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Exploring Whisky Series: Inside Campbeltown

After decades languishing in the shadow of Islay, Campbeltown is emerging into the limelight. Peter Ranscombe explores Scotland’s forgotten whisky region and recommends some key drams.

Let me start with a confession. Scotland doesn’t really have five whisky regions at all. It only has three: the Highlands, the Lowlands and Speyside.

The other two – Islay and Campbeltown – are, in fact, deemed to be ‘localities’ in the official Scotch whisky regulations. Their names enjoy the same protection under law, but there’s an acknowledgement that their tiny size places them in a separate category.

Arguably the island of Islay punches above its weight. It created a family of single malt whiskies with a distinctly smoky flavour thanks to the peat used to malt the barley. However Campbeltown has remained Scotland’s forgotten whisky centre. That is, until now, with a renewed interest in the town and its whiskies sparking something of a single malt renaissance.

Where is Campbeltown?

Situated on the Kintyre peninsula, Campbeltown is one of the largest towns in Argyll, and an important west coast harbour. The island of Arran and the Ayrshire coast lie to the east. Meanwhile Islay looms to the northwest and in the southwest Northern Ireland sits surprisingly close by.

South of Campbeltown lies the Mull of Kintyre, immortalised by Paul McCartney and Wings in their 1977 UK Christmas number one, Mull of Kintyre – one of the few times that the drone of the bagpipes has troubled the top of the charts. Extra points if you remembered that the single was a double-A side with Girls’ School.

Campbeltown is served by a ferry from Ardrossan in Ayrshire. Many tourists opt for the long drive along the A83 from Loch Lomond. This includes the infamous ‘Rest and be Thankful’ mountain pass – often closed due to landslides – and the achingly beautiful Loch Fyne with its oysters.

What are the most famous distilleries in Campbeltown?

In its heyday during the early 19th century, Campbeltown was, without exaggeration, the whisky capital of the world. It was home to more than 30 distilleries, with supplies of cheap coal allowing steamships to ferry whisky speedily to Glasgow and beyond.

By 1985, only Springbank remained. Then, slowly but surely, a revival began. Having yo-yoed since the 1930s between being open and closed, Glen Scotia restarted production in 1989. Then Glengyle threw open its doors once more in 2004.

In the interim, a blended Highland malt also called Glengyle had appeared on the scene, so Glengyle distillery’s flagship brand is called Kilkerran. Its name is derived from Ceann Loch Chille Chiarain, the Gaelic name for the settlement that was renamed Campbeltown in the 17th century.

A white distillery building

How many distilleries are in Campbeltown?

Three – but ask that question again in a few years’ time and the answer will be higher. Just as the Lowlands has enjoyed a whisky renaissance, so too is Campbeltown. Plans are taking shape for not one, but two distilleries in the town and its surrounding area.

R&B Distillers – which has already built a spectacular distillery on Raasay, a small island off the coast of Skye – has unveiled plans to build a distillery at Dhurrie Farm in nearby Machrihanish. The Machrihanish Distillery will be the first whisky plant to be built in the area for more than 180 years, rather than an old site reopening.

Hot on the heels of R&B’s announcement came news that fellow whisky bottler North Star Spirits wants to open Dál Riata Distillery in the town itself. Its decision was accompanied by the launch of a new South Star Spirits label.

What does Campbeltown whisky taste like?

Most whisky aficionados would label Campbeltown’s single malts as maritime. For some, that means the saltiness of the taste; for others, it indicates the oiliness of the texture.

Despite having only three distilleries, Campbeltown in fact boasts a variety of styles. Springbank is lightly peated, while the distillery’s Longrow label is heavily peated, and its Hazelburn offshoot is light and fruity. This is thanks to its lack of peat and its triple distillation.

Kilkerran from Glengyle, owned by the same family as Springbank, is also lightly peated, while Glen Scotia makes both peated and unpeated whiskies. In years to come, Campbeltown’s new distilleries are likely to chart their own course with their flavour profiles, while retaining that distinctive maritime character.

Which Campbeltown whiskies should I try?

Peter Ranscombe recommends four Campbeltown malts to taste.

Four bottles of whisky against a white background

Glen Scotia 25 Year Old Campbeltown Single Malt Whisky

Subtle yet complex aromas of wood smoke, apricot jam, caramel, milk chocolate and heather honey. Those sweet milk chocolate and honey flavours come to the fore on the rich and oily palate, where they’re joined by dried apricots, spicy cloves and vanilla ice cream, reminiscent of Glen Scotia Double Cask. Alcohol 48.8%

Hazelburn 10 Year Old Campbeltown Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Surprisingly floral on the nose, alongside notes of lemon, spun sugar, runny honey and freshly baked white baguette. Exceptionally well-integrated alcohol, with sweet brown sugar notes from its time ageing in bourbon barrels. Yet still with that classic oily Campbeltown mouthfeel. Alc 46%

Kilkerran 12 Year Old Campbeltown Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Richer and meatier than its Springbank cousin (see below). The smoke centred initially around cured meat before developing layer after layer of coal smoke, juicy raisins, salted almonds and rich treacle. Mouthfilling oiliness carries the mix of sweetness and peatiness all the way through to its long finish. Alc 46%

Springbank 10 Year Old Campbeltown Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Springbank’s flagship dram is the yardstick by which all other Campbeltown malts are judged. Salted caramel notes mingle amongst the smoke and honey on the nose, before launching into rounder and richer toffee and manuka honey on the palate. All wrapped in an oily texture. Alc 46%

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Exploring whisky series: Inside Speyside

Exploring whisky series: Inside the Lowlands

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