The story of Scotland’s smallest whisky region, the distillery producing award-winning single malts there today and the future of this historic style.
The history of Campbeltown whisky
Whisky making on the Campbeltown peninsula dates back to 1636 when a farm at Crosshill made a return for six quarts of Aqua Vitae payable to the town of Lochhead, the former name for Campbeltown.
With the ready availability of local barley ‘bere’, peat for drying the malted barley and fresh water, the area became a rich bed of illicit whisky production through the late 18th century and the first years of the 19th century.
The final key element was the Armour family, a firm of local plumbers and coppersmiths, who arrived in the 17th century and installed the first still in the area. James Armour was found guilty of illicit whisky making in Campbeltown in 1798.
Robert Armour’s coppersmith business, set up in 1811 was the perfect cover for the manufacture of four part illicit stills made up of ‘The Vessel’, typically less than 40 gallons, ‘head , arm and the worm’. Robert Armour kept detailed records in his Still Book up until 1817.
It was the Duke of Argyll who realised that a better life would exist for Campbeltown folk from legal distilling rather than illicit distilling but there was a need for a reliable water source. The Duke had Crosshill Loch formed as a reservoir from which the distilleries could draw their water.
Given the improved legislative climate, the good water supply, ready access to peat and coal as well as steamship access to the market of Glasgow, 29 legitimate distilleries were opened from 1823 – 1844 in Campbeltown.
Glen Scotia distillery
Campbeltown was reportedly the ancient seat of the Scottish Parliament set up by King Fergus in 503AD.
Indeed, the site of the Glen Scotia distillery is built near to Campbeltown’s ancient parliament square. It is suggested that the Stone of Destiny, on which all Scottish monarchs are crowned, came from here.
Towards the southern end of the Mull of Kintyre, Campbeltown is an isolated, distinctive place. The whisky produced here is special too – so much so that it’s classified as a separate region, quite apart from the Highland, Speyside, Lowland and Islay whiskies which are perhaps better known today.
With an excellent water supply, easy access to peat and grain and a growing market in Victorian Britain and beyond, little Campbeltown had 28 distilleries by 1851, and proudly proclaimed itself ‘the whisky capital of the world’. Today only three distilleries remain, of which Glen Scotia is one of the smallest in Scotland.
How Glen Scotia whisky is made
Founded in 1832, Glen Scotia has always produced two styles of whisky; peated and non peated. Typically, the peated whisky is produced over a period of 6 weeks per year. These two styles will be maintained into the future as they are characteristics of the Campbeltown style which Glen Scotia is known for.
Over the years the quality of the whisky has improved with longer fermentation and vatting of the malted barley as well as a slower and more careful distillation. But overall the process remains the same as it always was.
The process is known as a ‘small batch process’. The malted barley is placed in the mash tuns where two consecutive waters are added over a period of 8 hours. The first water is added at 66 degrees and the second at 72 degrees.
The wort, as it is known, is placed in the washbacks at 22 degrees where yeast is added. The wort remains in the washbacks for upwards of 70 hours before being moved to the wash still for the initial distillation.
The first stage distillation lasts for around 9 hours. The liquid will be taken off from the wash still at around 20% ABV. The second distillation in the spirits still starts after around 20 minutes when the foreshorts are taken off at 74% ABV and this runs down until 71% ABV. At this point, they start to take off the pure spirit. This continues all the way down until the spirits reaches 63% ABV. The average spirit strength at this point is 69% ABV. A little water is added and the whisky enters the casks at 63.5% ABV, the casks are then delivered and laid down in the Dunnage warehouse to be aged by the magic of the wood and the unique Campbeltown weather.
Investing in the future
The distillery is now investing for the future, with new fermenters being added to allow for increased production while improving the quality of the ultimate spirit still further. The two whisky stills have been completely renovated and relacquered. The Dunnage warehouse has been expanded and renovated to allow the ageing of all the whisky to be completed on site, exposing the casks to the unique salty sea air from the west coast of Scotland.
The goal of the new owners of Glen Scotia Distillery is to reintroduce the unique style of Campbeltown whisky to the world. Expected capacity will increase to around 500,000 litres of spirit per year allowing for the development of global sales.
A new shop is being opened on the site to allow visitors to purchase whisky at the Distillery and visitor tours will be possible by prior appointment.
The future for both Campbeltown whisky and Glen Scotia is now assured!
Originally published in Issue 8 of Flavourly’s Magazine.