When last visited Glen Scotia, in early 2009, it was hard to believe the Campbeltown distillery had a bright future. Production had fallen to below 100,000 litres, the distillery building itself was run down to the point of looking derelict, and operations were being kept ticking over by a skeleton staff of only three people.
One of those there at the time was stillman Jim Grogan, who posed with his valinch in front of Glen Scotia’s battered and rusted gates. He reflected on the various ups and down of the whisky scene in Campbeltown as he counted his days to retirement.
“My father’s generation saw the demise of the industry from the time when there were more than 32 distilleries in the town,” he told us. “It was the main source of employment, along with fishing and the coalmine. But it’s almost all gone.”
Thankfully, Glen Scotia didn’t go on to join that long list of lost distilleries that haunts Campbeltown. Despite its trials and tribulations through different ownership, periods of being mothballed and general neglect, Glen Scotia is a survivor.
But in 2009 that survival was far from guaranteed, and for the young distillery manager who had left a job at Scottish Water the year before, it may have seemed a risky move. At that time, Iain McAlister had acknowledged the need for more than a lick of paint to improve the distillery’s appearance, and lamented the fact that those whisky tourists who made the long and winding pilgrimage down to the foot of the Kintyre peninsula had no visitors’ facilities to be able to experience Glen Scotia.
How times change. Fast forward nine years and we’re back in Kintyre, for the annual Campbeltown Malts Festival, and Glen Scotia’s open day. The distillery building is pristine white against a clear blue sky, its name standing out proudly on the structure’s lofty gable end. Production is now back up to over 500,000 litres a year. Even the stills have been cleaned and lacquered. There’s a bustling visitors’ centre and a welcoming air to the distillery that defies belief for anyone who might have turned up a decade ago in the hope of having a look around.
The turnaround in Glen Scotia’s fortunes was due to increased investment and focus from the new owners of Loch Lomond Group, which had owned Glen Scotia since 2000 but was itself bought out in 2014 by the private equity firm Exponent. Glen Scotia is one beneficiary of the investment, along with a new pair of stills and new washbacks at Loch Lomond distillery and revamped bottling lines at Glen Catrine in Ayrshire.
“It’s quite a change since your last visit,” says Iain, who like his distillery is looking his best to conduct a packed-out dunnage warehouse tasting in the company of whisky writer and SMWS Tasting Panel chair Charlie MacLean.
Iain has clearly grown into the role not only of distillery manager but as the face of Glen Scotia, through its in-depth tours, tastings and masterclasses. “This is our fourth open day now and it seems to get bigger and better every year, so it’s great to see the distillery regain its sense of confidence and purpose, and for our whisky to get the recognition it deserves,” he says.
“In 2009 we had virtually no marketing, and we were only bottling one 12-year-old Glen Scotia single malt. The quality of our whisky was always there but we had no reputation. Thankfully that’s all changed, and we’ve been picking up various awards for our different releases over the past few years.”
To demonstrate the heritage of whisky making in Campbeltown, Glen Scotia tour manager Callum Fraser takes us on a walking tour of the town, pointing out both abandoned distilleries sitting derelict, and others that have been repurposed.
There are ghosts of what was once Whiskyopolis everywhere you turn. Thankfully, Glen Scotia is very much alive, and kicking harder than ever.
This is an excerpt from the feature that appears in the August 2018 edition of Unfiltered, which is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership