New Campbeltown distillery Machrihanish gets the green light

New Campbeltown distillery Machrihanish gets the green light

As the third new Campbeltown distillery since 2023 gains planning approval, we look back at the history of the 'Victorian whisky capital of the world' and delve into the story of its newest distillery project

News | 23 Apr 2024 | By Davis Gonnella

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By the mid-1880s, the phylloxera epidemic had swept through France and the lack of French brandy had left a gap in the market for Scotch whisky to flourish worldwide. Campbeltown had played host to a vast array of distilleries and had particularly good transport links to and from Glasgow; the 'second city of the empire’ played a vital role in the growth of Campbeltown as a region during the Industrial Revolution in Scotland (1750–1840), with puffers running back and forth from the Port of Glasgow.

 

With regard to whisky production, Campbeltown was a powerhouse ahead of the curve. It had the location, resources, money, intellect, and wherewithal to build these premises. It was so popular with whisky companies that at its peak it was home to more than 30 distilleries, earning it the moniker of the ‘Victorian whisky capital of the world’.

 

Dairy wholesaler Pattisons of Leith arrived in the whisky market in 1887 and saw an opportunity for quick financial gain. It quickly achieved status in blending, acquiring enough money to buy shares in Glenfarclas, Aultmore, Oban, and the Ardgowan grain distillery. Its proprietors, brothers Robert and Walter Pattison, were known for lavish spending, both personally and professionally. In 1898 they spent the modern-day equivalent of £4.3 million on advertising in the UK alone. In addition to the huge printing runs, the company also gave away 500 grey parrots who were trained to say, “Pattisons Whisky is the best!” In 1899, an unpaid balance of £30,000 led to a spotlight on the Pattisons’ poor accounting practices, revealing that they had teaspooned poor-quality whisky with fine single malt and had labelled it Fine Old Glenlivet. The brothers were tried for fraud and embezzlement, in a scandal that became widely known as the Pattison Crash. This was contributary to an international fallout of demand of Scotch Whisky and a mertiable slump in the whisky trade.

 

In 1914, war broke out across Europe and the vast majority of Scotland’s distilleries ceased operations. Following the First World War, UK prime minister David Lloyd George formed a temperance movement which encouraged followers to refrain from drinking too much, ostensibly as this would halt the country’s progress post-war. It coincided with Prohibition in the USA, which slashed the demand on exports from Scotland, while the Great Depression (1929–1939) saw many people priced out of being able to drink at leisure.

 

Blending houses looked to Speyside, which had excellent rail links by this time, seeking softer whisky for palates outside of Scotland to try and save the industry. By 1935, the region had gone from an impressive plethora of distilleries to just two. Famed whisky architect Charles Doig had predicted that no new distillery would be built for 50 years because of the brothers’ economic missteps — a prediction that was realised when Tullibardine was erected in 1949 (building work on the last distillery before the crash, Glen Elgin, was completed in 1900).

 

Back in Campbeltown, with distilleries being shuttered, work began to dry up and many locals left for Glasgow in search of employment. Abandoned distilleries were knocked down and repurposed, signifying doubts that the region would be able to regain its once-phenomenal reputation. The turn of the millennium saw Campbeltown at risk of losing its status as a whisky region.

 

A solution came from Campbeltown champion Hedley G Wright. After buying silent distillery Glengyle in 2000, the then-chairman of Springbank contested the loss of the regional status with the Scotch Whisky Association. He was noted as having said, “The Lowlands only have Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, and Glenkinchie but is still regarded as a region, so if Campbeltown added a third, then we deserve the same recognition.” With the purchase of Glengyle (home of Kilkerran), the region had been saved.

 

Fast forward to 2024 and there are three new distilleries planned for the region — Dal Riata (South Star Spirits), Witchburn (Brave New Spirits), and Machrihanish (R&B Distillers) — which hope to continuing rebuilding region’s whisky-making acumen.

 

R&B Distillers purchased Dhurrie Farm near Campbeltown Airport, originally a dairy farm and now solely arable, in December 2021 and submitted plans for its Machrihanish Distillery the following year. When completed, it will be the first farm distillery in the region for more than 140 years. To source grain for the distillery, the company plans to work directly with farmers rather than maltsters. It will agree a price for its barley before harvest — an unusual practice in the arable trade but a beneficial one for farmers, as the price is normally fixed upon receipt and drying.

 

The Machrihanish single malt is intended to provide a complementary contrast to what R&B is producing at its existing Isle of Raasay Distillery. It will be predominantly unpeated and matured in sherry-seasoned casks.

 

Alasdair Day and Bill Dobbie, co-founders of R&B Distillers, learned a lot from building the Raasay site. Once the idea for a second distillery was ignited, there were discussions about where it should be built, what processes should be implemented, and what the overall focus of the operation would be. It was a family connection that helped the Edinburgh duo decide the location: Dobbie’s grandmother was born in Drumlemble, halfway between Campbeltown and Machrihanish.

 

The only existing buildings at Dhurrie Farm that will be retained are the five stone outbuildings; the distillery will be housed in a new building. It has echoes of the set-up on Raasay, where the new-build distillery sits adjacent to the 19th-century Borodale House, which has been renovated and now houses accommodation and a restaurant and bar.

 

R&B plans for Machrihanish to be a net-zero farm-to-bottle operation, making use of regenerative farming techniques and using no fossil fuels in its production process. A trial run of barley grown at Westbacks Farm has been distilled at Raasay (Day says Laureate will eventually be the forerunner) and a borehole has been drilled on-site. The planning application has come up against concerns about local wildlife, including nesting birds, bats, and migrating Greenland white-fronted geese, but Nature Scot have been working closely with the distillery team to make appropriate provisions in the application.

 

When the distillery does fire up its stills — there are hopes it could be by the end of 2024 — master distiller Day plans to practise a three-to-five-day fermentation time, mirroring Machrihanish’s Campbeltown fellows Springbank and Glen Scotia. The energy-efficient electric-powered mash filter will produce cloudy wort, with the filter’s efficiency enabling two mashes per shift, while two sets of stills will allow for both light and heavy spirit styles to be produced. Like Raasay, Machrihanish will also open up the opportunity for interested parties to purchase casks of its spirit, at a rate of about 100 casks a year.

 

Day wants to produce a Campbeltown-style whisky but in a contemporary way. This contrasts the other two new young distilleries due to see spirit runs in the next few years.

 

Dal Riata will be based on Campbeltown’s Kinloch Road and use barley from Dunadd Hillfort, once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dal Riata. The project is in the expert hands of North Star Spirits founder Iain Croucher, Edinburgh Whisky Academy alumni Ronnie Grant, and whisky author David Stirk. The Witchburn Distillery, owned by Brave New Spirits, will focus on traditional distilling methods and will produce spirits under 100 per cent green renewable energy, making it one of the most environmentally friendly in the country. Production operations will be spearheaded by Andrew Nairn, former distillery manager at Glenkinchie, Strathmill, and the Borders Distillery.

 

The existing Campbeltown distillers have welcomed the new projects with open arms. One gets the feeling a Campbeltown brotherhood is on the rise — with a certain amount of friendly rivalry.

 

There exists a thread of DNA in Campbeltown whisky, preserved by the current incumbents despite the differences in their spirit styles. The coveted ‘Campbeltown funk’ is imprinted into the region’s whiskies, and fans of this characteristic will hope it is retained amid the ongoing whisky renaissance.

 

 

Image: (L–R) David Nicol, co-founder, Caskshare; Norman Gillies, operations director, R&B Distillers; William Dobbie, managing director, R&B Distillers; Alasdair Day, co-founder, R&B Distillers

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