It's a long drive down the Kintyre peninsula to Campbeltown. But very few who make the journey to discover what this end of the peninsula has to offer regret it. Southern Kintyre has many attractions, and high on the list is Springbank Distillery.
Springbank is unique among Scotland's distilleries for a number of different reasons. Perhaps most significantly, it is the only entirely self-contained distillery in Scotland. Nothing but barley and water come into the distillery, and bottled Scotch whisky leaves it. A few distilleries still have their own maltings and a couple still have bottling plants on site, but only Springbank has both, providing 100% of its malted barley from its own maltings and, at the far end of the production and maturation process, bottling the end product in a bottling hall in which just six bottles can be filled in a batch before each has to be corked by hand.
Which brings us on to another area in which Springbank is different from most distilleries you will see. It occupies a warren of buildings on the west side of Longrow that are uncompromisingly industrial in look and feel. The distillery was founded in 1828 on the site of Archibald Mitchell's illicit still, and you get the feeling that many of the buildings in which the distillery now operates date right back to those early days of legal distillation.
Which brings us to another of Springbank's unique characteristics. It is the oldest independent family owned distillery in Scotland. It is now owned by Hedley Wright, the great great grandson of Archibald Mitchell.
Springbank also differs from other distilleries in producing three different single malt Scotch whiskies from one distillery. A number of factors have an effect on the character of a Scotch whisky, and chief among them are the amount of peat used in the fires that dry the malted barley prior to milling and fermentation; and the number of times the spirit is distilled during the distillation, though anything other than twice is considered a rarity.
Until 1973, Springbank's only product was the excellent single malt Scotch whisky that bears its name. The malt that goes into the fermentation during its production is dried for 6 hours over a peat fire, then for a further 24 hours over hot air, giving it a mildly peaty character. Once the fermentation has taken place - and you can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process - the product is distilled in a very unusual way. In effect part of the output from the first distillation is drawn off before the second distillation, then mixed with the feints going into the first distillation. The result is a hybrid "two and a half times" distillation process which many believe gives Springbank some of its unique character.
Since 1973 some of Springbank's output each year has emerged as Longrow single malt, reviving the identity and character of a neighbouring Campbeltown distillery which closed in 1896. The malt used in its production is dried for 48 hours over a peat fire, and it undergoes a much more normal double distillation process. The result is a highly peaty single malt Scotch whisky. And since 1997 the distillery has each year devoted part of its output to the production of Hazelburn single malt, reviving another name and another Campbeltown Scotch whisky, this time one that had been lost since 1925. The malt used in its production is dried over hot air only, with no peat used at all. And a further tweak in the production of Hazelburn is the introduction of triple distillation, a process rare among Scotch whisky producers, though the norm in Irish whiskey distilleries.
More recently Springbank has further diversified the range of Scotch whiskies being produced in Campbeltown when it acquired the nearby premises of Glengyle Distillery. This had once been owned by the Mitchell family and had produced Scotch whisky from 1873 to 1925, since when it had seen a variety of uses ranging from farm store to rifle range. Hedley Wright purchased the premises in 2000 and work was undertaken to repair the structure of the buildings until late 2001. In 2002 the stills and condensers were purchased from the disused Ben Wyvis distillery in Invergordon, which had been closed in 1926, and installed in Glengyle. Glengyle Distillery finally opened for production on 25 March 2004. The single malt Scotch whisky it produces will, once matured, be known as Kilkerran: the name "Glengyle" is in use for a vatted malt whisky, and "Kilkerran" harks back to the old name of Campbeltown, Kinlochkilkerran.
All of this growth in activity, plus the revival by another company of the Glen Scotia distillery elsewhere in Campbeltown in 1996, is a far cry from the steep decline seen in the distilling industry here during most of the 1900s. In all, some 34 distilleries were established in Campbeltown, or Whiskyopolis as it was sometimes called, with as many as 25 operating at any one time in the mid 1800s. 20 were still in production in 1885, and 17 remained in production into the 1920s. But by 1930 the number still active was down to just 3, and by the early 1990s only one, Springbank Distillery, remained.
From a visitor's point of view, a tour of Springbank is a truly fascinating experience. Springbank has no visitor centre - though it does now have a shop and tasting room in the centre of Campbeltown - for distillery tour details see above right. Group bookings should be made in advance. Your first task is finding the distillery, which lies on Well Close, a narrow lane joining Longrow and Glebe Street just to the north-west of the town centre. An open area provides some parking, and the main entrance is shown in the header picture.
The tour itself reveals some real wonders of the distiller's craft. The red cast-iron mash tun is said to date back to the 1800s, while the Porteous Mill seems to have seen out most of the 1900s. Elsewhere you get to see everything from the floor maltings and kiln to the washbacks and, the real centre of operations, the still room. Here you find three stills, a wash still and two spirit stills, with their output flowing through a spirit safe designed to control the unusually complex distillation cycle. A plaque on the spirit safe proclaims it to have been built by Robert Armour and Sons, Coppersmith of Campbeltown, a reminder that when most of the town's distilleries closed they took with them a range of supporting industries which once thrived in the "whisky capital of the world". Today we can at least be grateful that Springbank, at least, still does.