Bringing back the funk: The revival of Campbeltown (2024)

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Bringing back the funk: The revival of Campbeltown (4)

At the 2024 Campbeltown Malts Festival, Alex explores two sides of the Campbeltown whisky coin — the folk who come for the bottles, and the fans who stay for the community — while musing on the region's exciting future

News | 05 Jul 2024 | By Alex Mennie

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As the rain continues to fall on Well Close and a cheery voice on the PA system informs visitors that umbrellas are available to purchase, it becomes clear that the Springbank open day at the Campbeltown Malts Festival is a tale of two cohorts. One, queuing in an orderly fashion to the right, empty wheely suitcases bumping down the cobbles behind them, are here solely for the bottles. The second, crammed into the dram tent at the far end of the courtyard, are here in pilgrimage and for the community. One to give and share; the other, it appears, to take. It is perhaps an exaggeration to suggest that the two do not mix — and the foul weather isn’t really conducive to any mixing — but at the same time, it is a striking image of the dichotomy of Springbank and Campbeltown’s resurgence.

Those who have spent time seeking out whisky content on the internet in recent years will be aware that the town’s distilleries are back in one of their periodic boom phases. Most content praising the brand is enveloped in comments from new fans and enthusiasts sharing their frustration that limited supply and strict allocations mean bottles can be hard to come by in most locations without paying a heavy surcharge to buy from the secondary market.

Whether you attribute this to a certain Manx Youtuber, the bloggers of the whisky-sphere, or the 43% and non-chilled-filtered evangelists of Reddit doesn’t matter. The fact is that Campbeltown is back on the map for whisky fans, and consequently, they are having to pay the price for this rediscovered fame. David Allen, director of sales and marketing at Springbank and its sister distillery Glengyle, sums it up succinctly: “Springbank has always been referred to as the ‘whisky drinker’s whisky’… but since Covid especially, it’s been the flipper’s choice.”

This, according to Allen, has been “quite frustrating” on two counts. First, an influx of new whisky drinkers haven’t even been able to try Springbank because it appears the only way to get it is to “queue up outside a distillery shop in Campbeltown after flying up from London and getting a taxi down here”, and then, “as bad, or even worse”, he feels the distillery has lost touch with those that have supported it over the last 20 or so years who now can’t get hold of a bottle. This leads to one overall result, he concludes: the “potential for people to exploit the demand for Springbank”.

Bringing back the funk: The revival of Campbeltown (5)

It is certainly not clear that this is the motive of all of those who are by now wheeling their bulging suitcases back towards the bus stop and on to Glasgow, but in the dram tent, most of those I spoke to identified themselves as long-term fans suffering from this very issue. Jim, a regular visitor to the town and the Malts Festival, accepted that this was the only way he was able to buy bottles at a reasonable price, before offering me a tot of Balcones from his hipflask, while John, a Glasgow-based Springbank evangelist, added that without his family’s links to the town he would probably have given up on the region a long time ago. Suspiciously, no one was willing to admit to being a neophyte, even though probability suggests that they hadn’t all been attending the Malts Festival since its launch two decades ago.

For neighbouring Glen Scotia, which had benefitted from sunshine for its festival events the previous day, these issues aren’t so acute. With production at their site now up to 750,000lpa (versus 264,000lpa at Springbank), they find themselves able to fill gaps in demand caused by their neighbour’s more sporadic methods. This, explains visitor experience manager and brand ambassador Gary Mills, was a conscious effort “to create a Campbeltown malt that would be available all year round” when current owner Loch Lomond Group took over in 2014. From Mills’ perspective, this approach has really “bolstered the spotlight that’s been put on the whole region” — a spotlight that has also led Glen Scotia to several awards (including World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards 2023) and to seeing visitor numbers increase year on year, with Mills keen to point out that just as many of those visitors are coming for Glen Scotia and then going to Springbank as the other way round.

Bringing back the funk: The revival of Campbeltown (6)

The spotlight that Mills can see from his offices at Loch Lomond is also visible in Perthshire and London, where bartenders are seeing increasing demand for Campbeltown whiskies. Michele Mariotti, the head of the bar programme at the Gleneagles Hotel, explains that from his perspective, “the most remarkable fact is that we can see growth that is not just linked to the sales by the bottle as an investment piece, but also among consumers by the glass,” which is, he adds, “extremely unusual for investment whisky”. Further south, Liam Broom, bartender at London’s whisky-driven Silverleaf, adds that Springbank in particular has long been “the bartender’s secret weapon or dram of choice”; where this leads to recommendations for customers in combination with a general increase in awareness, interest, and curiosity about the region results in a boon for all Campbeltown spirits.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic, though. Outside the Springbank dram tent, where grumbles can be sated by the generous pours of any one of 96 expressions ranging from new-make spirit to 32-year-old cask strength bottlings, some retailers are starting to be frustrated by the tight allocations or conditions applied. “I have to place an order for five cases of Campbeltown Loch to stay in the game,” says one, pointing to a shelf of the blended malt that, he explains, is of little interest to his customers, particularly the not-insignificant number who come in seeking rare Campbeltown releases for Chinese clients on the end of the phone. For Allen, the strict allocations make planning a lot easier. “We’re in a position now, where before the start of the year, we know exactly how many cases of whisky we have to sell,” he explains. “That’s pre-allocated to every market...so we're essentially ensuring the stock is distributed fairly and evenly where possible and that we're working with the right people”.

While the smallest of the Scotch whisky regions continues to ride even more of a rollercoaster than the wider industry, the supply squeeze will also soon be a thing of the past. There will be three new distilleries within the next couple of years, and by 2028, Springbank will have more 10-year-old stock thanks to changes made in 2018 that effectively doubled production. In true Springbank style, this was not a shiny new still or any hint of automation — just more staff to enable the site to malt, mash, and distil concurrently.

Bringing back the funk: The revival of Campbeltown (7)

When it comes to the new distilleries, it is easy to get the impression that they will be welcomed with open arms if they maintain their respect for the traditions of the region. Mills is confident: “When you look at the folk that are coming to Campbeltown and investing...they're very much folk that are going to further that traditional Campbeltown production style,” he explains. While the new entrants won’t return the wee toon to the heart of Scottish distilling, which in the Victorian era hit a high of more than 30 producers, any expansion will bring more visitors to the region. “Ultimately it’s going to drive more people to the town,” Mills adds, before concluding, “It would be mental not to work together.”

For Allen, the question is: why has it taken so long? He points to new distilleries in the Lowlands, Highlands, and Islay especially. “I don't know why it took so long for people to home in on Campbeltown,” he says. “Just having that connection to Campbelltown is a bit of a USP now.” When asked to proffer some advice for the newcomers he is concise: “Just be genuine...use local people...and have a genuine story.”

While there is now a light at the end of the tunnel for those looking to fulfil their desires for more of that oily Campbeltown funk, it remains a speck on a distant horizon. The dichotomy between the enthusiasts lining up for bottles to drag back on the first bus out of town and the long-term fans or even previously favoured retailers feeling the frustration of limited access look set to continue for a few more years. In all, they are simply a reflection of Campbeltown’s constantly complex dynamics. Springbank will continue to grapple with demand it cannot fulfil and the associated exploitation, while Glen Scotia remains confident in its abilities to fill the gap and offer a complex and truly Campbeltown spirit. If the demand among consumers and bartenders continues the region will have a bright future. But the scars remain on every street corner in the shell of a former distillery. You get the feeling there is little room for complacency in the Victorian whisky capital of the world, but perhaps the shoots of cautious optimism are being fed by the rain of the open day.

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