Campbeltown reborn:Glengyle releases its first whisky
My last visit to Campbeltown was sixteen years ago—a little embarrassing for someone professing to be a whisky-writer. But in all fairness, Campbeltown is a destination. You don’t pass through Campbeltown on your way to somewhere else. It’s at the end of a peninsula. And the last time I was there, only one distillery was operating. Barely.
My memories of Campbeltown over those many years have been sad ones. Once the hub of Scotland’s whisky industry, with dozens of distilleries making whisky, walking down the streets of Campbeltown was like walking through a ghost town. Fragments of some of these old distilleries still exist—in the form of bonded warehouse walls, entry gates, or perhaps even a pagoda. Others, if they’re lucky, are remembered with a street name.
I wasn’t in any hurry to go back. Until now.
Campbeltown is being reborn. Like sprouts of new vegetation after a devastating forest fire, there are now three distilleries operating in this small coastal town (Springbank, Glen Scotia, and Glengyle), and they’re making five different styles of whisky. The newest whisky—Kilkerran, from the Glengyle distillery—turned the tender legal age of three this year, and I made the pilgrimage back to Campbeltown to participate in the celebrations this past May.
To put Glengyle in proper perspective, you need to know its history. The director of Springbank and Glengyle distilleries is Hedley Wright. Hedley’s great-great grandfather, Archibald Mitchell, started the Springbank distillery back in 1828 along with Hedley’s great-great uncle, William Mitchell. The Mitchells were farmers and they had a falling out—over sheep—so William left and started up his own distillery, Glengyle, in 1872.
Glengyle eventually closed in 1925 due to tough economic times, joining many of the other defunct Campbeltown distilleries. The new Glengyle distillery sits inside the same building that housed the original distillery. Hedley Wright’s decision to buy the old Glengyle distillery and make whisky there again seems logical—bringing Glengyle whisky distilling back into the (albeit distant) family. So I was surprised at Hedley’s response when, during the distillery’s celebration, I asked him “Why Glengyle, and why now?”
“I’ve been meaning to open up a distillery for forty years,” he replied firmly. “Glengyle wasn’t the one I was thinking of, but it became available. I had to ‘strike while the iron is hot.’”
He never did say what his first choice was, and I wasn’t keen to ask. The first three questions I asked him were answered with a penetrating stare. Maybe he didn’t hear me (there was music playing in the background), but I felt he didn’t want to discuss it anymore, so I let it go at that.
Frank McHardy, director of Distilleries for Springbank and Glengyle, gave me a tour of the new distillery before the celebration. It’s a pretty easy tour: the entire operation—one mash tun, four larch wash-backs, and two copper pot stills—is in one room.
“We bought the grounds in 2000,” he explained. “The distillery building is original. It survived because it was used for other purposes over the years. There was a farmer’s co-op, a laundry, and even a rifle range.”
He continued: “It took us four years to build the distillery before we had our first run off the stills. About 80% of the actually distilling equipment is new. The stills are from Ben Wyvis, which operated in the 1960s. Ironically, John, I worked at Ben Wyvis when these exact stills were there. They didn’t look the same as they do now though. They were shaped like one tin can with a smaller tin can on top. No curves or hips. And they were put together with flanges and bolts. We modified them. It’s the copper we were after. The quality of the copper is magnificent.”
I asked Frank to explain the logic behind the kind of whisky he wanted to create with Kilkerran. After all, he’s already making three different kinds of whisky at the Springbank distillery—lightly peated Springbank which is distilled “2 ½” times, heavily peated Longrow which is distilled twice, and unpeated Hazelburn which is triple-distilled.
Frank’s response: “We’re already making heavily peated whisky, and triple-distilled whisky. I wanted to do a more traditional Campbeltown style, which is distilled twice and lightly peated. We’re using the same peating level as Springbank, which is about 10-12 ppm phenol, but we’re only distilling it twice. Overall, we think the whisky is doing very well. The only thing I would have done differently is I would have made the size of the distillery smaller, so I could tinker around and experiment more with more washbacks and different stills. There’s no room to do that.”
After the tour, I had a chance to taste the new Kilkerran spirit. It was very clean and malty, with considerable heft to it and reserved smoke—sort of like a fuller-bodied Springbank.
They’re aging the spirit in several different types of casks. Frank and I tasted several cask samples, including whiskies aged in bourbon, sherry, Madeira, Marsala, and port casks. My preference leaned towards the bourbon cask, while Frank admitted that he particularly enjoyed the Kilkerran aged in Marsala and Madeira casks. “I have a sweet tooth…for a lot of things, not just whisky,” he said, with a growing smile on his face. “But we won’t go into that.”
Incidentally, if you’re wondering why the whisky isn’t called Glengyle, it’s because they can’t. The name is currently being used by a different whisky company for their vatted Highland malt whisky. Frank told me that they chose Kilkerran because “It’s the English translation of the original Gaelic name of Campbeltown.”
Plans are to eventually sell the whisky, possibly as a vintage, when the whisky turns 8 years old, and continue with that policy until it reaches 12 years of age, when it will be bottled at that age as a standard release. You can also buy into “futures” of the first six casks that were filled, all aged in different types of casks, which will be bottled at 10 years old. You can get more details at www.kilkerran.com.
But for now, you can only get the new Kilkerran whisky at the distillery shop. You can buy a bottle, cask strength, currently coming straight out of a port pipe at the youthful age of three years, for about $80. Just getting to the distillery will cost more than that. But, unlike my first visit to Campbeltown 16 years ago, I suspect that you will leave with—and in—good spirits.