Of stinking fish, saints & surf shops: Welcome to Campbeltown! The home of Springbank Distillers!

In late 2020, I met a lad named Peter. A hulk of a man, he explained he was fond of strange Scottish field games and surfing. In fact, he and his wife own a surf shop.

But this is no run of the mill surf shop. Because it’s located in a place called Campbeltown. That’s Campbeltown, Scotland!

“Scots don’t surf,” I declared, before sheepishly asking “do they?”

A wave of excitement washed over Pete.

“Let me tell you about our world-famous surf beach at Macrihanish,” he said, and explained how incredible the surf breaks were in his hometown.

I was astonished. The Campbeltown that I know has a very different claim to fame, the famous Springbank Distillers. Despite its remoteness, Campbeltown has a quite remarkable and tragic history. And it all relates to whisky.

The story of Campbeltown whisky goes back to the very dawn of Scottish distilling when the supposed founder of Scottish distilling, St Columba, first landed on the Kintyre peninsula around 563 AD. He stayed there for three years or so, spreading the word on the glories of distilling. Or was that Christianity?

The thirst for the “water of life” spread like wildfire throughout Scotland. And by 1781, when private distilling was outlawed, there were over 290 illicit stills in the Campbeltown area alone.

Having established trading (read smuggling) and family links to the largest whisky market, Glasgow, many of Campbeltown’s ordinary folk became wealthy from the illicit trade.

When the great first whisky boom began in the early 1800’s, Campbeltown was well placed to supply the great grocer blenders of the time. Among them were the Gloags, John Walker & Sons, the Buchanans, and the Pattison brothers. Names still recognised today.

The blenders at the time believed that the whisky coming from Campbeltown was of the highest quality, dubbing it the “centre of the palate of flavour” and encouraging Campbeltown’s residents to distil even more.

While some still continued to bootleg, many of Campbeltown’s distillers became legitimate around 1817. By 1835 this tiny township of 9,000 boasted some 35 working distilleries producing 8 million litres of spirit annually.

This boom lasted another 37 years. And then it crashed.

One night in 1898, Campbeltown lost 28 distilleries. The crash was ignited by the collapse of the influential blender, Pattison’s of Leith, who horded overpriced stock while devouring shareholders’ capital on a very extravagant lifestyle.

Campbeltown’s distillers had also grown careless with their spirit, rushing it to market using poor quality casks. The “centre of the palate flavour” had evaporated. The surviving blenders left Campbeltown for Speyside and Islay. And the former, keen to pinch the trade from Cambeltown, began to spread falsehoods that Campbeltown distillers were maturing their spirit in old herring casks.

The rumour caught on and the term “stinking fish whisky” became the catch cry for Campbeltown malts.

Soon after came the First World War, followed by Prohibition and the Great Depression. By 1934, Campbeltown was left with only two working distilleries: Springbank and Glen Scotia.

Since then, Springbank Distillers has thrived in the post-war era. Today, they are now regarded as one of the great icons of the Scottish whisky trade.

So, how did they manage to survive?

Family and the community. The current owners, J&A Mitchell, are the same family that founded the distillery in 1828. For nearly two centuries, a rich history and vast pool of knowledge has seen Springbank survive the many boom and bust cycles of Scottish distilling.

And the company’s enduring bond with Campbeltown continues today. Springbank’s current owner, Mr Hedley Wright, is keen to keep the distillery open and continue to support the township.

But you would have thought that such a traditional, family-based company would be resistant to change and innovation. Wrong. Take a look at what happens within the confine of the Springbank distillery…

Classic Springbank is 2.8 times distilled (I’ll leave that for another day) and is lightly peated. Then, the stills are used for the Hazelburn run: triple distilled, no peat. Lastly, there’s a Longrow run: double distilled and loads of peat. Not many Scottish distillers do this!

The distillery has also been carefully building a world class reputation for their special releases, including:
  • 175th anniversary release
  • Springbank 21yo
  • Dha Mhile Organic
  • 1965 Local Barley
  • 1998 Small Cask,
  • The Longrow Wood Finish range and so on.

So, there you have it. Campbeltown, once the whisky capital of world, now the centre of innovation, tradition and a damn fine surf shop.

Four modern Campbeltown whiskies to try…