TASTING NOTES ARE getting out of hand. Adjectives are one thing but the pseudo-screenplay of it all is a bit much, isn't it?
A humble chardonnay? No such thing. You mean the elixir of freshly churned butter from the tender hands of a farmhouse maid who just happens to be crushing vanilla pods and squeezing lemons? Utter nonsense. But, they’re going nowhere.
Indeed, they’ve seeped from the wine trade and now plague whisky writers, who have taken them up the pursuit of pretentiousness with gusto.
And none are more fantastically facetious than those of Campbeltown whiskies. These peaty drams hail from a far-flung corner of Scotland’s west coast and were rather poetically described by Aeneas MacDonald – the author of a single, seminal book on Scotch – as the ‘double basses of the whisky orchestra’. They’re briney on the nose, peat smoked and ashy to taste. Texturally, they’re oily, grippy, and dirty, with a certain ‘funk’ apparently.
As appealing as that may not sound, these fiery whiskies were once sought the world over. Indeed, Victorian Campbeltown housed just a few thousand souls but dozens of distilleries and bonded warehouses which kept the cogs of Empire well oiled.
The Great French Wine Blight of the mid nineteenth century then saw the vines of Europe ravished by the phylloxera insect. As claret and brandy ran dry, whisky was the next best thing. Sales of Campbeltown malts boomed as speculators bought up stocks.
But Campbeltown soon fell victim to a near fatal cocktail of circumstance. First, the Great War saw grain rations and relentless hikes in spirit duty, the latter a bitter battle in David Lloyd George’s ideological war on booze. Prohibition in the States then killed off an irreplaceable export market, a sudden death that the town had barely mourned when the Great Depression all but strangled the only global markets that were left.
The heady boom of the Empire also saw gratuitous growth in capacity. Sub-par stock flooded the market and crashed prices. When MacDonald wrote his billet doux to our beloved spirit in the early 1930s, the decimation was well underway. Tragically, it continued further still; less than half of the surviving distilleries he recorded remain today.
Glen Scotia is one of them. At the helm is Master Distiller Iain McAlister, a local boy who came late to the Scotch trade. We sat him down with a bottle of his latest release – a white port cask-finished beauty – and heard his take on the tale of Campbeltown.
You were born in Campbeltown and grew up a mere few miles outside of the town. It’s not the easiest place in the world to get to and can feel impossibly remote. But it hasn’t always been that way?
I guess it isn’t that easy to get to. Although I hope those that have visited agree it is worth the trip. We’re always delighted when we have visitors that have made the journey – they certainly earned their drams.
Being born and bred in the ‘wee toon’, I’ve always been fascinated by its amazing history which starts in the early 19th century.
Before any real development of the road network, Campbeltown’s location by the sea meant it was a vital sea route for several of the UK’s biggest trades including whisky – we were one of Scotland’s most internationally connected ports.
Boats coming into the town had direct links to Glasgow and Liverpool which would go on to Europe, the US and beyond. I always find it fascinating to imagine casks of rum and wine being unloaded into our harbour while our forebears were getting ready to send our whisky around the world.
And then came the whisky trade, with the town home to less than 10,000 souls but dozens of distilleries at one point. Would it be fair to say that this wee town on the Scottish west coast was probably the heart of the industry?
Absolutely. Campbeltown was known as the ‘Whisky Capital of the World’ during the Victorian era, thanks to the production capabilities of the town and its seafaring routes.
Back then, there were more than 30 distilleries operating in Campbeltown, producing a vast range of whisky styles. I’m sure it was an astonishing sight to see (and smell!) with a real whisky community feel to an otherwise typical Scottish coastal town.
Clearly, bleaker days followed and a perfect storm of world wars, grain rations, and prohibition in the United States - a huge importer of Campbeltown whisky - all but killed distilling here. How close did the town come to losing everything?
Our current urban landscape – with only three remaining distilleries in the town - tells a tale of how challenging those times were for whisky production on the west coast.
But the people of Campbeltown are a strong bunch. And the whisky produced here has always had a wonderful way of bringing us together in times of need. Glen Scotia prevailed against the odds where other local distilleries fell so I’m grateful that we survived to tell those stories.
But now, quite the revival is underway?
It is indeed. Nowadays, we only have a handful of distilleries operating in the town and, despite being Scotland’s smallest whisky-making region, there is a definite resurgence of interest in the area.
I believe the story of Campbeltown also holds a certain appreciation amongst drinkers with an interest in Scotch, no matter where they live. It’s a typically authentic tale of Scottish resilience and stoicism. And if you can tell that story whilst putting a dram in someone's hand, even better.
And how do you fit into that revival? How did you get into distilling Scotch?
Being a local, I’ve always known of Glen Scotia and been a big whisky fan in general. But it wasn’t until 2008 that I joined as Master Distiller and Distillery Manager after more than nine years working as a water engineer. I’d say there are plenty of skills I have brought around production and process which have stood us in good stead over the last 15 years.
It would be fair to say, though, that I was a little naïve as to what exactly was required; it has taken time to fully appreciate our house style and how every wee nuance of production contributes to it.
We imagine that when one takes up the helm of such a well-established name in the trade, there is a natural hesitancy around changing things? But also an imperative to modernise in some ways to keep the brand relevant?
Modernisation is inevitable, but we do try to be as consistent with our traditional methods as possible while giving people a chance to taste the past.
Where we have innovated, it has all been to the benefit of the liquid. For example, we now ferment for longer and distil more slowly, both of which allow us to draw out as much flavour and character from the barley as possible.
As to Glen Scotia’s “house style”, then, how would you define it? What part of the production process most contributes to that style?
Tied with our heritage and location, I’d define our signature style as subtly maritime with big tropical fruit aspects and Atlantic sea breeze.
Our process is what brings that specific Campbeltown style; cloudy worts, and small squat stills which give a heavy, oily character. This is all brought together with a wonderful wood policy that ties in with the historical attributes of the ‘wee toon’.
And, with that growth in Campbeltown malts, could a fourth distillery for the area be on the cards?
It’s fantastic to see new names such as Dál Riata Distillery and R&B Distillers joining in the renaissance of Campbeltown. We’re a small town, but there is space for everyone, and our history proves that!
We’ve all got our own stories and ways of doing things, and I feel very proud to see other distillers rightly celebrating any success in making whisky here.
Best way to enjoy a dram?
I enjoy whisky on two different levels, one being a professional, almost scientific level. I have to go through a specific routine that allows me to assess the liquid; thinking about productive temperatures, timings, volumes and so on. That’s my job.
But I also very much enjoy a whisky with friends, during which one appreciates more of the art than the alchemy of making this stuff. Telling stories and not taking it all too seriously. And in any event, everyone should enjoy a dram as it suits them; with or without water, ice and so on.
Whisky has never been a pretentious drink, so there's no need to start now.
See more at glenscotia.com