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Campbeltown - Were There 30 Distilleries?

Updated: Mar 3


Springbank distillery

Image by Springbank


When we first began exploring the world of whisky, we were frequently told that Campbeltown once had 30 operational distilleries, a claim that has been reiterated time and time again. While the statement itself is certainly impressive, given that only a few distilleries have survived over the years, we never really questioned its veracity.


Upon closer examination, we realised that the phrasing of this claim could be a bit misleading. Specifically, it might suggest that all 30 of these distilleries were in operation at the same time. So, we began to wonder: is this actually true? Or were there simply 30 distilleries that operated in Campbeltown at some point in history?



 

The Lost Distilleries


Campbeltown is the smallest whisky region, located on the West coast of Scotland on the Kintyre peninsula in Argyll & Bute. Once a thriving hub of whisky distilling, the small town is currently home to three single malt distilleries - soon to be joined by three more.


The first written record of Campbeltown whisky dates back to 1591, and the town quickly became a hub for smugglers and illegal distilling. The first legitimate whisky distilleries were established in Campbeltown in the 1790s, and after the Excise Act of 1823 was passed, numerous small licensed distilleries sprang up around the town centre in the 1820s. By 1830, Campbeltown had 21 active distilleries, with some companies entering the market for short-lived ventures. Over the next few decades, several distilleries changed hands, expanded their operations, or relocated to better estates, some even re-establishing already-known distillery names.


The Mitchells, known as the 'whisky royalty' of Campbeltown, arrived in the 1660s and were involved in illegal distilling. During the early 1800s, Archibald Mitchell was the head of the family and a partner at Rieclachan distillery. He used to operate an illegal still at the location where the Springbank distillery now stands. In 1828, the Reid family, who were Mitchell's in-laws, established the Springbank distillery. In 1837, Archibald's sons, John and William, took over the ownership of Springbank, and later, John's son Alexander replaced William, forming the company J&A Mitchell. The distillery is still owned by the family's descendants.


Archibald's bloodline spread throughout Campbeltown, with his sister Mary founding the Drumore distillery in 1834 and his son William leaving Springbank to form Glengyle in 1872. The Reid family, who were also related to Archibald, were involved in founding the Dalintober distillery in 1832, which was expanded in 1868 to cover a vast estate uptown.


Closed distilleries of Campbeltown

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


In 1891, Campbeltown had only 1,969 residents, but it was the richest town in Britain per capita. Over the next few decades, changes occurred that significantly impacted the type and quality of the region's whisky. The style of whisky changed from heavily peated, made with peat, to a lighter style made with coal. To meet the high demand, some distilleries cut corners, and the effects of the First World War resulted in a wave of distillery closures in the 1920s. Eventually, only two distilleries, Springbank and Glen Scotia, remained in operation.



 

Looking for the 'magic number'


According to our findings, Campbeltown has been home to 40 whisky distilleries since the 1790s, with 34 original names. When Alfred Barnard visited Campbeltown in 1886 for his book 'The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom', he listed 21 active distilleries, not 30 as some have claimed.


Our research shows that the peak number of active distilleries at any one time was 27 in the 1840s. We were unable to find any evidence to support the claim that there were 30 active distilleries in Campbeltown at any point in time.


Closed Campbeltown distilleries timeline

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


The number 30, often cited when discussing the history of Campbeltown, is treated as fact by many. It would be more accurate to say that there were around 30 distilleries operational in Campbeltown at one point in time. In our opinion, the number is likely an oversimplification of the complex history of the area's distilleries. Throughout history, there have been around 40 distilleries with 34 original names. At any given time, there were a maximum of 27 active whisky distilleries. Therefore, while the exact number 30 is often used to discuss the history of Campbeltown, it may not be based on solid facts - just an easy way to sum things up in a simple, round number.



 

For this article, we have gathered information from trusted sources including Brian Townsend's book 'Scotch Missed', Alfred Barnard's 'The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom' & Misako Udo's 'The Scottish Whisky Distilleries'.


If you are aware of a closed Campbeltown distillery that we were unable to find and did not include in this article, please contact us for further information.



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