After my nine years of writing about whisky, there are still many ‘firsts’ to be experienced. Yesterday was one that got ‘ticked off’ my bucket list. I had never been to Campbeltown, the former powerhouse centre of the Victorian whisky industry. Now I have.
The reason for our visit was the Campbeltown whisky festival, This runs as a prelude to the annual Feis Ile on the nearby (well, relatively nearby) island of Islay. I am joining up with The Whisky Lounge crew for their annual trip this year and will be reporting on events throughout the festival.
Campbeltown was a former hotbed of whisky production – in the late 1800s there were over 30 distilleries in the town, but then disaster struck. By the 1930s nearly all had closed for various reasons. Only two remained – Glen Scotia and Springbank. They are both still going today, but no new distilleries appeared in the town until Glengyle was built in 2004.
The fact that any distilleries survive in this location is amazing. It is remote and this partly contributed to the town’s aforementioned downfall. As the crow (or the occasional plane) flies, Campbeltown is not that far from Glasgow. But by car it is a punishing four hours.
That said it is a stunning drive, especially once you head south from Inverary and down the Kintyre peninsula. The road hugs Loch Fyne before switching to hug the Atlantic Ocean and swinging in to Campbeltown. It was even more stunning as we lucked out with the weather and Eddie’s roof was down the whole way.
The main festivities centred around Springbank, a distillery that seems to easily attain cult status among most who taste it. A whistle stop tour around the distillery from Grant revealed why. It is a charming and old-fashioned place that makes whisky the same way that it always has.
There are no computers and they rely heavily on traditional methods and the skill of those working there. It is also a rarity in the Scotch industry – they do all stages of production on site, including malting all of their own barley.
The festival enables visitors to also see behind the scenes and get beneath the surface of the distilleries – a tasting in one of the dunnage warehouses with Cameron from Cadenhead’s, the Campbeltown-based independent bottling company, was a prime example.
This saw Cameron drawing samples directly from casks and pouring them for an excitable audience, all of which could be purchased at the end. Highlights included a 9 years old ex-bourbon cask Lagavulin, a 10 years old ex-rum cask Kilkerran (said to be the first ever independent bottling of Kilkerran) and a 29 years old ex-bourbon cask Linkwood.
A brief stop at Glengyle was quickly followed by a lovely impromptu tasting session across the town at Glen Scotia. Here we sampled four lovely whiskies in their small yet well appointed visitor’s centre – an ex-bourbon cask 15 years old Festival Edition, the Stillman’s Reserve (a special single ex-bourbon cask that celebrated the retirement of veteran stillman Jim Grogan), a youthful Distillery Exclusive nicknamed ‘Sneaky Peat’ and the new 25 years old that had only been launched two days earlier.
And that was that. Brief but very enjoyable. As we departed for our ferry to Islay and the Feis Ile, you got the sense that Campbeltown was already settling back in to its slightly sleepy way of life at the bottom of the Kintyre peninsula. Well, until the same time next year at least when hundreds of whisky fans invade again. I hope that it is not too long before my next visit.
Now, bring on Islay … see you tomorrow, Matt 🙂