Campbeltown: The Whisky Capital of the World? (Part 2)

Was Campbeltown just a boom and bust? And did it outshine Peoria, Illinois for the title of whisky capital?

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Show Notes

The question remains, who is the real whisky capital of the world? Was it Peoria, Illinois or Campbeltown, Scotland. Well, in this episode, I will draw a conclusion, but before I do that - I'll give you a better understand of just how big the "wee toon" as it was known, got to be.

I'll also talk about the ghost that haunts Glen Scotia, the mysterious painting that appeared on Davaar Island, and find out what remains of Campbeltown's old distilling days with Iain McAlister of Glen Scotia.

And beyond all the rumors and speculation, I'll reveal the forces that really brought this whisky behemoth to an end.

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above. 



The Peak and Consolidation

Arriving from days at sea, the entrance to Campbeltown Loch is a beautiful sight to see and was quite the sea of activity in the 19th Century. 

The first landmark a ship would pass is a little tidal island called Davaar. About a forty minute walk from town, a visitor would need to either take a boat to its sandy beach or plan to arrive at low tide, when the earthen causeway would appear from under the water.

Seemingly insignificant in the first half of the 1800s it would have two claims to fame in the latter half. The first is a picturesque lighthouse that stands on a flat plane above a rocky cliff. Built in 1854, one of its engineers was Thomas Stevenson, the father of Robert Louis Stevenson. 

The other is a cave painting that caused quite a stir in 1887. It is a beautiful life sized painting of Jesus and the crucifixion and when it first appeared out of nowhere, the citizens of the town started gathering in droves to see it, thinking it a sign from God. 

Soon after, it was discovered that it actually had been painted by the art teacher at the local school. Archibald Angus MacKinnon was a talented painter, but had not attained the success of many of his peers. Some say he was run out of town, others say he left of his own accord, worried because he had used the school’s supplies to do the work.

But in 1904 he would return to the little island to touch up his work. And by 1934, all had been forgiven and the town helped support the cost of his restoration. To this day, the painting, which is exposed to the elements and has seen its share of vandals is touched up and maintained by the local grammar school.

Past the island with it’s beautiful green hillsides would appear mountains and hills unfolding the right and left of the loch with a few trees and a scattering of white houses and buildings dotting its shoreline. As you neared the quay the neighborhoods of Dalaruin, Dalintober, and Lochead would materialize beyond the plane that housed the people and industry of the town of Campbeltown.

A flurry of fishing boats and the occasional steamship from Glasgow or Ireland might just impede your progress to the docks, which would be jammed with tourists waiting to return home. 

Men on shore would be hauling barrels filled with fish or whisky. But these weren’t the only resources the town provided. The cattle in the area was said to be the pride of Scotland and grain and potatoes from the region were high in demand.  

Now upon debarking the ship you’d stroll past old Celtic cross, and arrive at Main Street with its handsome shops greeting flocks of tourists. Religion was well represented with a Catholic chapel and two parish churches - one for English speakers, one for Scots Gaelic speakers. 

But Campbeltown at its heart was becoming a vibrant distilling town, with 21 distilleries appearing within a 15 year span. 

And one might imagine a town littered with huge factories and billowing smoke pumping from large smoke stacks. But the distilleries of that day had a pleasant demeanor, at least on the outside. White washed and stone buildings blending in with the rest of the town structures, with the obvious billowing of coal smoke from their chimneys. 

In the first half of the 19th Century, the source of most of the coal used at the distilleries was a pit some three and a half miles from town. A man made canal would serve to speed its transportation into the area. 

And speedy delivery was a necessity as the 1830s saw distilleries being built so fast, that distillery construction was becoming its own occupation. Within a span of two years, several new distilleries came online including Lochruan and Broombrae Distilleries in 1833, and Drumore, Mossfield, Thistle (which would soon change its name to Mountain Dew, and Toberanrigh (also Tober an Righ) Distillery in 1834.

But overgrowth can put a strain on any market, and the idleness of the distillery builders and coppersmiths would be a warning sign that things were about to change. With 28 distilleries and possibly as many as 30 for a brief time, Campbeltown was so rich with distilling, that the weaker players couldn’t survive and within three years, four distilleries would find their end including the Broombrae which seemed doomed from the start, the Meadowbank, Mountain Dew, and Mossfield. 

Then there would be some changes in ownership as John McMurchy of Burnside would join Dalaruin as a partner, The Reid Brothers would sell Springbank to John and William Mitchell, whose family still runs it to this day, The Covilles and Greenlees would take over Burnside Distillery, and John Grant & Co. would buy the Union Distillery. If that Grant name sounds familiar to Speyside whisky fans, unfortunately I couldn’t make any connections to the Grant families that own the likes of Glenfiddich and Glenfarclas.

1842, would see the end of Peter Stewart’s Caledonian Distillery and 1844 would find Argyll Distillery woefully unequipped to keep up with the distilleries around it. The business would be sold to Robert Colvill, Hugh Greenlees and Robert Greenlees Jr., and the trio would start over by building a new state of the art distillery on Longrow Street.

The Templeton’s Drumore Distillery would fall on hard times and they would offer it for sale in 1847, but no buyers would lead to another distilling casualty.

The Grants of Campbeltown would find it difficult to maintain the Union Distillery and in 1847 they would join the Templeton’s in not being able to sell their distillery, and soon it would be closed. 1852 would see three more distilleries shuttered, including West Highland along with the Lochside and the Highland Distillery. 

In 1854, when Glenramskill’s owner passed away, the distillery sat vacant, waiting for new ownership, but would finally close for good a couple of years later. And the end of a mad cycle of distillery closings would come in 1860 with closing of  Toberanrigh (also Tober an Righ) Distillery.

There is no doubt that Campbeltown had seen a great deal of attrition between the mid 1830s and the 1860s, but the industry survived, with 18 distilleries still pumping out whisky for the locals, tourists, and markets as near as Glasgow and London, and as far as America and the British colonies.

But changes were coming to the whisky industry and 1860 would see an evolution of scotch whisky. Could Campbeltown keep up or would the “wee toon” as it was known, close up shop for good?

The Act That Made Scotch Whisky

To find the center of the whisky industry in the 1860s, Campbeltonians had to look no farther than their neighbors to the south. During that era, it could be truly said that Ireland as a nation would have been the whisky capital of the world, distilling some 70% of the world’s whisky. 

Jameson, Power, and Row were the titans of Dublin distilling and Scotland seemed miles behind in terms of quality. Then, in 1860, the Gladstone Parliament made a change in the law that would help give Scotch whisky a fighting chance.

Up until that time, grain alcohol produced through column stills was considered an inferior drink. Meanwhile Highland malt whiskies suffered their own issues as the law restricted Highland distillers from adding water to their whisky. 

And blending houses like the Walkers, Teachers, Bells, and Dewars were hamstrung because up until that time, it was illegal to blend single malt whisky with neutral grain spirits.   

But the Spirits Act of 1860 aimed to solve the problem of blending and for the first time, grain whiskies could be blended with single malts - and skilled blenders quickly raised the profile of scotch whisky. Then in 1864, a further change in the law, allowing for lowering of the proof by adding water, helped kick off a whisky boom across Scotland, where ten million gallons of whisky was produced in 1868 alone - and pot distilled malt whisky was the greatest beneficiary, reaching volumes that equaled grain spirits by that year. 

All of this new interest in scotch whisky had an impact on Campbeltown as well, as 1868 saw the first new named distillery in 34 years - when the owners of the Caol Ila Distillery expanded into Campbeltown with the building of the Benmore Distillery.  Consolidation of the industry was over and Campbeltown was well positioned for scotch whisky’s move to the world stage. 

The Second Boom

As a port city, Campbeltown had always had a huge advantage over the distilleries that were in more landlocked areas like the area known as Glenlivet and later as Speyside. 

And from Campbeltown, its ships would have easy access to markets all over the world. And as Iain McAllister of Glen Scotia Distillery suggests, the industrious ship owners didn’t let the advantage go to waste.

[Glen Scotia 4 - As a shipping port]

“Prohibition, Canada, story of the well travelled shipping. Mobile.”

For the venerable old Campbeltown Distillery and it’s owner Duncan McLean, shipping was so important that effort was made to secure their very own schooner - donned the Campbeltown. She sailed into the loch for the first time on July 16, 1870. 

But there was more than just merchant shipping going on in the harbor. For the citizens of Edinburgh and especially Glasgow, Campbeltown as a quick weekend getaway. Just board a passenger steamship, spend the weekend in town on the west coast of Kintyre and get absolutely plastered.

It became such a regular occurrence for Glaswegians that at one point, two ships a day were required and soon the phrase getting steaming drunk, would evolve out of the sight of drunk passengers stepping onto that afternoon’s waterbound transportation. 

With the industry booming, more coal was needed and at a faster rate. The old canal just couldn’t hold up to the task and by 1876 a light industrial railway was laid between Campbeltown, the coal pits, as well as the west coast of Kintyre, which helped establish the passenger rail service that gave families a place to go - away from Campbeltown inebriated invaders. 

With all of this activity and the onset of a second whisky boom, Campbeltown had beaten the odds.

Troubles in Campbeltown

Not everything went smooth as silk during the years of the second boom. A squabble between family members at SpringBank caused John and William Mitchell to dissolve their partnership. John bought out William and William went on to build the Glengyle Distillery. 

There were a few tragedies also. A stillman named Donald McPhail was charged with culpable homicide when he allowed boiling water to enter a mash-tun that was being cleaned by maltman Gavin Ralston. McPhail would end up serving 3 months in prison for the crime. 

Several fires broke out, including at Kinloch, Dalintober, and Dalaruin. Those were salvageable, but The Kintyre Distillery would be a total loss and would have to be rebuilt from the ground up..

Being so close to the Atlantic, storms were also an issue, and SpringBank and Albyn would both see their chimneys collapse and Glengyle and SpringBank would lose part of their roofs. 

But there would also be further expansion in the area. In 1877 Duncan MacCallum would build the Glen Nevis Distillery and later buy Glen Scotia, renovating it to its current state. And James Ferguson & Sons, the owners of the Jura Distillery, would open up Ardlussa Distillery on Glebe Street in 1879. Campbeltown was back to 22 distilleries. For the next forty years Campbeltown would hold its own, with only the Meadowburn and Longrow Distilleries becoming casualties. 

It is estimated that in 1891, the royal burgh of Campbeltown, with a population of around 6000 people was reputed to be the richest town in Britain per capita. The families that made Campbeltown were all living the highlife in their beautiful mansions, warehouses were full, ships were dashing to and fro and all seemed well with the world.

So what could bring this thriving seaside town to its knees?

What Killed Campbeltown?

When I first approached the story of Campbeltown, all of the impressions I was being given was that it went through a quick boom and bust, much like the Pattison crash that took down a large portion of the scotch whisky industry in the 1809s. Other theories revolve around a decline in the town’s whisky quality due to over-production or the build up of distilleries in the Glenlivet area thanks to easier rail access provided by the Strathspey Railway and changing tastes away from Campbeltown’s peatier whiskies. 

There is a little truth to each of these theories.

The great speculation in the scotch whisky industry, brought on by the Pattison crash did send shockwaves all the way to Campbeltown. But it never led to the mass consolidation going on everywhere else in Scotland, which would lead one to believe that the town’s whisky was still in demand. 

Only the distillery owners who were diversified throughout different regions, like Duncan McCallum would feel the sting. In 1900, his attempt to open a brand new distillery in the Glenlivet region called Benromach was stalled because of the Pattison crash, and just when they started producing whisky, he had to shut down operations because the market had dried up.

Soon a firm called the Distillers Company Ltd or DCL started buying up distilleries left and right - but Campbeltown wasn’t touched during this turn of the century consolidation. If their whisky was becoming inferior, as some have speculated, why weren’t there any distilleries closing? Some suggest that distillers in the Glenlivet region may have been behind this assertion, suggesting blends were more suited to the fruity whiskies found near the River Spey. It could also be that rather than a loss of quality, it was simply changing palates as the scotch industry was still in competition with the Irish.

Teetotallers were a thorn in the side of the industry. One of the biggest was the country’s Prime Minister David Lloyd George who supported laws that made it harder to distill. 

All of these things together likely put undue strain on Campbeltown’s distilleries, but none of them seemed to be doing any severe damage.

No, it seems that the greater causes of Campbeltown’s troubles were curiously things that were going on outside the empire - first in a town called Sarajevo and the other in a former colony, struggling with its own whisky issues.

The Effects of World War I

On June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, the heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated while his motorcade passed through town. And suddenly the death of a man most people in Campbeltown had never heard of before, would plunge the country into a deadly European war. 

No one knew what to expect, but most thought Britain and France would have a swift victory over the Kaiser’s forces in Germany.

The DCL offered half salaries for their work force if they joined in the fight, and full salary for salaried individuals. The benefits and dreams of a quick victory caused most of the male workforce to join the effort, while their wives filled in at some of the distilleries across the country. 

But for Campbeltown, distilling was all but shut down between 1914 and 1918. Whisky sat in warehouses, but business slowed to a crawl.

Burnside Distillery would stop its production first in 1914 and this would have devastating effects, as the distillery closed at the conclusion of the war - unable to maintain its presence.

Hazelburn was bought by whisky pioneer and maverick Peter Mackie, but when he lost his son in World War I he became a shell of his former self. He tried to sell his company and the White Horse brand he made famous, but he would pass away in 1924 before he could find a buyer. Mackies company would fall under the DCL in 1925 and Hazelburn would close its doors in 1926. In a hint that Campbeltown whisky might be out of favor, Mackie would refer to Hazelburn’s whisky as Kintyre whisky rather than naming Campbeltown.

The DCL would also purchase Lochruin Distillery in 1925 and would acquire Benmore Distillery in 1929, shutting both down. And Benmore owned Lochead Distillery at the time, so that was also a casualty.

One of Campbeltown’s favorite sons Duncan McCallum would do his best to buy up and save as many distilleries as he could at the end of the war. In 1919, he set up West Highland Malt Distilleries Ltd to help run his Glen Scotia and Glen Nevis distilleries and soon they would go on a buying spree. Buying Ardlussa that same year along with Dalintober, Glengyle, and Kinloch. But the strategy was a failure. The bad timing of Prohibition hit the whisky industry even harder than the Pattison crash. Already vulnerable due to the war, the lack of workforce returning also put a strain on distilleries. By 1924, West Highland Malt Distilleries would be bankrupt and McCallum’s only remaining distillery would be Glen Scotia.

Other distilleries failed as well. Kintyre died in 1921, No buyers were found for the Dalaruin Distillery, so it closed in 1925. Glenside closed in 1926 as did Springside and Springbank thanks to Prohibition. The Argyll Distillery went out of business in 1929 and saw its distillery turned into a garage. 

What really had to hurt was when the 107 year old Campbeltown Distillery closed its doors in 1924. It must have felt like the soul was being taken out of the place.

By 1930 there were only two operating distilleries in the area Reiclachan and Glen Scotia.

It must have been a tremendously depressing time, seeing all of those once thriving distilleries fall by the wayside - especially for a man like Duncan MaCallum.

[Glen Scotia 7 - Duncan and his death]

“Fantastic businessman, sailing, boats, generous, housing”

“Nobody knows why, left house, Crosshill loch - strange event, rumors, $284 pounds”

His tragic death would hit Glen Scotia hard and it would fall silent for some time after. To this day, strange noises at the distillery are said to be Duncan’s ghost haunting the distillery he took so much care to build up. The distillery would find a reprieve a few years later - when the Bloch Brothers, who also owned the Scapa Distillery on Orkney came in and saved the distillery. But not long after the only other distillery standing Reiclachan would see its time come to an end in 1934. 

It took a couple of years, but the Mitchell family finally returned Springbank to action and for the next seven decades Campbeltown would be served on and off by these two distilleries. 

To those who had lived through its glory years, Campbelltown must have seemed like a ghost town. To make matters worse the coal line shut down and so went the once thriving train line that used to carry flocks of tourists to the west coast of Kintyre.. 

The Forgotten Whisky Capital

The once thriving whisky mecca soon slid into obscurity. There was still great beauty and history to behold in the area, but it had become a sleepy town, free from the noise and activity of the distillers. 

The only thing that would bring attention back to the peninsula would be a British musician who found a perfect hideaway at nearby High Park Farms. Dealing with the breakup of his band, he and his wife Linda chose to move permanently to the area, recording his first solo album at the farm, and a few years later, penning a song about the place he had grown to love to well. Mull of Kintyre would become Paul McCartney’s biggest selling hit in England, even bigger than any of his songs with the Beatles. And its bagpipe ladened melody would claim the mantle of being the biggest selling song in British history.

Today, it still ranks in the top 5 only behind Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which hit #1 in two different decades, Do They Know It’s Christmas, the benefit record by Band Aid that McCartney also is a part of, and Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997, written upon the death of Princess Diana.

So what remains of the historic days of distilling in Campbeltown?

[Glen Scotia 5 - Remnants of the time]

“When you walk around the town, you still seem to see bits, warehouses - Lochend, Hazelburn, Springbank.”

During the Second World War, there was a brief attempt by the Bloch Brothers to revive the old Glengyle Distillery. The property had been turned into a rifle range. But plans fell through. It would again find interest by Glaswegian investors in the 1950s but nothing ever transpired.

It wouldn't be until the end of the 20th Century, that Hedley Wright, a descendant of the Mitchells, would seek to reopen Glengyle, making it the third distillery in town - and again creating a family tie between Glengyle and Springbank. 

Glen Scotia would be mothballed and then brought back multiple times. Finally, as interest in whisky started to return, a young Iain McAllister found an opportunity to become a part of Glen Scotia’s revival. But it wasn’t going to be an easy job. 

[Glen Scotia 6 - Glen Scotia’s history]

“2008 more than a coat of paint”

Today, Glen Scotia, Glengyle, and SpringBank have joined together to form Scotland’s fifth whisky region. Campbeltown has earned its place alongside the Highlands, Speyside, the Lowlands, and Islay. 

No, Campbeltown wasn’t a quick boom and bust story. It was a home for whisky before excise men roamed the land, it ran underground with elicit distilling during the years of smuggling, and it held its own as a Whisky Capital for some nearly one hundred years. 

So was it, or Peoria the true whisky capital of the world. Well, Peoria only boomed for seven years, while Campbeltown stood for almost one hundred. Peoria had many small distillers making whisky, but its main producer was focused on neutral grain spirits, which aren’t technically whisky. 

So I think it is safe to say, Peoria held its spot as the distilling capital of the world for some time, but the real whisky capital, is that wee toon on the Kintyre Peninsula - Campbeltown.

I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life LLC

Production, stories, and research by Drew Hannush

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And if you want to hear more about my research of Campbeltown, become a member of the Whiskey Lore Society at patreon.com/whiskeylore where I’ll have a behind the scenes later this week. And remember, you can hear my full interview with Iain McAlister of Glen Scotia on Whiskey Lore: The Interviews, along with this week’s latest edition featuring my interview with Allan Logan, production director of Bruichladdich as we eagerly await the release of this year’s edition of the world’s most peaty whisky. 

In the meantime, thanks for growing your whisky knowledge along with me, and until next time, cheers and slainte mhath.

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