"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Glen Nevis Distillery, Campbeltown

In the 1870s the main centre of Campbeltown was extended westward towards Gallow Hill with the construction of Glebe Street parallel to Longrow.  This ran along and right against the side of the malt barns and warehouses of Springbank, and Glengyle had already been built at the north-east corner of the street opposite where Glen Nevis would be built in 1877.  Ardlussa would follow two years later at the south end opposite Springbank.

I’m not sure why the name Glen Nevis was chosen, perhaps just as a prominent Scottish name not used by another distillery (Nevis and Ben Nevis being the names of the two in the shadow of the mountain).  In the detailed obituary of its founder, Duncan MacCallum, there is no mention of a connection to that area of Scotland, his Grandfather having moved to Campbeltown from Inveraray (Stirk, 2005).

Mitchell’s Glengyle note that part of their decision to call their whisky Kilkerran was that “it was unusual for the old Campbeltown distilleries to be called after a Glen, a custom more usually associated with the Speyside region.”  Glengyle had opened four years before Glen Nevis and Glenside was then the only other ‘Glen’ within the 21 Campbeltown distilleries, Scotia not being renamed until the 1920s.

Regardless of the name this was very much a Campbeltown whisky rather than a Highland one and Barnard’s description of the drying process notes that “the peat smoke can permeate the barley and give it the aroma so characteristic of the Campbeltown Whisky’, although peat was by far the most common fuel of Scotland's distilleries at this time.

Barnard describes the distillery as “both modern in style and arrangement, containing all the new improvements of the present day.”  Formal licensed distilling had by then been extensive in Campbeltown for fifty years so the proprietor, Duncan MacCallum, would have found plenty of experience within the town to draw upon to create a fully up to date distillery.

Some of the main features are highlighted by Barnard, including the use of a centrifugal pump for emptying the mash tun to allow more frequent mashing, and “a Morton’s refrigerator of large capacity and cooling power” – no open tanks for cooling worts here.  The Wash Still he describes as “beautifully bright, clean and highly polished” as he had also found at Benmore Distillery.

He also mentions an item called a “Jackback” located in the process between the washbacks and the wash charger.  I had never heard this term before and I’m not sure if every distillery uses one, nor to what purpose.  It is mentioned in the Illicit Distillation (Scotland) Act of 1822 as one of those highly regulated vessels in a distillery, and elsewhere seems to be a wash strainer in the brewing process.

Two years after Barnard’s visit, and just ten after being founded, the distillery was sold to Scotch Whisky Distillers Ltd, but they went bust after just two years and MacCallum bought the distillery back from them.  He ran it for a further six years before selling again and eventually it became part of the ill-fated West Highland Malt Distilleries with closure to follow in 1923, the buildings and plant put up for sale the following year.

Glen Nevis warehouses on Glebe Street
Glen Nevis, along with Ardlussa, was part of a bonded warehouse and bottling venture that never quite took off in the 1930s.  The distillery has since been demolished and the site is now part of the building contractor’s yard that includes the old Ardlussa distillery and covers most of the west side of Glebe Street.  Some of the old warehouses still remain at the north end but there is no other evidence of the distillery.