Whiskytown

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While I generally think of Detroit when I hear the phrase “Hockeytown,” the somewhat generic term really applies to any town, city or community that has a history and reputation of participating in the sport of ice hockey. Some people think Montreal is the rightful Hockeytown, the home of numerous NHL titles. Others believe it to be Warroad, Minnesota; the home of the Hockeytown Holiday Classic since 1994. Even Las Vegas has been referred to as Hockeytown, referencing the Golden Knight’s Cinderella season that brought the entire community together after a tragic mass shooting. It’s a name used to bestow a sense of heart and passion; a true burning for the sport. But if there’s a Hockeytown, there must also be a Whiskytown, right? If we had to apply the same reasoning to Scotch whisky and select the spiritual home of whisky-making in Scotland, I’m sure a number of folks would say Dufftown, located in the heart of the Speyside region. Others would probably claim Bowmore, at the heart of Islay. They’re both great candidates, but if you ask me, there’s a clearer choice when measuring determination. Campbeltown, once the whisky-producing capital of Scotland, has fallen on tough times over the years, yet the outpost of the Kintyre Peninsula still manages to maintain its heritage for true single malt grit. Of all the destinations I’ve traveled to across the UK, no region has touched me more deeply.

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The first time I visited Campbeltown was in 2011 as part of a business trip to Springbank, the iconic whisky institution that has kept the city’s blood pumping for decades. I stayed with a couple that lived across the street from the distillery—a bed and breakfast in the most literal sense. The morning meal was one of my first ever in Scotland, and it’s still one of the most memorable—a veritable “heart attack on a plate,” as the boys from the distillery would later call it. There weren’t all that many options for food and lodging in Campbeltown back then—these days I don’t believe much has changed—but many years ago the city was bustling. Campbeltown was once home to dozens of working distilleries and, by the end of the 18th century, was at the center of the Scotland’s whisky trade. The Kintyre Peninsula was the landing place for settlers in 1300 and remained important as a trade outlet to England and also to the West for centuries after. The city itself was established in the early 1600's by the Dukes of Argyll to encourage farmers to practice agriculture in the region. Where there is barley, there is whisky-making, and it wasn't long until distillation took hold and Campbeltown began to thrive.

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As Campbeltown’s distillation prowess increased, the numerous distilleries began pumping out millions of gallons a year, and the city became one of the wealthiest in the UK. At one point, demand was so high that distillers were forced to import barley from the Baltic just to keep up. Yet, with the subsequent rise of blended whisky and cheaper production methods, the bottom fell eventually fell out and the heavier whiskies of Campbeltown were passed over in favor of Speyside's lighter style. Other factors such as the exhaustion of local coal supplies as well as the start of Prohibition in the U.S. also played a role. Distilleries selling direct to the Canadian middlemen were forced to lower their costs, and in turn, lower the quality of their whisky. The introduction of low quality spirit was the end for Campbeltown, and the town would never recover from the association. Even today, the thick, oily, and old school style of Campbeltown whisky is more of a novelty for serious whisky enthusiasts, lost in world of commercial consistency and brand-dominated marketing.

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Springbank was one of the few that did not go under and today it remains one of the jewels of Scotland’s single malt industry. Founded in 1828, it’s still run by the same family—the Mitchells—making it the longest continually-owned distillery in the history of Scotland. It is also the only self-sufficient one. Springbank does all its own malting and sources all of its peat locally. All of its whisky is aged on-site, and the facility does all of its own bottling, a template for proponents of localized and sustainable production. Campbeltown has a fantastic temperate, moist climate, which makes it perfect for malting year round. In a era where the more-than-100 distilleries in Scotland are buying their barley from only a handful of maltsers, Springbank is one of the rare examples of a distillery controlling its own agricultural infrastructure. That control has given Springbank enormous leverage during a time when more and more distilleries are dependent upon corporate entities.

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As Campbeltown is also considered one of Scotland’s five stylistic whisky-making regions, in addition to the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, and Islands, it found itself in a bit of pickle during the late nineties. The powers-that-be in Scotch whisky didn’t see the point of preserving the Campbeltown designation with only two functioning distilleries left from the once-golden era (Glen Scotia being the other). A removal of the longstanding regional label was therefore proposed. As a defense, the Mitchell family pointed out that the Lowland region (at that time) had only three functioning distilleries in comparison: Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, and Glenkinchie; yet there were no plans to do away with the Lowland namesake. The decision? Three distilleries were now the minimum requirement, so the Mitchell family took action to preserve Campeltown’s heritage. In 2004, after years of refurbishment, they reopened one of Campbeltown’s long-dormant distilleries: Glengyle, today the home of the Kilkerran brand, as well as any contract work that comes their way. As far as I know, it’s the only distillery ever to be opened out of pure pride and spite.

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What exactly is the Campbeltown style, you ask? Today it’s less set in stone, as the whiskies can range from light and fruity, to rich and meaty, to smoky and saline, and everywhere in between. Springbank makes a number of different styles between the house label, the heavily-peated Longrow, the triple-distilled Hazelburn, and the Kilkerran whiskies distilled next-door at Glengyle. The complaint I most often hear from whisky fans is inconsistency, yet for me personally the fluctuation between batches and various editions is what keeps me coming back to Campbeltown. It’s a byproduct of the rustic practices that keep Springbank rooted in tradition. If you weren’t already aware, the distillery is hardly at the forefront of modern technology. Just like my grandmother had no interest in the electric bread machine we bought her, Springbank has little interest for modern whisky-making devices. The kiln is an old cast oven that feeds into a chamber resembling a dungeon in a medieval castle. Their mill is run by cranks, pulleys, and old canvas belts that must be kept moist or else they should tear. The warehouses at Springbank are a terroir of their own. The local white mold is everywhere including all over the muddy ground floors, covering your shoes at every step. The flavor of that earthiness often finds its way into the whisky like it does bleu cheese. Only Springbank can have this particular flavor, which to me makes it quite special.  

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One of the more modern pieces of equipment you’ll find in the facility is the temperature meter, but that’s because speed and efficiency take a back seat to quality and tradition at Springbank. Run at a snail’s pace, Springbank’s stills churn out roughly three liters a minute, compared to the ten liter average of other distilleries. It’s an economist’s worst nightmare because no one onsite is interested in maximizing time, energy, or output. The equipment is ancient, but it does the job. Every process seems antiquated, but it’s never been done any other way. The rooms smell as old as they feel, but like your grandmother’s house there’s a certain charm or nostalgia involved. The still room is full of yeast, bready aromas, and cooked grains with beer that permeated every inch of your nostrils. The spirit comes off the still but surprisingly there are no cuts for head, heart, or tails. The feints are mixed with about 20% of the low wine and distilled a third time, or technically a half, hence the Springbank term “distilled 2.5 times.” No one at the distillery knows who began this process, just that it’s the way things are done. All the water for the barley soaking comes from the local Loch Crosshill and it’s the same water that goes into the bottling at the end. With 40% of their barley coming locally (and 100% in certain special bottlings), Springbank is committed to keeping Campbeltown alive, and that’s where the aforementioned grit comes in.

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Living through gentrification and the loss of tradition in the Bay Area has been one of the more depressing experiences of my life, as old dive bars and local eateries get bought out and replaced by modern, monied enterprises, and technology continues to define our social experiences, for better or for worse. Campbeltown, however, refuses to play that game. The Mitchell family will not be bought. If there is still a whisky revival in the works for Springbank and the region as a whole, it’s going to be on their terms, and there’s a dignity in that self-made determination that I greatly admire. That same mettle and resolve carries into the working class, blue collar character of the town itself, a spirit that I’ve gotten to know well over a few pints of Tennent’s. Of all the experiences I’ve had in Scotland, and all the regions I’ve visited, my most memorable moments have been in Campbeltown. Whether it was playing darts with a group of rowdy locals at the pub, or digging through local history at the Cadenhead’s bottle shop, the soul of Scotland’s whisky-making history always seemed its strongest when I was there.

If you’re looking for the same honesty and authenticity in your single malt, it’s not hard to find. Head northwest on the A82 out of Glasgow until you come to Tarbert, then switch to the A83 and eventually head south down the Kintyre Peninsula. Follow the compass towards true heart and grit, and eventually you’ll arrive in Campbeltown.

-David Driscoll