"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

Monday, 22 November 2010

Lagavulin Distillery, Islay

After my sensory experience at Ardbeg and with a full belly I retraced my steps along the road to Lagavulin where I had left my car earlier.  I had been to Islay once before but this was one distillery not on the itinerary for that trip so I was eager to see what I had missed.

Barnard’s party travelled from Ardbeg to Lagavulin by horse and cart and their driver, who didn’t speak much English, happily sang Gaelic songs for them as he anticipated “another wee drappie” at the next stop.  Lagavulin means “the Mill in the Valley” or more commonly ‘the hollow of the mill’.  The mill that was here must have been ancient as the 1865 map records only the distillery, a church, a smithy and saltings by the shore.

On their approach to the distillery Barnard observes Dun-naomhaig (Dunyvaig) Castle on a peninsular rock, guarding the bay beside the distillery.  It was once a refuge for Robert the Bruce and also a stronghold for the Lords of the Isles, the MacDonalds.  I will discuss the history of the MacDonalds on Islay in a later post on my visit to Loch Finlaggan; Barnard recounts a few stories here in his introduction to Lagavulin although there appears to be no specific connection between the MacDonalds and the distillery.

Dunyvaig Castle
Before commencing his tour Barnard discusses the setting for the distillery, describing “a miniature bay, around which rocks of fantastic shape rise abruptly from the sea…like weird monsters of the deep”.  These rocks are treacherous but routes between them would be well known to smugglers, offering both speedy escape if attacked from the shore and protection from excise officers approaching from sea.

Smugglers coast at Lagavulin
Illicit distilling and smuggling were rife on this coast before licensing was introduced and Lagavulin was formed out of a number of small bothies that once produced ‘moonlight’ - legal, duty paid spirit being known then as ‘daylight’.  Originally descriptive terms for the hours during which production mostly took place, moonlight, or more commonly now moonshine, carries romantic notions of the smugglers at work.  Barnard suggests that “every smuggler could clear at least ten shillings a day, and keep a horse and a cow”, with large families being supported by these means.

Last of a hundred falls
The legal distillery on the site of these bothies was first registered in 1816 and had changed owners a couple of times before Barnard’s visit.  In addition there was a second legal distillery on the site, called Ardmore and founded in 1817, but it was merged into Lagavulin after closing in 1835.  The owners when Barnard visited were J.L Mackie and Co and they had further enlarged and improved the distillery over thirty years while still preserving the original character of the place.

The water source is two lochans on the slopes of Beinn Sholum above the distillery to the north.  Barnard calls it the hill of Solan and this recalls to mind the tragic story from my earlier pilgrimage, Solam community lying north of here as well.  The name Lochan Sholum is marked beside one lochan on both modern and 19th century maps but no name is ever given for the other lochan, although they are connected by a short stream so it appears to be a collective name.  The water flows through moss and peat, carrying the flavour to Lagavulin over “a hundred falls” that Barnard’s driver claimed.  Today the mash water is carried by pipe but the burn still runs past the distillery to provide cooling water.

Our guide for the afternoon tour is Marjory and we began the tour outside in the warm sunshine where the history of the distillery was explained.  The distillery has changed both internally and externally since Barnard’s visit and we can compare the etching in Barnard with the layout today.  New warehouses have been built to the east (rhs in photo) and the layout now looks less disjointed.

Distillery from Dunyvaig Castle

A large part of the change was due to another distillery being built on the site in 1908.  Malt Mill Distillery was designed to operate using only traditional methods.  The owner at that time was Peter Mackie, or ‘Restless’ Peter as he was known, and after his company lost a contract to sell Laphroaig he tried to re-create his own version of their spirit.  The style never quite matched though, despite copying everything he could in some detail, and Malt Mill closed in 1960.  The current visitor centre is part of the now integrated buildings and the stills were added to Lagavulin in a new still house built in 1962.

The maltings which Barnard observed lay on the north side of a long open court and the large kiln, 36 by 28 feet, was fired by peat only.  There is now a double pagoda roof on this substantial building although the etching in Barnard shows only a single vent on the apex of the roof.  These buildings were last used to malt barley thirty years ago and the barley is now malted to 35ppm at Port Ellen.

Lagavulin courtyard, old maltings on right, still house on left
Barnard describes the mash and still house as “a sombre building, which brings our memories back to the middle ages”, the ‘original character’ of the place perhaps being retained a bit too much.  The buildings round the courtyard are today all of a similar nature, their plastered and whitewashed walls creating a timeless uniformity of style broken only by a commanding red brick chimney and the pipes carrying the new make from still house to spirit store.

The mash tun was a large vessel 18 feet in diameter, the current one is 16 feet and only 12 years old.  A statue of an owl sits on the rafters looking over the process below, symbolic of the wisdom and knowledge handed down through the generations of distillers and craftsmen working beneath its gaze.  Lagavulin is now a Diageo distillery and their policy is for no photographs inside their distilleries so your imagination is required to bring the scene to life.

The scale of operation is now much larger, the “seven washbacks holding 2,000 gallons” (9,000 litres) now expanded to ten holding 21,000 litres each.  The current backs are 63 years old and they fill the room.  From here we proceeded to the still house which contains four stills.  The old still house mentioned above had only two, 1,200 and 650 gallons each (5,450 and 2,950 litres) but the Malt Mill stills were added and at sometime the capacity was increased to 10,500 litres for the onion shaped wash stills and 8,000 for the pear shaped spirit stills.

The lye pipes on Lagavulin’s stills are at a very steep angle, unique to this distillery and helping add depth to the spirit produced, more of the heavier vapours being captured during the long ten hour second distillation.  They have the slowest distillation of all the Islay distilleries, one of the slowest in Scotland, which helps retain the rich, peaty flavour their whisky is known for.  Only 2,000 litres are taken in each middle cut which takes five hours to flow.

As in Barnard’s time there are four bonded warehouses on site but which now hold 7,500 casks to 4,000 back then; an annual production then of 75,000 gallons (341,000 litres), now at around 2.4 million litres.  The warehouses on site are now full so further casks are stored at Port Ellen and at Caol Ila.  Barnard notes that some of the casks were floated out to ships in the bay, knowledge of those smugglers routes between the rocks no doubt invaluable to save an early dilution of the whisky.

For the first time on his tour Barnard here mentions that some of the make is sold as a Single Whisky.  This was certainly unusual in his time, and most of Lagavulin’s output still went for blending then, and he does note here that only a few Scotch Distillers produced singles with Lagavulin “one of the most prominent”.  The ratio is now reversed and most of their make is held for bottling in one of the few single malt expressions they sell.

Barnard tried some “exceptionally fine” 8yo, I tried the Distillery only bottling which has been ‘double matured’ in PX casks for 3-6 months and then a further spell in an American Oak cask that had been ‘seasoned’ with sherry.  The peat was still there in spades, particularly on the nose, and the taste was not as sweet as I had expected, with a drying finish.  The robustness of this whisky mellowed a little with water, becoming almost effervescent with cream soda vanilla notes.

Lagavulin had developed from its early smugglers bothies to the consolidated buildings of Barnard’s time; much has changed since then with another distillery nestling alongside for half a century and now integrated within.  It was the original Islay representative in Diageo’s Classic Malts series, now joined by Caol Ila, and this rich, deep, peaty, robust cannonball of a whisky is only hinted at by the bold frontage to a picturesque distillery, where an owl within recalls the moonlight activity that once took place on this misty shore.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Ardbeg Distillery, Islay

After my pilgrimage to Loch Uigeadail and then a second and final night at the Youth Hostel I made my way back round the island to my first distillery visit at Ardbeg.  Barnard’s Islay adventure also began there and I was keen to follow his footsteps as much as possible; keen also to compare the distilleries now to how they were 125 years ago.

Ardbeg Distillery from shore
Barnard narrates his four mile journey from Port Ellen to Ardbeg, pointing out key elements of the landscape that the slow passing of geological formation has done nothing to change since – green slopes and heather coloured hills to the north, the rocky shore and picturesque bays to the south, the coast of Kintyre just visible across the waves.  He also points out the human occupation of this landscape, ruins of castles and churches reminding his party that they were on “one of the most historic islands of Scotland, in the land of romance and the home of the “Lord of the Isles”.

Hopeful of a wee taste of some of my favourite whiskies later I abandoned my car at Lagavulin where I would be touring later that day.  I hoped that I could balance a few samples with the relentless march of time and be safe to drive to my new resting place that evening.  The walk over the rolling countryside to Ardbeg took around twenty minutes and I arrived just in time for the first tour of the day.

Our guide for the tour was Jackie Thomson who has a long association with Ardbeg.  Jackie is knowledgeable and passionate about both the distillery and Islay and a true ambassador for whisky.  Her enthusiasm for the Ardbeg story is infectious and after an hour and a half in her company we felt quite at home.  Indeed by the time I had enjoyed a few samples and a fantastic lunch I would happily have called it home, but more on that later.

"Substantially built Dutch settlement"?
Barnard described the Ardbeg he found as “one of the most interesting [distilleries] on the island; the buildings have no pretentions to taste and elegance, nevertheless they look picturesque and are substantially built…somewhat scattered and have the appearance of a Dutch settlement”.  Jackie described the buildings now as “cared for…a sensory place…a feeling of location for the single malt”.  Most of this latter experience has come from the investment made by Glenmorangie in 1997 and since, yet a feeling of ‘location’ seems to have always been present here.

The history of the place reflects the long tradition of distilling here, a noted haunt of smugglers for many years before the distillery proper was built by the McDougall family in 1815.  Ardbeg is Gaelic for ‘small headland’ and Barnard describes it as an isolated and romantic place, perfect for an illicit still.  Pure water flowed from the verdant hillside above and the sheltered cove offered protection from weather and from prying eyes and allowed the whisky to be smuggled out by sea.  Inevitably the smugglers' time would come to an end and thereafter the distillery was founded to make the best use of the water “the chief characteristics of which are its softness and purity”.

Smugglers cove where the Ardbeg burn runs to the sea
Jackie brought us up to date with the history, beginning with the time of Barnard’s visit when the 1881 census records 200 people living at Ardbeg with 50 children in school.  Barnard recorded that 60 persons were employed, now there are only 10 men working the distillery plus Jackie and the other staff who run the visitor centre and restaurant.  A few scattered farms and homes nearby make up the rest of this now small community.

The distillery only produced around 25,000 gallons (114,000 litres) per annum twenty years after it was built and yet was still one of the larger ones on Islay.  By Barnard’s time it was producing ten times this amount and it still has a capacity of over 1m litres per year.  This large capacity kept the distillery going through the decades to follow, mainly producing whisky for blending and largely missing out on the single malt interest that developed from the 1960s.

After a few changes in ownership it was bought by Allied Distillers in 1977 and the level of production by then created excess stock, so it closed its doors at the end of 1981 and remained silent for 8 years.  In response to later demand a limited production run restarted from 1989 and then in 1997 the distillery and stock were bought by Glenmorangie for a total of £12m.  An initial investment of £1.4m saw the buildings and equipment renovated or replaced, new branding produced and new life then breathed back into those hallowed halls.

After the introduction our tour began in the same way as Barnard’s did with a visit to the barley lofts.  Five in number when he visited and well used - like most other distilleries at the time Ardbeg malted their own barley and did so up until the 1981 closure.  Four of the five lofts still remain, one having been removed to make way for a stairway, and Jackie advised us, with a smile and a fond memory or two I’m sure, that the old malting floors now provide a great venue for a ceilidh.

Inside an Ardbeg barley loft
Two of the old kilns, with their bold pagoda hats and steep tapering roofs, are now converted into the visitor centre and restaurant.  Once used to dry barley, on floors of hair cloth over wire netting, only local peat was burned in the Victorian chauffeurs.  Barnard seems fascinated by the peat here for the first time on his journey.  He describes the absence of “sulphur or other offensive mineral, the composition of the peat being purely vegetable deposit, not highly decomposed”.  Almost on queue, Jackie describes cut peat as having two distinct layers, a top half that produces more smoke and is used more commercially, the bottom half being denser and better for providing heat for domestic use.  Ardbeg’s barley is now malted at Port Ellen maltings, peated to 55ppm, the taste in the peated barley known here as “the heart of Ardbeg”.

From the old barley lofts we descend to the millroom, the 97 year old mill now fed by two modern steel hoppers.  From here the grist feeds a semi-lauter type mash tun, the base dating from 1961 and the top from 1999, and we arrived just in time to see the mash being charged into the tun.  In Barnard’s time the spent draff was drained from here for use by both local farmers and for export to Ireland, now all is used locally.  The mash tun was once on the level below the washback lids but now rests on the same floor level.  The eight washbacks observed by Barnard held 8,000 gallons each (36,000 litres); the six that are there now hold 23,500 litres.

Mash tun being charged

The Still House was once “a spacious and ancient building” which is, not surprisingly, still ancient but no longer feels spacious.  Barnard observed “two Old Pot Stills” and a “handsome timber Wash Charger placed on an elevation so as to command the stills”.  The two current stills, one meticulously replaced in 1997, are ‘commanded’ by a less than handsome steel charger, the ‘Ardbeg Green’ paint doing its best to disguise its sheer functional demeanour.  The wash still is now only slightly larger at 18,270 litres, the spirit still more so at around 17,000 litres, from 13,600 at Barnard’s visit.  An old still sits in the courtyard as you arrive at Ardbeg, a bold guardian of the traditions still held dear here.

Purifier on spirit still
Jackie describes the key characteristics of Ardbeg as smoky, deep, complex and balanced, the balance coming from the distillation.  The spirit still has at some point been fitted with a copper purifier which produces a kind of 2 1/2 times distillation by rerouting the heavier vapours from the bottom of the lyne arm back into the still.  This helps to provide sweeter, fruitier notes to the spirit to balance with the peat and provide that classic Ardbeg experience - a ‘peaty paradox’ I have heard it called.

We next visited the spirit store which Barnard had little to say about but where we witnessed a ‘parcel’ of 100 casks waiting to be filled.  This building is also where the matured whisky is decanted for vatting, all vatting now being done on site before the spirit is transferred to the mainland by tanker for bottling at Glenmorangie’s new plant at Alba Business Park in Livingston.  When once the firm were “distillers from malt only, not dealers or merchants otherwise” and most of their production went into blends, now most is for sale as single malt.

An Ardbeg parcel
Barnard noted five large warehouses containing 6,000 casks, there are now around 27,000 casks on site and Ardbeg are moving towards all maturation being done on Islay.  The old number 2 warehouse stands out from the others, never whitewashed and “never will be”.  The Islay distilleries are painted white with their names in large black letters so that they could be easily seen and identified from the sea when deliveries were once received that way.  Navigating these rocky shores would be hard enough without calling at the wrong location.

Historic Number 2 warehouse

Ardbeg was the whisky that got me hooked on the Islay style, in either 1997 or 98 after the relaunch of the brand.  I remember being introduced to it at a tasting in Edinburgh, the Glenmorangie staff teasing us with a few of their highland malts before hitting us with this mouthful of intense flavour.  Some love it, some hate it but from that moment on I was a committed peat freak.  Even as my palate has broadened and my whisky knowledge has increased, over the years an Ardbeg has always remained in my favourites list, the 10yo, Uigeadail and currently Corryvreckan all holding that top spot at some time.

After the tour we were treated to a sampling of these wonderful whiskies, along with the Blasda, and then Jackie found a treat.  I had never tried the Kildalton before and given the price they are now going at auction for I may never again.  This was a short run experiment from 1980-81 of very lightly peated whisky and we tried just a drop of the cask strength version.  Sooo not like Ardbeg, lots of peach and coconut with a sweet, well rounded finish, and just a drift of peat in the undercurrent.  Not like Ardbeg, but wow!

Classic line up
I was not the only note taker on that tour - I met Eric Fergie who runs a bar and grill in Vancouver.  Eric was on Islay for a golfing trip with friends and stopped to indulge his passion for great whisky.  We spent some time talking and shared lunch together while shooting the whisky breeze.  Eric also joined me at Lagavulin later before cramming in as many Islay experiences as he could before his flight back home (I hope you made it out to the American Monument, Eric?).  His tale about being chased by cows in the field above Ardbeg while taking photos reminded me of my experience with the bull yesterday.

The restaurant at Ardbeg is a gem and was very busy on a Monday lunchtime.  People come from all around on a regular basis just for the food, which I can heartily recommend.  I have eaten there twice now and found great flavours, satisfying portions, enticing preparation and welcoming service on both occasions.  I have to go back as I still haven’t tried Mary’s famous Clootie Dumpling!  You never know, I may even enjoy a whisky when I am there.

Ardbeg will always have a warm place in my heart and in my glass.  That earlier introduction to a new world of flavour that whisky could provide may well be the seed that grew into this journey over a decade later and brought me to these shores.  The pain and pleasure of my pilgrimage to Loch Uigeadail and the sensory experience that Jackie invoked at the distillery are stories to share over a dram.  You know which one.

Friday, 12 November 2010

An Islay Pilgrimage

Sunday morning began with a drive from Port Charlotte down the Rinns of Islay to the small village of Portnahaven at its most southerly tip.  This wonderful drive along a single track road that definitely falls into the Great Wee Road category ended with a stunning view on the edge of the Atlantic.  The village sweeps around the harbour, whitewashed fisherman’s cottages reflecting the hazy morning sunlight, and silence, blissful silence.  Even the gulls were resting, their cawing stayed until the next small boat brought hope to their hunger.

Portnahaven, aptly named
Retracing the route back to Port Charlotte and then on towards Bowmore I considered how different the road was in daylight and recalled a few hairy corners from the night before.  I soon switched into Islay mode though and my driving from here on was less hurried and gave me time to enjoy the varied scenery.  Within a day I was even participating in the hospitable Islay tradition of raising a friendly hand to every passing car, whether you knew the occupants or not.

Llamas near Port Charlotte!
I stopped briefly at any distillery I passed on this day as I wasn’t sure then how long the sun would last and I wanted to take pictures in the best light possible.  Before long I arrived at the point where my pilgrimage would begin in earnest, at Ardbeg distillery.  After a few photos of the buildings around the courtyard I donned my walking shoes, opened my OS map and headed north towards the hills.  The object of my pilgrimage lay ahead – Loch Uigeadail!

Yes, the source of my favourite dram lay in the hills above me and nothing was going to stop me reaching it, nothing, nothing at all, not even the bull that was over there behind the fence that wasn’t!  However, like most pilgrimages, endeavour and courage were needed to complete the task and the whisky Gods were to place further obstacles in my way, like Zeus testing Jason.  Iain Banks, when not recommending suspect food combinations, did insightfully write that “any quest is at least partly its own point” so onward we go.

Keeping eye contact with 2000lbs of prime Angus beef I headed towards the first landmark on the trail, Airigh nam Beist.  This ruined shieling stands proud on a small rocky outcrop, three pillars of stone like crooked teeth in an ogre’s lower jaw.  Once a small settlement, the name translates as ‘shelter of the beast’, or less scarily ‘resting place of cattle’.  Ardbeg once produced a whisky named after this place, complete with a tale about an unidentified, howling beast that their men pulled out of a peat bog on one of those dark and stormy nights that are ubiquitous in myths and legends.  Robin Laing recounts this episode in his book Whisky Legends of Islay if you like a spooky story.

Airigh nam Beist ruin
My arrival was on a bright afternoon yet a beastly noise still emanated from the marshes beyond.  This bellowing was not from a beast of the underworld but from a stag.  It was rutting season and the stags were at it.  The sound echoed round the hills all afternoon yet I only caught fleeting glimpses of these beasts of the moor.  The stags boldly go head to head with each other to either protect or win the right to the does, yet faced with the possibility of a starring role on my blog they bolt for cover.  I did manage to shoot one, photographically of course, though I do like a bit of venison and that would have to wait until I dined at the Bridgend Hotel.

Bellowing beast near Airigh nam Beist!
You can’t see it from the ruin but continue northeast from here and you will find Loch Iarnan.  The Uigeadail waters flow into here and mingle for a while before they continue down the Ardbeg Burn to their predestined resting place in a cask by the shore.  This loch is actually known locally as Loch Airigh nam Beist, named as such by the distillery as one of its water sources and even Barnard refers to it by this popular name.

East of the loch rises the conical hill of Cnoc Rhaonastil, one of the magical fairy hills of Celtic mythology.  Across Scotland hills of this shape are also known as paps as we shall see when we reach Jura.  Considered as symbols of fertility and mother nature they are also often associated with fairies, and not always the benevolent kind.  Celtic fairies were often mischievous and vindictive creatures and rather than leave two shillings for the tooth under your child’s pillow would just take the child instead and leave an imposter in its place.  At certain times of year the boundaries between this world and the fairy world were thought to open at places like fairy hills and humans could be led into these places and trapped forever.  Zoiks!

Loch Iarnan and fairy hill
Robin Laing’s book also includes a mystical story about the fairies of this hill, this time with a happy ending.  Whisky Legends of Islay is a great read on a cold, stormy, winter’s eve, a dram of Islay whisky to hand, and if you happen to have a roaring fire beside you to light the pages and add to the atmosphere of the stories then all the better.

Continuing past AnB the trail becomes less obvious but you cross the Ardbeg Burn and take a small wooden bridge to avoid the mud on its banks.  The bridge, however, leads into a small overgrown copse after which you emerge back onto the path from no obvious opening.  Being the good Boy Scout I once was I tied a knot in tall grass and made an arrow from sticks and hoped that the fairies weren’t mischievous enough to tamper with it to confuse me on my return this way later.

From here the route rises slightly towards another ruined cottage called Solam.   The tragic end to a nearby crofting community is told on a sign here.  The settlement was visited by plague and they were then isolated.  People from other communities nearby left food at a safe distance and when the food stopped being taken they knew it was time to burn the houses.

From this vantage point the slope below Loch Uigeadail rises ahead to the right and looking across this serene valley you can understand why someone would build a cottage here.  However, a few hundred metres further on, the path that my OS map clearly told me should be in front of me was … well, wasn’t.  The clearly marked trail all the way to the edge of the loch may have been discernable from a helicopter but all I could see in front of me was grass and bracken.

View from Solam towards Uigeadail
The best advice I can give if you are thinking of a similar pilgrimage is – don’t!  After Solam the going is tortuous.  The grass was from knee to waist high, you can’t see your footing which was full of holes, the ground underneath is peat bog and when it isn’t peat bog it’s some other kind of bog.  I was wearing good quality walking shoes which are now a permanent peat colour and I was very lucky not to wrench an ankle or knee.  Strong boots with ankle support are really essential for this terrain.

Long grass flattened by deer for a bed
However, for your sadistic entertainment I continued on and braved the bog, the grass, the next bog, ankle damage and potential Lyme disease from the occasional tick bite.  Did I mention the bog?  All that and the bull and the stags rutting made for quite a challenging afternoon and that’s all before the route headed uphill.  Barnard didn’t venture up here, fond though he was of finding the water source of the distilleries he visited.  It’s not too steep and not too far but with all the aforementioned labours of Hercules the walk was tiring and demanding.

Dark and mysterious place
Oh but my god was it worth it!  After crossing a small adjoining burn the slope flattens out, the grass grows shorter and the object of my pilgrimage shimmered in the late afternoon sun.  I had arrived at The Source and after catching my breath and taking in the view my hipflask was not long on being opened.  I’m sure you can guess the contents and I offered up the following toast:

“Slàinte Uigeadail, may your waters always run deep.
Slàinte Ardbeg, lang may yer lum reek.”

Ardbeg Uigeadail is a thumpingly good whisky with an astonishing depth of flavour, perfect for recharging after a hard climb.  I was still enjoying the chewy finish long after I had left the side of the loch.
Uigeadail dam
The reservoir dam that the Ardbeg staff had been working on in the summer of 2009 looks strong and handsome and will help ensure a regular supply of water for years to come.  It also provided a welcome seat as I surveyed the surroundings.  The walk had been challenging but the end result was worthwhile and the few happy and inspiring moments I spent there will never be forgotten.

Peat bank and Loch Uigeadail
I realised just yesterday that my walk up to Uigeadail had taken place on the 10 Oct 2010 and 101010 in binary converts to that meaningful number 42 in decimal.  Reflecting now on how I felt while sipping that dram at the side of the enchanted loch after the effort of the climb, I think that Douglas Adams just about got that one right.  I need to thank my Edinburgh friend Eric for the inspiration for this thought.

Eric also told me that in his homeland Canada, water that is coloured from having gone through peat is called ‘black water’.  The water in Uigeadail was certainly dark, if not quite black and the picture here shows a lovely russet red colour against the rocks below; much the same colour as my walking shoes now are.  Having drunk the contents of my water bottle on the way up I refilled from the loch but wasn’t sure about drinking it.  The staff at the distillery later told me it may not be good to drink directly from the loch so I have kept the bottle and built a shrine around it on my whisky shelf.

Uigeadail water
I could have remained there for the rest of the day in contemplation and the inevitable trudge back though the grass and swamp did nothing to entice me to leave.  However, the sun was falling and the breeze was cooling so I said my farewells and turned for home.  The walk up from the distillery took two and a half hours to the top, the return was about one and a half hours.  My GPS (Grass Positioning System) route finders were still in place (thank you fairies) and I returned to my car just as the sun was setting on a memorable day.

The next day I would visit Ardbeg Distillery itself and sample the water of Uigeadail in a more enticing form.  The tour there and a comparison with Barnard’s findings will be up next.  However, tomorrow I am attending Glasgow’s Whisky Festival to partake of a few more drams, including some that are very new and eagerly anticipated, so, as it was for Whisky Fringe, my next post may drift into early next week.  If I don’t see you tomorrow then I hope we will meet back here then.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Islay Arrival

After two weeks in Campbeltown Barnard’s party resumed their travels and headed north to catch the ferry to Islay.  Their journey was scenic and peaceful and passed without incident, the weather for the ferry crossing “all that could be desired” and the crossing took “some hours”.  Barnard seemed happy to be on the move again and his descriptions of Islay that followed are those of a man released from shackles into fresh air.  I feel something akin to that – the Campbeltown story, fascinating though it is, has taken far longer to research and write than I had ever imagined and I feel a freedom now to write more about distilleries that still exist today, and endless inspiration received from a happy stay on this enchanted island.

On their arrival after a long day of travelling Barnard's party took up quarters at the White Hart Inn in Port Ellen.  I had also intended staying in the White Hart for my first night but providence provided more suitable accommodation for my stay on Islay, more on which later.  I did venture in later that week, looking for lunch and something to inspire a comparison with the “accommodation excellent and the attendants obliging” that Barnard had found, but the bar was deserted and didn’t serve food and so I have nothing to report.

My journey from Edinburgh again took me over the ‘Rest and be Thankful’ and along my new favourite driving road, the A83, to the ferry terminal at Kennacraig.  A text from CalMac earlier that day had informed me that the 6pm ferry I was booked on was delayed by an hour and a half.  I later found out that one of the ferries had clipped the pier at Port Askaig on Islay the day before, causing damage to both, and temporarily reducing the Islay service to one ferry.

Twilight wildlife while waiting at Kennacraig
However, slightly delayed we got underway down West Loch Tarbert and I began to settle into Island mode, and over a much needed dinner I began to ponder the adventure before me.  I must mention my dinner – the author Iain Banks has travelled on these ferries many times and his regular dinner of choice, oft reported in his whisky travelogue Raw Spirit, is the CalMac chicken curry…with chips.  So, against my better judgement (and the tasty looking haddock), but in deference to the choice of one of my favourite authors, I did likewise.  I will, in future, stick to reading his fiction and avoid any restaurant reviews he may unwisely choose to publish!

As we headed into open water beyond the entrance to the Loch I ventured outside for some sea air to help settle my mismatched stomach contents.  I am glad that I did for I was able to observe the clearest sky for a long time and on a night when the moon was new.  As we crossed the sea the dark expanse of the heavens provided a matt background against which the stars stretched from horizon to horizon, with the broad band of the Milky Way arching through the zenith high above.  I spent a long time on that wind swept deck, picking out constellations and watching for shooting stars in wonder.  I was reminded of some lyrics from an atmospheric 1980 song The Romance of the Telescope by OMD:

“We’re just waiting, looking skyward, as the days come down.
Someone promised there’d be answers, if we stayed around.”

The stars sparkled above me and the lights of the three distilleries on Islay’s southern shore glimmered, like Sirens beckoning us onward.  That shore is littered with rocky outcrops that have sunk many a vessel over time.  The wind was up and the crossing choppy but we arrived safely at Port Ellen with the Pole Star shining above to show me the way to my bed.  As we turned into the final channel towards the harbour the familiar shape of The Plough constellation was straight ahead.  The headland south of the harbour is called The Ard due to its shape and these two together, hinting at Islay’s agricultural heritage, were comforting omens for the journey ahead; straight and true is the ploughman’s motto.

As I left Port Ellen and drove north towards Bowmore, the Pole Star and Plough ahead of me all the way, I took the ‘low road’ past the airport.  As I did so I could see the headlights of cars on the ‘high road’ parallel above me to the east, as those who knew the way took the quicker route home.  I would venture that way later in the week but right then I didn’t fancy an unknown single track road over the hills in the dark with a queue of delayed islanders on my tail.

The ferry delay meant I had to press on hard to reach the Youth Hostel at Port Charlotte before they locked their doors at 11.30pm.  Further on from Bowmore the road to PC is an adventure to drive in the dark and once or twice I had to caution myself on my speed to ensure my visit to Islay didn’t meet either a sheepish end, or the end of a sheep.  I mean this was dark!  You know the kind of dark I’m talking about here – the kind of dark that lurks at the bottom of an empty hipflask, waiting for the sunlight trapped in a welcoming whisky to light up the gloom; the kind of gloom that only an empty hipflask can invoke in your soul.

Port Charlotte Youth Hostel
I arrived with ten minutes to spare and found that the wonderful staff at the hostel had already made up my bed and so I enjoyed a long comfortable rest to prepare for the week’s adventures.  The hostel managers, Lorna and Karl were helpful beyond duty and very welcoming and I can recommend a stay here.  The Scottish Tourist Board have given them a four star rating, their customers have given them five so don’t just take my word for it.

Sunday arrived a little later than planned but I was soon on the road again.  As it was for my visit to Campbeltown, the weather for all but my last day on Islay was glorious.  Blue skies crowned the scenery wherever I went and added to the colour of late autumn on a Scottish Isle, bringing warmth to the Atlantic breeze and light to awaken the spirit.  The sunshine I enjoyed in these two locations should help keep the rickets at bay for another year!

I had reserved this first day for exploring the island and for one particular pilgrimage that I had long considered important to my ‘spiritual’ development.  My next post will draw you into the dark and mysterious elements of that pilgrimage before we embark on the distillery visits.  Join me for an adventure never to be repeated.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Campbeltown Sign-off

Apologies for that last essay folks.  I hadn’t expected to write so much about the years of decline but it is a fascinating story.  I couldn’t hope to cover it here in detail but if you would like more information then David Stirk’s book The Distilleries of Campbeltown (2005) will go some way towards your further enlightenment and it was invaluable to me in reseaching this part of my journey.

After my final distillery photos I headed out into the countryside around Campbeltown to see what this distant corner of Caledonia could offer me.  The road south passes through pleasant arable land with rolling hills before once again the sea comes into view near Southend, and what a view!  The Mull of Kintyre is an imposing stretch of coastline and from the western shore you can see across the twelve miles of open water to Northern Ireland.

Mull of Kintyre
The southern tip of Kintyre offers much for us archaeologists to explore.  The evidence of human occupation here dates back to the Mesolithic period, around 6000 BC, and the landscape provides clues to past human activity right through to the more recent connections with Ireland and the Scotia peoples who arrived from there.  The carving of St Columba’s ‘footsteps’ included in my post on Dalaruan distillery can be found near Southend, together with a ruined church and a well attributed to him.  Dunaverty Castle and hill fort are bound up in the medieval struggles for control of these lands.

If you are adventurous you may consider driving the long road out to The Mull where a lighthouse stands on the first point of mainland Scotland that travellers from the Americas would see.  This single track ‘road’ is very steep and runs along a precipitous cliff in places and is definitely not for the faint hearted or inexperienced driver.

I returned to Campbeltown as the tide was receding having planned to visit the island called Davaar which guards the entrance to Campbeltown Loch.  The island is accessible on foot at low tide by walking across the tidal causeway called the Doirlinn.  A timetable is produced each month by the Tourist Office in the harbour and there is a safe walking period of six hours each day, the causeway being fully submerged outside this.  Strong shoes are recommended as it is shingle most of the way and will be damp in places, and on the coast of the island the shore is very rocky and care is needed.
Davaar Island and the Doirlinn
The walk is worth it though, and not just for the views of the harbour.  After 30 minutes walking I reached a series of caves that line the south coast of the island.  In one of these there is a life-size rock painting of the Crucifixion which was painted in secret by the local art teacher, Archibald MacKinnon, in 1887.  It was discovered by accident later that year, two years after Barnard’s visit and otherwise I am sure it would be something that he would have ventured out to see.  My photo here does no justice to the original nor to the setting.

Davaar cave painting
This spiritual ending to my stay in Campbeltown sent me on my way home with feelings of wonder, and of joy at having visited this historic corner of whiskidom.  I had encountered many unexpected aspects to this part of my journey and met with some very enthusiastic residents who made me feel welcome at every turn.  The story to tell was only just forming in my head and the lack of evidence for the past whisky industry troubled me a little.
There is a ‘weel kent’ song about Campbeltown and whisky that I am sure many of you know:

Oh Campbeltown Loch, I wish you were whisky,
Campbeltown Loch och-aye!
Oh Campbeltown Loch, I wish you were whisky,
I would drink you dry.

Now Campbeltown Loch is a beautiful place,
But the price of the whisky is grim.
How nice it would be if the whisky was free
And the Loch was filled up to the brim.

I'd buy a big yacht with the money I've got
And I'd anchor it out in the bay.
If I wanted a sip I'd go in for a dip
I'd be swimmin' by night and by day.

The legendary Andy Stewart there, God bless his soul, giving song to thoughts that maybe once passed through many a head (who do we know in Campbeltown that owns a big yacht?).  Alas, the days when enough whisky was produced to fulfil Andy’s wish are long gone and the town now looks to a very different future, reinventing itself once more.

In Stirk’s introduction to his book he asks why not have a distillery walking tour taking in past and present?  Having seen the few walls that remain of the distilleries that are gone, with most other sites now fully redeveloped for housing or storage depots with nothing to see of the old ventures, I wonder if there is value in that suggestion?  As it stands I think the Springbank tour and the heritage centre provide enough for both the whisky enthusiast and the tourist and the rest would become repetitive, unless the Campbeltown story could be woven into the tour by a theatrical and knowledgeable guide.

However, if Glen Scotia was more tourist friendly and if a dedicated whisky heritage facility provided the whole whisky story, from illicit smuggling through the boom and bust to the modern day, then the town may be able to encourage more tourists to venture that bit further to find something unique.  And I think it would have to be unique and not just a replica of the Experiences in Edinburgh or Glenturret or some of the more tourist friendly visitor centres in more northerly parts.

For now, Campbeltown moves on and so must I.  On the ferry on my way to Islay I saw a headline in the Campbeltown Courier reporting that Tesco will be relocating from their store at Lochead and building a new superstore on the site where the Campbeltown Creamery now sits and where once Burnside and Meadowburn Distilleries called home.  The creamery will be relocating to a larger modern facility on the north side of town.  The combined moves are thought to be generating 200 jobs and helping to safeguard dairy farming in Kintyre, although opinion in town is split over the move as the new Tesco will have an impact on other retailers, particularly those who line Longrow.

If Tesco can twice build on old distillery ground in town then perhaps the old Tesco site should now be redeveloped into a new distillery (with an old name) and the old Lochead warehouses rebuilt?  I am sure the residents that I met in the new estate beside Lochead may have a few things to say about that though.  Maybe that location, central between the three remaining distilleries, would be the ideal site for a whisky heritage centre and cooperage for tourists to enjoy?  Hey, every little helps, no?

Before I go I must give thanks to Frank McHardy and the staff at Springbank and Cadenheads; to Clive Good at Hazelburn; to Joan and Tracey at the Dellwood Hotel and to the people of Campbeltown for all their hospitality and help during my stay in town.

I will leave the final word in this chapter of my journey to the Campbeltown Courier which printed a report in 1929 mentioning the welcome return to production at Rieclachan, Scotia and Springbank (Stirk, 2005).  The report signed off with words that are still appropriate to the distilleries of today - "May the lums of all three reek longer than they think at present".

Amen to that.

Campbeltown closures

The land of whisky, whisky city, whisky metropolis, whisky centre … all descriptions used by Barnard for Campbeltown to show the extent of distilling in the town when he visited.  So what happened in Whiskyopolis to bring this vast industry to a near halt just forty years later, and leave us at one time with just two distilleries from a peak of twenty-eight?

The answer lies in a number of factors, each one compounding the problems the town faced, until most of the distilleries were no longer viable businesses.  There were different stages to the decline culminating with the 1920s as the nadir of centuries of distilling history, and even since then both Glen Scotia and Springbank have seen short periods of closure.

The chart on my previous post will help to show the boom and bust years.  The first gap, after Ballegreggan closed in 1797, marks an increase in duties payable on spirit and so the industry remained underground for a further twenty years until Campbeltown Distillery was founded in 1817.  The Excise Act of 1823 sought to make licensed distilling a worthwhile venture and this helped fuel the first boom in town through the 1820s.

Most of the early licensed distilleries, those from 1817-25, survived and thrived for a century or so.  Those licensed from 1826-30 experienced more mixed fortunes, with over half of them closing around the 1850s, Springbank the most notable exception.  Whisky consumption in Scotland fell dramatically in the 1850s (Stirk, 2005) and some of these distilleries were small or attached to other larger ventures.  By the 1820s the number of convictions for illegal distilling was also falling away, although the illicit trade was still present for years to come.

The 1830s licensees didn’t really fare too well, with most of them lasting only a few years.  The notable exception here is Glen Scotia, although Dalintober and Lochruan also bucked that trend and all three of these were located close together on the north side of town away from the cramped locations behind Longrow.  Perhaps the others from this time were jumping on a bandwagon too late, at a time when the earlier distilleries would have a good supply of stock available to meet market demand.

Some stability and growth followed the 1850s closures and the final wave of distilleries in the 1870s all held their own until the fateful 1920s.  They were built on Glebe Street as the town expanded west and were built at a time when many advances in technology had been introduced, allowing them perhaps to operate more efficiently and with the space to produce at the higher end of the volume scale for the town.

The distillery owners, and their financial backers, were one of the keys to the longevity of certain operations.  The Mitchell, Colville, Greenlees, Beith and MacCallum names were synonymous with distilling and their willingness to back or take over other ventures helped their survival.  The ongoing success of Glen Scotia in particular is owed in no small part to Duncan MacCallum buying this back when West Highland Malt Distillers failed; but for this action there might now only be two distilleries left in town.

Production was increasing every year in the last decade of the 19th century until 1898 when this trend dramatically reversed and by 1912 the volume distilled was half what it was in 1891 (Stirk, 2005).  This slump aligns with at least three significant factors.  First, the blending trade that had been ushered in (sorry!) by Andrew Usher in the 1850s suddenly collapsed in the late 1890s and some large ventures went out of business.  Second, by this time most of the original distillery owners had passed on and even second generation family members were giving up interest and moving away to the new opportunities in the cities (Stirk, 2005).

The third factor was perhaps the most significant.  Campbeltown’s location had been ideal to meet the demand from the rapid growth in Glasgow’s population during the 1800s, and steam ships ploughed the Clyde long before the railways opened up the Highland and Speyside glens.  The thirst of the labourers of Glasgow’s industrial revolution together with the number of blenders and bottlers based in the city fuelled the demand for production.

And then someone coined the phrase ‘stinking fish’ to describe Campbeltown whisky.  One oft repeated story was that this came from the herring barrels that lined the docks, the suggestion being that they were reused for whisky!  The stills were also being worked harder with obvious repercussions in the shortcuts taken in cleaning them or forcing the boundaries of the middle cut.  However, it is just as likely that this phrase was an insinuation by the final factor, the Highland and Speyside distilleries, who by now had easier rail access to the central blending houses and whose lighter and fruitier spirits were preferred for their versatility in blending.

It didn’t stop there.  The distilleries that had survived the turn of the century continued into the 1910s and 20s during which time four major factors came to bear.  The onset of the Great War had an immediate effect on both demand and the availability of materials.  It also saw the introduction of the Immature Spirits Act in 1915 which now required whisky to be bonded for a minimum of 2 years, extended to 3 years by amendments to the Act in 1916.  This was partly done to ensure that better quality spirits were being obtained to reduce absenteeism during a time when national productivity was so important.

The impact of these two factors on the finances of all distilleries was further compounded, for Campbeltown particularly, by prohibition in the United States.  The far southwest location and the harbour of Campbeltown provided the most convenient place to transport Scotch whisky casks to North America, which advantage ran until prohibition was introduced in 1920, not being repealed until 1933 long after the final wave of distillery closures.  The final key factor was the running dry of the local coal seam which closed in 1923, adding to the distillery fuel costs.

Consolidation of parts of the industry in the 1920s, particularly through companies like DCL and West Highland Malt Distilleries, did nothing to stem the tide of closures, although some argue that these companies were trying to save the industry from the overproduction and increased costs that had developed.  In the long term some of the closures may have been for the better good of the industry as a whole.

The last distillery to close in Campbeltown was Rieclachan in 1934 after an effort to recover production in town in 1933.  Mitch asked a question on my post on this distillery about whether there was ever a time in the last century when no distilleries operated in Campbeltown, and the answer is yes but thankfully only for short periods.  Both Glen Scotia and Spingbank stopped production for a few years at a time on a number of occasions, particularly during the late 1920s/early 1930s and again during the 1980s downturn in the industry.  These periods only marked a stay in production though, and the equipment was maintained ready to start again when market conditions improved, while all along their stocks of maturing nectar were being watched and cared for.

One thing is for sure – the collapse of the industry in the early 1900s was not due to divine providence.  The town motto, which Barnard records as seeing below a window in the town hall, is Ignavis precibus fortuna repugnant, which means “fortune spurns slothful prayers”.  With the extent of church activity in town and with its close proximity to the distilleries one can imagine that the Divine was happy for the angels to enjoy their share, while it lasted.  The reopening of Glengyle in recent years gives further hope to the heavenly throng, and to us lovers of Campbeltown drams.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Springside Distillery and others, Campbeltown

Barnard describes this distillery as “the smallest work in Campbeltown” and his visit was very brief.  It was also his shortest report from the town and one of the shortest in the book, on a par with Auchintoshan and with only Macallan having fewer words.  The distillery output was just 30,000 gallons p.a. (136,000 litres) and although this was the lowest in Campbeltown there were 14 other Scottish distilleries with lower output at that time.

When Barnard visited he found “a scattered lot of buildings placed around a small yard” yet all the key components were on site, including three small granaries and maltings right through to four bonded warehouses, although only containing 600 casks.  There were two kilns, heated by peat only, and water was drawn from Crosshill Loch.  The mash tun was the smallest in town at just 10 feet by 3 1/2 and the two pot stills held just 1,205 and 394 gallons (5,475 and 1,790 litres).

Springside Distillery wall
Located off Burnside Street at the south end of Longrow the distillery was owned by John Colvill & Co throughout its entire history, from 1830 until closing in 1926.  Some of the buildings have since been demolished and a Hydro-Electric depot established, but one of the bonded warehouses is still well used for storage and a wall remaining from the distillery stands behind the depot.

And that is it for the Campbeltown distilleries visited by Barnard in the summer of 1885.  To complete the picture for Campbeltown though I think it is worth a brief mention for the other licensed distilleries that came and went before Barnard arrived, most of this data is from Stirk (2005):

Broombrae (1833-1838) – only licensed for a year although there may have been another unrecorded distillery on the site in the Dalintober part of town before then.

Caledonian (1823-51) – the second or third licensed distillery in Campbeltown itself.  It was on Burnside Street beside where Springside would later be built.  Caledonian ceased production in 1844 and the company was wound up in 1851.  The distillery site became the southern entrance to Glebe Street in the 1870s to expand the town westward.

Drumore (1834-47) – located on an old illicit still site at Drumore Farm on the road into town from the north.  Sequestrated and sold in 1847 it ceased production then.

Glenramskill (1828-52) – on the south side of the loch beyond Kilkerran.  It was advertised for sale in 1835 and believed closed by 1852 although it is still clearly marked on maps from 1865.

Highland (1827-52) – situated on Broad street in the Dalaruan area, just north of Kintyre Distillery, little else is known about it.  The output may have been by far the highest in town around 1840 as it had the highest rates to pay of all distilleries at £400 p.a. while most others were charged £200.  The distillery was still clearly marked as such on maps right up to 1921 but the site was redeveloped in the 1930s for housing and again in the last two years.

Lochside (1830-52) – very little known about this distillery but it was located on the east side of Longrow looking out onto the mussel ebb at that time.

McKinnon’s Argyll (1827-1844) and Meadowburn (1824-1886) were mentioned under the posts on Argyll and Burnside respectively.

Mossfield (1834-37) – situated off Longrow Street in what are now the grounds of the Lorne and Lowland Church beside where Longrow distillery stood.

Mountain Dew (1834-37?) – also first known as Thistle and sharing the shortest run with Mossfield.  Thistle closed almost as soon as it opened and was finally wound up in 1837 but recommenced as Mountain Dew for a few years afterwards.  It was between Springside and Caledonian distilleries off Burnside Street.

Tober an Righ beyond Springbank cask storage
Tober an Righ (1834-60) – another one on Longrow, this time wedged in between Springbank and Longrow Street.  This little corner of whiskidom got very crowded for a short while in the 1830s.  It was a very small affair with rates of only £80 when most others were paying £200.  Bought by John Mitchell in 1851 when he owned the neighbouring Springbank but closed nine years later.

Union (1826-50) – built adjoining Campbeltown Distillery at the north end of Longrow and sharing the proprietor with it at one time, even jointly assessed on rates of £160 between them.  Campbeltown lasted until 1924 and Union may have effectively been surplus to requirements when the business was sold in 1850.

West Highland (1830-50) – built on Argyll street at the south end of town.  Another small venture and it had ceased production by 1850.

One other distillery worth mentioning and omitted from Stirk’s book is Ballegreggan (1790-1797).   The dates are recorded in Udo (2005) and according to the Scotch Whisky Industry Record this was the first registered distillery in the area, before formal licensing was introduced some thirty years later.  The exact location is unknown but there is a Balegreggan farm on the north side of town near to Drumore, beside which a burn runs through the Balegreggan glen, an ideal place for illicit distilling and smuggling in the years before the distillery fell under the watchful eyes of the Excise.

Chart of Campbeltown Distillery dates (click to enlarge)
The chart here records the open and close years for each of the 35 recognised distilleries in Campbeltown’s history and shows the peak of the industry in the 1830s and 40s, with the highest number open at one time being 28 between 1834 and 1837.  Some of these dates will vary depending on the source as there are often differences between build and licence dates and also between production ceasing and the venture being finally wound up.  The lack of records for some distilleries also makes direct comparisons difficult but I hope this provides a fairly accurate overview.

I have nothing more to report on the individual distilleries of Campbeltown but my next post will wrap up some final thoughts and observations about the town in general, including a quick look at some of the reasons for the collapse in the industry, before we take the ferry to Islay.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Argyll Distillery, Campbeltown

As it was for the name Campbeltown Distillery, there were also two called Argyll in the town, although not overlapping in time.  The original Argyll, also known as McKinnon’s after its founder Duncan, was founded in 1827 but the company ceased in 1844 a few years after his death.  It was situated on Lorne Street on the south side of town and very little else is known about it.

In the same year as one closed another opened at the other end of Longrow, right beside the Hazelburn Distillery that had been established in 1825.  This new Argyll was the last to open in Campbeltown for almost 25 years until Benmore was established in 1868.  It was owned by Colvill and Greenlees, and Stirk (2005) calls it a restart of Argyll although the actual association with McKinnon’s is unclear.

When I say it opened right beside Hazelburn it was actually later contiguous with it, sharing a wall between malt barns on the Hazelburn side and warehouses for Argyll after Hazelburn had expanded sometime in the decade or so around the time of Barnard’s visit.

The distillery was entered through a neat gateway into a courtyard around which the buildings were arranged and most of the modern “improvements” appeared to be in place, whatever they were, Barnard doesn’t elaborate.  The water came from a deep well on the premises and also ‘the Loch’, which must mean the Crosshill Loch given the side of town it was on.  Argyll was a peat only distillery for malting its barley and the annual output was 40,000 gallons (182,000 litres).

Petrol Station at Argyll site
The company changed hands twice, once in 1920 and then transferred into DCL in 1923 when production ceased.  DCL dismantled the equipment and sold the buildings in 1929 to the Craig Brothers for use as a garage and petrol station alongside their other garages and depots at Glengyle and Benmore.  The site has remained as a petrol station ever since.

Barnard described the distillery location, as he did for Hazelburn, as being on Longrow Street and the report of the 1929 sale in the Campbeltown Courier lists the address as 95 Longrow (Stirk, 2005).  However, maps from as far back as 1865 and up to today show the stretch of road where they were located as Millknowe Road.  Whether this has been a map recording error or a desire by distilleries to be associated with the Longrow name we may never know.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Campbeltown Distillery

The establishment of this distillery preceded the beginning of the major boom in legal distilling in town.  Registered in 1815 and opened in 1817 it would be a further six years before the next two distilleries opened, Kinloch and Caledonian, yet the establishment of THE Campbeltown Distillery marked a turning point away from the illicit stills and smuggling of the past.

Perhaps anticipating this the Duke of Argyll ordered the building of the two water mains from Crosshill Loch, one for the town and one specifically for distilleries, and they opened in 1820 (Stirk, 2005).  When licensing was introduced in 1823 the new legislation was embraced by the town’s financiers and the next twelve years saw a further twenty-eight distilleries licensed, although some were short lived.

This was not the first Campbeltown Distillery though.  There is record of another one under this name from 1798, however the location is now unknown and it was closed in 1852 after a patchy history (Udo, 2005).  It may have been outside of town as it is unlikely for two with the same name to have operated simultaneously nearby.

The Campbeltown Distillery that Barnard visited was built at the north end of Longrow, at the junction with Lochend Street and Millknowe Road, and he describes it as old-fashioned and tumble-down despite some changes and new machinery since it was first built.  He was visiting seventy years after it was founded so the “old-world look” is understandable, although he does note that even when it was built “it was a great advance on the Smuggler’s Kettle”.

The mash tun was one of the smallest in town and the two Sma Pot Stills were only 1,400 and 960 gallons (6,400 and 4,400 litres) producing just 60,000 gallons (273,000 litres) p.a.  Peat only was used in the kilns and the whole place worked mainly on manual labour.

The distillery had various owners until 1852 when The Campbeltown Distillery Co Ltd was formed and held the distillery until 1924.  Production does seem to have permanently stopped by 1917 however, as there is record of most of the utensils being sold off that year (Stirk, 2005), so perhaps the latter years were just the final maturation and sale of stock.   If 1924 is the correct closure date then this was the second longest running of the closed distilleries in Campbeltown at 107 years, after Rieclachan at 109.

Site of Campbeltown Distillery
The immediate history of the closed buildings is unknown but by 1993 the site was a Ford dealership (Townsend, 1993) and it now houses a general goods store and motor company forecourt.

Once again Barnard includes a verse from Robert Burns in his report but this time I need to take him to task for it.  He says of the Campbeltown Distillery that “the quality of its brew is said to have inspired Burns to sing, when he visited his [Highland] Mary in Campbeltown,

“Oh! Willie brew'd a peck o' maut,
An Rob a’ Allan cam to pree;
Three blyther hearts, that lee long night,
Ye wad na find in Christendie.
We are na fou, we're nae that fou,
But just a drappie in our e'e!
The cock may craw, the day may daw,
And aye we'll taste the Whasky O.”

There are a few problems here and I get the feeling that Barnard may have been spun a yarn by someone at the distillery.  I will ignore his replacing the correct words ‘barley bree’ with ‘Whasky O’ (whit?) in the last line as otherwise the words are from the song Willie Brew’d A Peck O’ Maut.  First of all this song was written in 1789, three years after the death of his Highland Mary at Greenock.  Second, Mary may have lived in Campbeltown for a while but Burns never visited the town, meeting her and wooing her in Ayrshire.

Connecting this song to his love Mary is also strange as it is in fact a lively drinking song, written about a night spent getting ‘fou’ with two of his closest friends from Edinburgh, Willie Nicol and Allan Masterton.  The last four lines above are the chorus and basically translate as ‘we’re not really drunk, despite having been drinking all night’, and the last verse of the song shows that mock bravado that often exists amongst drinking buddies:

“Wha first shall rise to gang awa,
A cuckold, coward loun is he!
Wha first beside his chair shall fa',
He is the King amang us three.”

I’ve had a few nights like that in Edinburgh myself!