political challenges spanning the last years of the reign of Queen Victoria, straddling the Great War and then Prohibition before culminating in the 1960s, when only two of the distilleries in the town remained.
Thankfully, other than one brief mothballing interlude in the ‘80s, Springbank has remained stoic, breathing life back into the Longrow and Hazelburn brands and more recently re-acquiring the Glengyle Distillery, which produces Kilkerran single malt whisky. Along the way, as if all that wasn’t enough, in 1972 the company also acquired Cadenhead’s, one of the oldest independent bottlers in Scotland.
They duly relocated all of the business to Campbeltown, where it is to this day, despite the odds, in the hands of the Chairman, Mr Hedley G. Wright – himself the fifth generation of the Mitchell family to own and run the company.
This is where the story takes a twist. For the first time in over 170 years, the current owner of the business has no living relatives to pass ownership on to. Mr Wright has decided, therefore, to leave J&A Mitchell and Company to the people of Campbeltown.
Here, the sense of local pride in the whisky the distilleries produce is not just a gimmick in a tourist pamphlet, it permeates through the whole community. Even inward operating procedures – from upper management through to the bottling hall, sales team and cleaners – reflect the importance of the people of the town and the attention to detail which is needed for skills to not only be learned and perfected, but maintained and passed on. As far as I’m aware, there are no other examples of this in the whisky industry today.
“Is whisky about people?” you ask. In the Wee Toon it’s not only about ‘people’ – it’s about ‘THE people’.
Which brings us to our hero, me!
Towards the end of 2017, a group of friends and fellow whisky nerds realised after careful deliberation that we had sufficient excuses (up to and including very reasonably priced off-season accommodation!) to go and see the Campbeltown guys. And this, fellow Loungers, is what greeted us.
The road from Glasgow to Campbeltown is as picturesque as you could ask for. Slithering through mountainous valleys, lochside and ocean vistas are seemingly forever just around the corner. The cold of late February does nothing but make the small towns and harbour villages on the way southwest through Kintyre seem more cosy and inviting.
Driving past the Islay ferry dock at Kennacraig can seem a touch counter-intuitive for regulars to the ‘Whisky Isle’. But the scenery on the road less travelled is no less easy on the eye until, after a most pleasant three hour drive, you are greeted by your destination.
At this point I’m excited, and if I’m honest probably a little bit too aware of the “Englishman in Scotland” stereotype (must have forgotten I’m actually a Geordie, for some reason!). So you can imagine how at ease I was after my first conversation with a local lady…
“Excuse me, can you tell me where Glengyle Distillery is please?”
*Looks at me as if I’m as thick as mince* “Aye… It’s just roond behind the Co-Op, son.”
Brilliant! That’s one thing you don’t find in Gateshead! (A legal distillery, not a Co-Op, obviously).
Let’s have it then, what treats await at the Distilleries of J&A Mitchell and Company?!
Well, in short, A LOT!
There are the 2 distilleries to tour, separately or one after the other. But remember, at Springbank they’re also responsible for Hazelburn and Longrow, so unusually you have opportunities to ask in-depth questions about differences in production methods to produce different style whiskies. Also, Springbank are one of the few distilleries that perform the whole process on site, from malting to bottling. There is, therefore, literally no production question that your guide cannot answer.
Afterwards, if the mood takes you, you can book yourself onto the Cadenhead’s Managers Warehouse Tasting. Now, at the end of a more generic tour you’d expect to get to get 2 or 3 drams of appropriately chosen whisky and then be directed politely towards the gift shop.
Cadenhead’s do it differently. Firstly, they have a huge stock of whisky from all around the world, so there’s no pre-prepared tasting notes or sales script – they just give you samples from casks that they think are tasty. On this occasion Ardmore, Glen Scotia, Longrow, Linkwood, Springbank, Glenlossie, Aultmore, and a special 37 year old blend were all on the menu with no overriding theme other than “We think this is great whisky, what do you reckon?”.
Our host on this particular occasion was a certain Mr Mark Watt, who literally grew up in the industry – if you get the chance, ask him what Macallan did to his old house – and is one of the most knowledgeable whisky people around. He’s as straight talking about his job as anyone you might meet in your local pub. It’s a refreshing change to some of the more robotic (if not well-informed) tour guides that are occasionally found in distilleries (usually on their gap year)…
“It’s not all that difficult: I taste the whisky, if I like the whisky, I bottle the whisky.”
“If anyone tells you they found a cask they didn’t know about, you should report them!”
“Oh aye, if you want to buy some of this stuff, the shops over the road.”
In my opinion, if you don’t leave Warehouse 7 feeling like you’ve rediscovered everything that’s great about whisky, then you probably need to check your pulse.
As you can probably tell, we had a great time in Campbeltown. The sheer nothing-to-hide honesty from the folks at Cadenheads/Springbank is superb. And I’ve not even gone into the company’s policy on keeping everything reasonably priced, even in boom time when prices elsewhere are going through the roof. Or my first ever “Cadenhead’s Cage” purchase (if you don’t know what that is, you need to find out), or the AWESOME haggis nachos at The Royal.
Suffice to say, it’s not difficult to see why the Campbeltown Malts Festival, Springbank Society and Cadenhead’s Club have had such roaring success since their inception: it’s all down to “The People”
P.S. I’ll be reviewing a couple of whiskies we tried at the tasting soon, so keep your eyes peeled!