On the Trail

The Pride of Campbeltown

David Driscoll

Towards the southern-most tip of Scotland's Kintyre peninsula is a quaint, working-class village named Campbeltown—a remote outpost in a detached destination. If you're heading there from Glasgow you must first drive north (despite the fact that Campbeltown lies to the southwest), curve around the narrow tip of Loch Fyne, cut through Inveraray (home of the area's best oysters), and then bend southward, passing the Kennacraig ferry to Islay on your way down the Kintyre strip. Despite the fact that it's only a mere 138 miles from Glasgow, the drive to Campbeltown can take a solid four hours depending on the conditions. Of course, this is assuming you don't get run off the road beforehand by a crazy person trying to pass a large truck on a blind curve. You see—the road to Campbeltown is a weaving and winding two-lane track for much of the way, and patience isn't always a virtue for those traveling along that route. One must be vigilant despite the many beautiful distractions.

While arduous and often nerve-racking (we came within an inch of a head-on collision our last time down), the drive to Campbeltown is absolutely stunning. You'll pass forested hills with mountain streams trickling down, along with seaside towns with shipwrecks and salty bogs. There are numerous great places to stop for lunch and local fare, as well as spectacular vistas where you can snap a quick pic. But you must know this: there is only one way in and one way out of Campbeltown, so you must be motivated to make the visit. What you should also know is that the isolated village isn't exactly known as the "jewel of Scotland." If I had to make a local comparison, I'd probably go with Bakersfield. This wasn't always the case, however.

Campbeltown was once the epicenter of Scotland's whisky industry, boasting more than twenty working distilleries by the end of the 18th century. 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. The city was established in the early 1600s 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 a family named Mitchell moved to Campbeltown and became one of the area's top distillers. At the end of the 17th century, Campbeltown's distilleries were pumping out millions of gallons a year and the town became one of the wealthiest in the UK. The whisky market, however, is prone to gluts and overproduction, and eventually the bottom fell out. Those distilleries still operating 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's whisky economy as customers balked at the new product. As of today, only three distilleries remain active in the city and one of them—Glengyle—exists merely for the purpose of keeping Campbeltown's regional whisky designation alive.

Despite being a bit down on its luck, Campbeltown is my kind of place. It's a no-frills type of town—the kind of spot where you can sit down for a breakfast like the one pictured above (a cherished memory of mine) and the waitress will ask if you'd like a beer to go with it. The first night I ever spent in Campbeltown, while playing darts with my colleague at a local pub, involved a drunken gentleman who stumbled his way over to the jukebox and told me he was dedicating the next song to the Americans—meaning us. Within a few seconds I heard the familiar opening to Rush's "Tom Sawyer" echo through the tavern. "Rush is Canadian, by the way," I told our new friend with a polite smile. He looked at me with a sneer. "It's fine," I quickly asserted, "Neil Peart is one of my favorite drummers."  

"What did you just say?" the man snapped. Before I could answer, he screamed, "IT'S PRONOUNCED PEAART! PEAART!!!" This went on for another five minutes while I began working up the courage for my first Scottish bar fight, but it turns out this was just the Campbeltown way of having fun with the tourists. Within another few minutes he was buying me a beer and slurring blissfully into my ear with his arm draped around my shoulder. That night went down as one of the best I've ever had in Scotland.

So what's so special about Campbeltown, you ask? Why drive four hours down a long and winding road to visit this secluded location? I'll tell you: it's because of Springbank distillery. Founded by the Mitchell family in 1828, the historic Campbeltown institution is still run by the Mitchell family today, making it the longest continually-owned distillery in the nation's history. Springbank is also the last Scottish whisky distillery that is completely self-sufficient. They still malt 100% of their own barley the old-fashioned way, laying out the grain on the distillery floor and then raking it so that each kernel has a chance to dry accordingly. Whereas just about every other distillery has outsourced this process to large commercial malsters, Springbank refuses to modernize. They work with local Campbeltown farmers as much as possible, source all their peat locally, and do all of their own bottling in house. They are an ancient model of sustainability when it comes to whisky production—ironically bucking all current trends only to become trendy once again!

All that rusticity, of course, comes at a higher price. The costs of doing things by hand and supporting local businesses are naturally more than the efficient tariffs of deploying that labor elsewhere. But if Springbank's motives were purely economic they would have shut their doors and moved out of Campbeltown long ago. There's always been a certain stubbornness and pride associated with the stalwart distillery—a driving force that longs to succeed in the face of these changing forces. Springbank's whisky isn't as consistent in flavor as the whisky from other distilleries. It can be chewy, dense, and even viscous, while at other times quite light and fruity. Some batches are smokier than others, and some barrels carry a funky scent of earth from the years spent maturing in the damp dunnage warehouses. But it's exactly this rather humanistic element that separates Springbank from its peers—it's that sense of realism, that gritty and sincere style of whisky-making that attracts people like us. It's why we're willing to pay more for Springbank's whisky. It's why we're willing to make the trek to Campbeltown.

Speed and efficiency definitely take a back seat to flavor and quality at Springbank. The most modern piece of equipment in the entire distillery is this thermometer on the wall of the still room. The mill that grinds the barley into grist is still run by a hand crank attached to wheels and pulleys, controlled by canvas belts that must be periodically sprayed with water in order to prevent them from cracking or tearing. To a certain extent, visiting the Springbank distillery in Campbeltown is a lot like visiting a whisky museum. It's a facility somewhat frozen in time, making whisky much in the same way it was a hundred years ago. It's that very special quality, coupled with an old school philosophy, that motivate us back into the car, behind the wheel, and on the road to Campbeltown each time we touch down on Scottish soil. Despite the long and arduous drive both to and from the Kintyre capital, we always look forward to our visit.

-David Driscoll