Tiny Glen Scotia is one of Scotland’s most historically significant distilleries and represents the highs and lows of Campbeltown, the prolific Scotch whisky region that almost disappeared.
In the 1800s Campbeltown was the undisputed whisky capital of the world and Glen Scotia was one of its brightest stars. It survived both Campbeltown’s crash and the Great Whisky Purge, but as Speyside came into vogue in the 1900s, Glen Scotia’s distinctive Campbeltown-style whisky was used almost exclusively for blending and was all but impossible to get hold of as a single malt. Whisky lovers were occasionally teased and reminded of the exceptional malts from this distillery with the very occasional distillery release or independent bottling, but by and large this stuff was like hen’s teeth. Fortunately, all that’s changing…
It’s well known that today’s Scotch industry grew from a “black market” of illicit distilling, but in Campbeltown probably more than anywhere else, the black market played a huge part in the establishment of the formal industry. At the time, there were illicit stills running all over Scotland and while natural resources like barley, water and peat were easy to come by, copper pot stills, especially ones that could avoid detection by HM Customs & Excise, weren’t. And that’s precisely what set Campbeltown and the Kintyre peninsula apart. In 1811, a cunning and industrious man by the name of Robert Armour set up a coppersmith’s shop in Campbeltown, providing the perfect cover for a roaring trade in his specially designed four-part still that could be dismantled to avoid detection. The result of course was that production on the peninsula went into overdrive.
As the market for Scotch grew, the Kintyre peninsula’s small illicit distilleries made way for bigger commercial operations, but unlike the rest of Scotland where the distilleries were located on farms in remote Highland glens, all the action was in and around Campbeltown itself. This made for excellent economies of scale in all aspects, especially shipping, and with 34 operating distilleries Campbeltown quickly became the world’s whisky capital. While the region’s fame endured the entire 1800s, distillery numbers were decimated around the turn of the previous century (end 1800s – early 1900s) thanks to a combination of factors such as the Pattison Crisis, improved transportation links to distilleries in Speyside and a decline in quality. This was further compounded by a decline in consumption through the First World War and prohibition in the US, and by 1934 only Glen Scotia and Springbank were still operating – a far cry from the heady days of the 1800s.
Glen Scotia, or simply Scotia as it was originally named, was established in 1832 by Stewart, Galbraith & Co who ran it very successfully until the late 1890s when trouble began to mount and the whole industry headed to a momentous crash. The next notable owner was leading industrialist Duncan MacCallum who bought Scotia in 1924, saving the distillery from closure as Campbeltown’s industry imploded around it, but sadly MacCallum committed suicide a few years later after losing his life savings to a scam. Locals claim his ghost still haunts the distillery to this day. Scotia was subsequently acquired by Bloch Brothers (Scapa and Glengyle), who added “Glen” to the name and from there on it suffered at the hands of a succession of owners who used the whisky mainly for blending, pandering to trends as the Campbeltown style made way for the more popular Speyside and Islay styles. Thankfully however, the region’s fortunes are starting to change. 2004 saw the reopening of the Glengyle Distillery, the first new distillery to open in over a century bringing the number of distilleries in Campbeltown up to three and in 2014 Glen Scotia was acquired by private equity firm Exponent. Since taking over, the distillery’s range has seen a major overhaul including rebranding and repackaging, and most importantly for whisky lovers around the world, a very strong focus on malt whisky production. Having spent the previous eighty or so years limited mainly to independent bottlings and blends, this incredibly historically significant distillery is finally back, and we’re all the better for it!