"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

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Glengyle Distillery, Campbeltown

Reading back over the last few posts it occurs to me that I am writing more about the distilleries as they were when Barnard visited, and about the town and area, than I am about the distilleries as they are now.  This is the unfortunate consequence of the loss of the industry to the town and the erasure of much of the distilling heritage - there really is little left to see of the lost distilleries and records are hard to come by.

Glengyle Production Building
How nice then to return to writing about a current venture that provides more material now than it did to Barnard in its previous form.  Glengyle was then a fairly new distillery, having been opened in 1873 by William Mitchell who was once also a co-owner of Springbank with his brother John.  The current version of the distillery opened in 2004 and is owned by J&A Mitchell, who still own Springbank.  It is the first new distillery to open in Campbeltown since Ardlussa in 1879.

I am happy to report that Frank McHardy, introduced in my Springbank report, also guided me around Glengyle.  The distillery is owned by J&A Mitchell, indeed its full name is now Mitchell’s Glengyle Distillery, but it feels very much like Frank’s baby (the production building is even named after him) and I couldn’t have had a better guide.

Glengyle is situated at the north-east of Glebe Street which had just been built in the early 1870s to extend Campbeltown westward.  The distillery is now accessed from a cross street named Glengyle Road.  Not quite as crammed in as some of the other distilleries, but whatever the intentions of the Council for extending the town, Glebe Street was soon built up with four distilleries covering most of its length (the others being the existing Springbank warehouses and the soon to be built Glen Nevis and Ardlussa).

Barnard’s visit was very brief as the owner wasn't at home and there is nothing peculiar to note from his report.  The distillery remained in the Mitchell family until 1919 when it joined Ardlussa, Dalintober, Glen Nevis and Kinloch in the short lived West Highland Malt Distillers venture.  After a failed attempt to sell Glengyle in 1924 the distillery closed in 1925 and all of the whisky stock was auctioned in Glasgow that year.

Since then the buildings have experienced various diverse uses.  After the sale of stock one of the warehouses was converted into a garage by Craig Brothers, who later converted Benmore Distillery into a bus depot.  For a few years the Campbeltown Miniature Rifle Club rented the distillery, the long malt barns ideal for an indoor rifle range.  It was then bought in 1940 by the Bloch Brothers who also owned Glen Scotia at that time, but their plans for rebuilding the distillery, perhaps to include Campbeltown’s first grain distillery (Stirk, 2005), were halted by the restrictions of WWII and they later sold the now empty buildings to the Kintyre Farmers Cooperative.

When J&A Mitchell purchased the site in December 2000 the buildings were derelict and still contained some old farm machinery and partitioned office space inside.  Only the shell of the original distillery remained and Frank explained how the renovations took shape over four years before production could start again.  You can read about the whole process on the Glengyle website timeline, the main elements I will mention below.

Some equipment was brought in from other distilleries.  The two stills were from the old Ben Wyvis Distillery at Invergordon in the Highlands which had opened in 1965 and closed in 1976 (not the same as the Ben Wyvis visited by Barnard at Dingwall north of Inverness in 1886 and which closed in 1926).  The stills were slightly altered for their new home – they were known as ‘Bleirs’ stills which had a more angular shaped profile to the neck and shoulders and this has now been smoothed out to a more rounded shape.  The malt mill was sourced from Craigellachie in Speyside when that distillery expanded.

The mash tun was specially commissioned for the new distillery and is of the Lauter tun design with a fine mesh floor to allow for clear filtering of the wort from the grains.  Glengyle uses the standard three waters for mashing, compared to Springbank’s four.  The four new washbacks were built on site from boatskin larch and are the same capacity as those in Barnard’s time, 30,000ltr (6,600 gallons) although there were six when he visited.

In a unique design feature the full distilling process at Glengyle can be seen together on one mezzanine platform.  The mash tun sits at one end, the stills and condensers at the other, with the spirit safe and the four wash backs in a row between them.  This is a great place for anyone new to distillery tours to get a feel for how it all fits together.

Glengyle washbacks and mash tun
Glengyle Stills

Glengyle only operates for 2 months a year and this produces enough new spirit for the company’s requirements.  The whisky bottled by Glengyle is called Kilkerran and I have mentioned the reasons for this before under Glen Nevis and in a comment on an earlier post.  Aside from the use of ‘Glen’ being unusual in Campbeltown, and the name Glengyle already being used for a blended malt whisky from another company, the name Kilkerran has a proud association with Campbeltown’s past.

Kilkerran was a small village on the south side of the Loch and now absorbed into the main town.  The name is derived from ‘Cille Chiarain' which is the old Gaelic name for the place and means ‘the church of St Ciaran’, that Saint being one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland who helped to spread Christianity in Kintyre from the 6th century.  Like many other Saints of those days he spent much of his time living humbly in a religious cell further round the coast, the cave later being used by smugglers shipping out illicit whisky from the town.

Kilkerran whisky has been released as a ‘work in progress’ starting with the 5 year old release in 2009 and a 6yo this year.  The first full release is expected to be at 12 years old in 2016.  I think the whisky tastes understandably young, still quite light with citrus and vanilla dominant, but the old loch does have an influence with a slight saltiness to taste and a hint of peat smoke in the mix as well.  Not as robust as Springbank but worth watching as it develops.

The final word in Barnard’s report goes again to Robert Burns, although it isn’t credited to him in the book.  From Burns’ poem ‘Scotch Drink’, Barnard quotes the preface which is a reworking of the sentiment in Proverbs 31, v6-7 into auld Scots.  Burns does this with proverbs and psalms a few times in his poetry and I include the verse here as this fantastic poem is one of my muses for this journey (see the banner at the top of this page).

Gie him strong drink, until he wink,
That's sanking in despair ;
An' liquor guid to fire his bluid,
That's prest wi' grief an' care ;
There let him bouse, an' deep carouse,
Wi' bumpers, flowing o'er,
Till he forgets his loves or debts,
An' minds his griefs no more.