When sizing up the major whisky-producing regions of Scotland, you’d be forgiven for overlooking Campbeltown. After all, it counts just three active distilleries within its boundaries: Glengyle, Glen Scotia and Springbank. Yet if you tally yourself as a scotch lover, dismissing the area and its historical significance is inexcusable. During its Victorian Era heyday, this seaside fishing village near the southern edge of the remote Kintyre peninsula was a brown-spirit boomtown. Throughout the mid-1800s, it was commonly regarded as the whisky capital of the world. A pilgrimage to the “wee toon” is disproportionately rich in rewards, steeped as much in history as it is in hooch.
Although Campbeltown is separated from Glasgow by some 134 miles of highway—most of which is a single road (A83)—it’s a rugged stretch that can take up to four hours to drive. Flying is far more convenient, with Loganair operating both a morning and afternoon jump that takes you from terminal to terminal within 30 minutes. Leaving the airport, you’ll pass cow pastures and farmland before “downtown” appears at the foot of a wide sea inlet, flanked by sloping emerald hills. A faint perfume of cereal grain clings stubbornly to the damp air. The bucolic serenity belies a past that was fraught with industrial frenzy.
For a better sense of what was, book your overnight at The Royal Hotel, a charming Victorian bed-and-breakfast overlooking a public green where the main street meets the pier. Hallways and rooms are decorated in framed photos recalling a livelier time. Though if you’re here near the end of May, it won’t require too much imagination. That’s when the town hosts its annual Campbeltown Malts Festival, attracting thousands of whisky fanatics for a weekend’s worth of tastings, tours, dinners and live music.
But even when it’s not gearing up for a big party, this community flaunts a universally welcoming vibe. At Glen Scotia, an unassuming edifice built in 1832, master distiller Iain McAlister takes time out of his daily duties to acquaint visitors with his operation. He’s just one of seven employees on-site, including the shop manager.
“Campbeltown is the very epitome of the whisky industry in Scotland,” says McAlister. “Our present techniques still use equipment that’s traditional and well-suited to matching whisky that was produced in the same spot since 1832.” Glen Scotia offers tours daily, excluding Sunday, from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., culminating in a stone-clad parlor that doubles as a tasting room.
A 10-minute walk along the esplanade brings you to Springbank, Campbeltown’s other historic whisky maker. Originally licensed in 1828, the now cultishly revered brand maintains some of the world’s oldest operational copper pot stills. This is also the only place in Scotland still doing 100% of its own maltings. Along with the eponymous spirit, both the Hazelburn and Longrow labels are distilled and bottled here. Hour-long tours take you through every step of the process and cost just £10 per person.
For an additional £10 ($13), you can visit adjoining Glengyle, Springbank’s sister brand and home of Kilkerran single malt. In 2004, parent company J& A Mitchell & Co. reopened the facility, which had been shuttered for nearly a century. Its purpose was more meaningful than merely adding output for Scotland’s oldest family-run whisky company. At the time, the Scotch Whisky Association was considering eliminating Campbeltown’s status as a distinct region. But another regional designation, the Lowlands, held just one more distillery, in total. By bringing the number up to three, Glengyle effectively saved the subcategory. And in 2009, scotch regulations defined Campbeltown as one of two protected localities (along with Islay), the only one tied to a single town.
The area also lays claim to a longstanding tradition of independent bottling. In fact, just two blocks down the street from Springbank (down aptly named Longrow Street) is the world’s oldest independent bottler. Cadenhead’s was founded here in 1842 and still runs its original shop, in addition to seven other locations scattered about the rest of Europe. A celebrated craft in the U.K., the practice involves sourcing liquid from established distilleries and aging it according to unique specifications to make it your own. Step inside to sample a wide range of whiskies, rums and cognacs that you’ll find in few other places on earth.
Come dinnertime, mosey your way into the Garden restaurant inside the lobby of the Ardshiel hotel. The food is classic Scottish surf-and-turf, including braised lamb and pan-seared salmon. But you’re really here for the bar, a magnificent display housing the largest collection of Campbeltown malts anywhere. More than a thousand bottles occupy the shelves, including single-barrel offerings produced exclusively for the property.
With a carefully curated flight poured before you, the trademark style of Campbeltown comes into sharp relief. “I believe the water and terroir of the region truly differentiates the tastes of our whiskies,” says McAlister. “They all have maritime influences—light salt brine, subtle oils and, depending on the method of production, delicate smoky influences.”
These are mere tasting notes. The enduring legacy of this region isn’t so much owed to what is inside the bottle as to who is just outside it. “We do our best to pull the Campbeltown community through our whiskies.” If you want to truly know that flavor, you’ll have to trek to the wee toon and taste for yourself.