Campbeltown Whisky: A History

If you’ve ever visited Duffletown in Speyside, chances are the locals would have told you, “Rome was built on seven hills, but Duffletown was built on seven stills”. And while it’s impressive to find seven distilleries in a town of just 1600 people, there was once a time when Duffletown’s claim to be the whisky capital of the world would have been laughed at. 

In the late 18th Century, Campbeltown was well known for being the whisky capital of the world and for good reason. To learn about the Campbeltown whisky history, keep reading below:

A Brief History of Whisky in Campbeltown

Campbeltown is one of the most remote harbour towns in Scotland. But don’t let its size fool you; it has always had a lot to offer whisky fans. It once made a name for itself as the Whisky Capital of the World.

Scotch whisky has been brewed in Campbeltown for hundreds of years; however, it wasn’t always brewed legally. At the end of the 18th Century, Campbeltown was a hotbed of illicit distillation. It took the Excise Act of 1823 to turn an illegal whisky boom into a legal one. 

According to historical paperwork, the number of legal distilleries operating in 1823 was 22. If we compare this to Duffletown, which had just seven distilleries, we can see why it was given the title of the whisky capital of the world. And it didn’t stop there; the paperwork suggests that over 30 more distilleries chose to open in this small town since then. However, only three remain open today.

The Licensed Campbeltown Distilleries 

Here’s a list of all the licensed distilleries that have opened in Campbeltown over the years:

  • 1815 – Campbeltown Distillery – the annual output of this distillery was 60,000 gallons.
  • 1823 – Caledonian Distillery 
  • 1824 – Kinloch Distillery, Lochhead Distillery, Longrow Distillery and Meadowburn Distillery opened their doors.
  • 1825 – Burnside Distillery, Dalaruan Distillery, Hazleburn Distillery, and Rieclachan Distillery were opened.
  • 1826 – Union Distillery – this distillery closed its doors just 24 years after opening. 
  • 1827 – Highland Distillery and MacKinnon’s Distillery (also called the Argyll Distillery) started producing whisky. 
  • Pre-1828 (date unknown) – Glenramskill Distillery
  • 1828 – Springbank Distillery opened.
  • 1830 – Kintyre Distillery, Lochside Distillery, Springside Distillery, and West Highland Distillery began production. 
  • 1832 – Meadowbank Distillery and Glen Scotia Distillery started trading. 
  • 1833 – Broombrae Distillery and Lochruan Distillery started production. 
  • 1834 – Drumore Distillery, Mossfield Distillery, Thistle Distillery, and Toberanrigh Distillery opened. 
  • 1835 – Glenside Distillery started trading. 
  • 1837 – Albyn Distillery opened.
  • 1844 – Argyll Distillery started production. 
  • 1868 – investors-built Benmore Distillery. 
  • 1872 – Glengyle Distillery first started trading.
  • 1877 – Glen Nevis Distillery opened. 
  • 1879 – Ardlussa Distillery was the final distillery to open in Campbeltown. 

READ MORE: A History of the Isle of Jura Co Whisky Distillery

Why Did So Many Distilleries Open in this Small Town?

The scotch whisky industry in the small coastal town of Campbeltown was mainly driven by descendants of Lowland families who came to the South Kintyre peninsula in the 17th Century at the encouragement of the Campbells of Argyll. However, this wasn’t the only reason so many distilleries chose to open here. Another reason for the boom in whisky production was steam navigation, as this invention allowed whisky to be transported to Glasgow in just 9 hours.

By the late 19th Century, thanks to the vast number of Campbeltown whisky distilleries operating in the area and with a population of just 1,969, Campbeltown was named the wealthiest town in Britain per capita. 

campbeltown station

Read more about Scotch Whisky History: The History of The Macallan Scotch Whisky

Why Have So Many Whisky Distilleries Now Closed?

It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that whisky distilleries in Campbeltown began to close, but what caused it?

Many external factors were to play for the closure of so many whisky distilleries in Campbeltown. The first world war was one of the leading causes of the closures. It depressed the internal market and saw curbs on the availability of grain. In Campbeltown, not a single brewery could remain open during this time, and many distilleries got fed up with waiting and instead chose to move to London. 

Around the same time, the temperance movement gained traction. This movement led people to believe that alcohol was more damaging than all the German submarines put together. It argued that we weren’t just at war with Austria and Germany but also drinking. As a result, the tax on alcohol increased sixfold, further reducing the interest in alcoholic beverages. 

To top it off, the stock market crash in 1929, known as the Great Depression, saw many people struggling to make ends meet. They could not afford to pay for luxuries such as alcoholic beverages. By 1935, only Springbank and Glen Scotia distilleries remained open. 

The Story of Duncan MacCallum

Duncan MacCallum was a big name in Campbeltown. He was well known for being involved in the scotch whisky business. He was head of the consortium Stewart Galbraith & Co, that by 1905 held controlling interests in Glen Albyn, Benromach, and Glen Dromach distilleries. He was involved in building the Glen Nevis distillery back in 1877 and was so successful that he was wealthy enough to be considered a multi-millionaire by today’s standards. 

In 1930, his body was discovered in the Campbeltown Loch. Locals believed that he committed suicide by drowning himself. MacCallum’s ghost is said to haunt the Glen Scotia distillery to this day. 

The Whisky Distilleries in Campbeltown Today

glengyle distillery interior

As mentioned above, since the early 20th Century, many Campbeltown distilleries closed. However, there are still some good ones for whisky lovers to try. The three whisky distilleries that remain open in Campbeltown today are:

  • Springbank Distillery – Springbank Distillery has produced whisky since 1828. They are well known for their single malt whisky. 
  • Glen Scotia – this distillery was founded by Duncan MacCallum in 1832. 
  • Glengyle Distillery – in 1872, Glengyle Distillery was opened by Willian Mittchell; however, it closed almost 50 years later. In the late 2000s, it re-opened once more. 

One new whisky distillery may open in the near future, the Witchburn Distillery, which has submitted plans for constructing a new sustainable distillery in the famous town.

Every year the three distilleries host the Campbeltown Malts Festival. The event celebrates everything that makes the town so special to whisky enthusiasts.

Although there are fewer distilleries in Campbeltown these days, it is still considered the whisky capital of the world, and we can see why. Some of the best whiskys are brewed in this part of the world. If you’ve not already visited Campbeltown, why not check it out? Not only can you visit the open breweries, but you can also visit some of the ruins that remain from past breweries. 

Anyone can become part of scotch whisky history. Investment in a cask of whisky, whether that is from Campbeltown or other distilleries allows regular people to join the long and storied history of scotch.

UKV International AG can make that happen.

We are brokers in rare and fine whisky, whether you are looking for a particular bottle to add to your collection or want to invest in whisky we can help.

Speak to our whisky experts today and discover how you can become part of the Campbeltown whisky history.