INo. 19 Century Campbell Town, located on the southeast coast of the Kintyre Peninsula on the west coast of Scotland, is known as the “Whiskey Capital of the World”. Its grand sandstone villas are a testament to a prosperous past, when more than 30 distilleries filled the air with peaty smoke. But then came more than a century of decline – caused by war, the Great Depression, Prohibition in the US, and competition from railroads further north like Speyside (see map). By the turn of the century, only two wineries remained in the town.
Since then, Scotch Whiskey has experienced a boom and continues to do so. New markets, particularly Asia, have boosted demand; consumers’ enthusiasm for mixed cocktails during the pandemic has given it a boost. Global exports are set to rise 37% to £6.2bn ($7.7bn) in 2022, according to the Scotch Whiskey Association.
Investors are increasingly coveting whiskey with a long history. Produced in Campbelltown by Scotland’s oldest independent family-owned distillery, Springbank’s eponymous malt whiskey is among the highest priced of any whiskey. In 2019, Christie’s sold a bottle of Springbank 1919 (a small World War I lot, bottled in 1970) for $355,350.
Springbank’s response to this surge in demand may seem odd. Under the supervision of the 92-year-old great-great-grandson of Archibald Mitchell, who founded the distillery in 1828, Springbank has adhered to traditional production methods, using original equipment wherever possible. Touring Victorian architecture is like visiting a museum. Tourists lined up early to buy the smattering of whiskey reserved for shops – Springbank refuses to sell it online, believing (probably rightly) that distillery outlets will lure tourists to the faded town.
Everything is done on site, from germinating the barley left on the stone floor and turning it by hand every four hours, to labeling. It’s labor-intensive work: The distillery employs 100 people, making it a significant employer in an area with high unemployment.
Owner of Springbank in 2000, Jay&A Mitchell purchased and reopened the Glengyle distillery next door, which closed in 1925. But instead of using acquisitions to boost production, it spread it across two sites. For a few months each year, Springbank workers lay down their tools and move to Glengyle to make whiskey. This gives the impression – that the buyer is lucky to get a rare malt – works well. Prices for Springbank single malt whiskey have soared in line with demand. It hasn’t bothered with any ads for years.
Others want to join. There are plans for a new distillery overlooking Campbeltown Loch. But growth may come from outside towns. The Campbelltown Whiskey Region is one of five whiskey regions defined in the Scotch Whiskey Regulations 2009, along with the Highlands, Islay, Lowlands and Speyside – a short stretch into Campbelltown itself. R&Second The Distillers, owners of the Raasay Distillery in the Inner Hebrides, plan to turn a farm in nearby Machrihanish into an eco-friendly distillery.
Barley has been grown on the farm for use in the new distillery. When production starts, perhaps in 2025, the annual output will reach 480,000 liters. Springbank produced 250,000 of them.But most of all, says Alasdair Day, he is R&Second Still, the whiskey he is developing a recipe for, “tastes like it’s from Campbelltown”. ■