Monday dawned and it was straight down to breakfast nice and early at the Ardshiel, and then out to take some photos in the sunshine. Campbeltown is really lovely to look at, surrounded by natural beauty, and has some great history that sets it apart from a lot of similarly-attractive Scottish coastal settlements. Home to a whisky boom that at one time saw 34 operating distilleries in or near the town, those glory days are long since gone and the opulent mansions the whisky barons built for themselves are now variously homes, businesses, guesthouses, and churches.
Wandering down to the docks, I found a stately tall ship moored there that we’d seen sailing in the night before as we were arriving ourselves. You can see it in the picture at the top. I didn’t know it then but we’d cross paths again with this particular ship several times in the coming days, once very memorably.
Heading into Campbeltown’s center, we stopped by Cadenhead’s briefly before heading on up to Springbank. I’ve long been a fan of Springbank, both of their whisky and their way of doing things, and was delighted to find the distillery and the people we met very worthy of that admiration.
We were met by Mary, who on the way to the maltings told me that she’d been at the distillery for a couple of years and had rotated through many of the different jobs on offer there. Springbank malts all of its own barley, the only place still to do so, and that’s one of the things that constrains its output. The distillery isn’t run purely to make money though; they employ as many local people as possible, resisting modernization in favour of keeping an unwritten social contract with the town. Spending on more unimportant things is clearly kept to a minimum to compensate.
The distillery buildings feel authentic and lived-in, showing all of their years, more so than any other place we visited. You won’t see any multi-million dollar visitor centers here, but if you’re lucky enough to climb up into the loft above the mill to see the turn-of-the-century mechanism, you will see cobwebs and dust and funny messages written by the people who’ve worked there.
One of the final stops at Springbank was the bottling room, again an unusual thing to see at a modern distillery. Everyone was friendly and welcoming but I felt a bit of an outsider as we watched the workers at their jobs on the line from just a few feet away. I wondered what they thought of the tourists poking around their workplace. A few days later, Adam Hannett of Bruichladdich said something to me that made me think along these lines again: “It’s funny, isn’t it, that people want to come and look around distilleries. Can you imagine McVities opening up their biscuit factories to tourists?”. To us these might be exciting and borderline holy places but to the workers they are something else entirely. It’s good to remember that people have jobs to do while we’re enjoying our visits!
After the bottling plant Mary led us along Glebe Street at the back of Springbank up to the adjacent Glengyle distillery. Springbank’s owner Hedley Wright bought this a few years ago, purely to retain Campbeltown’s designation as a whisky region if you believe the rumours. It’s much smaller than its sister distillery and only runs for about six weeks per year, and due to the comparatively recent refit to get it back into production it feels a little more modern too. Everything takes place in a single split-level room, with a single pair of bright stills at the end.
Interestingly, the malt produced at Glengyle is branded as Kilkerran due to someone else holding the rights to the distillery name. Kilkerran’s label artwork has a view of a church, split into thirds by vertical lines; the coolest part of the tour is seeing the barred window in the old distillery wall that inspired it. You have to use your imagination a bit to remove some foliage but otherwise it’s pretty much as advertised!
The final part of this comprehensive tour was a walk back to Cadenhead’s whisky shop with it’s amazingly comfortable tasting room. We had a great lunch with some fantastic drams. Starting off with a blend called “Spirit of Freedom”, celebrating the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, we moved onto a 14-year-old Springbank local barley, the latest 18-year-old, and finally the 11-year-old Longrow Red, aged in port casks, which paired pretty damn well with the smoked salmon we were eating along with it.
And after all this excitement, it was still only 1pm, and we were headed to Islay.
The drive to Kennacraig took no time, and after a slightly tense moment where they appeared to have no record of a ferry booking for a “Ferguson”, we made it onto the boat and finally departed for the island. The ferry to Islay is an event in itself; it sells whisky for one thing, you’re surrounded by whisky fanatics from every nation, and of course the view as you approach the island is incredibly uplifting as a whisky fanatic yourself. We were sailing into Port Ellen, and that first sighting of the three iconic whitewashed distilleries as you make your way down the south-east coast can’t be beat, especially on a sunny day. The prominent Port Ellen maltings caps the journey off as you dock.
We were staying in the distillery cottages in Bowmore, and coming off the ferry we headed straight there. My first impressions of the island were that it seemed larger than I’d expected, but if anything more scenic and beautiful. The drive from Port Ellen to Bowmore takes you past farms and peat bogs, sheep and cattle, and miles of open fields. There wasn’t much traffic to be seen, but the few vehicles we did see all gave us the famous Islay wave. It’s an immediately welcoming and peaceful place and I loved it instantly.
We ate dinner at the Lochside hotel, and had a drink afterwards in Duffy’s bar. It was a quiet Monday night so I think the barman was glad of the company. I had the Lagavulin 2014 Feis Ile as my first Islay dram, then it was back to the cottage (pretty spectacular place to stay by the way) for a nightcap of the complimentary Bowmore 12 to be found there.
Today had been a quiet one in terms of distillery visits. Get ready for things to ramp up from here!