Totally unaware about it, I turned out to be the last person from Russia who visited Scottish Glen Scotia – I was there on May 26, 2019, and just one week later it was announced that the whisky business of Loch Lomond Group is sold to investors from China. Actually, there is nothing special in this fact, Glen Scotia had many different owners, if not to mention that this particular case allows you to come up with an attention-grabbing headline.
But let’s go step by step. I had to go to Campbeltown in order to become, as it turned out later, «the best scholar of the week» at Springbank Whisky School. And I certainly could not miss this opportunity to realize a long-desired visit to Glen Scotia distillery. I used a coach to travel from Glasgow to Campbeltown, and I chose this way of transportation especially in order to retrace the path of Alfred Barnard, which he had done in 1885. Here’s what Barnard wrote about this trip in his immortal book «The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom»:
«We had a splendid day for our journey, and the road lay through some of the most delightful and romantic scenery in the county. After passing through the village of Tarbert, crossing the peninsula to the West Loch Tarbert Pier, from whence the Islay boats depart, we came in sight of the sea which we had in view for the rest of our journey. In this part of Kintyre most of the charms of nature are united. First we passed country lanes overshadowed with trees and farm houses mostly of a superior kind, whose smiling cornfields testify that cultivation is carried on to the highest perfection, then villages, so called, which scarcely reach the size of hamlets, and wide natural meadows on which herds of cattle were grazing. Coaching merrily along we were soon sunk into the recesses of a small valley, shut in by woods and overlooked by romantic elevations, and then in a few moments we were out of this seemingly remote concealment, looking down upon the broad waters of the loch, and across an expanse of luxuriant country terminating in a rocky shore and the wide ocean.»
To my surprise, I saw almost exactly the same picture that Alfred Barnard saw almost 150 years ago. Landscapes were beautiful, houses and villages were superior, bright-green meadows on the hills begged to paint them onto the canvas. Of course, there were some differences, for example, I couldn’t see any cornfields: maybe it was just still early for it.
Campbeltown is the former whisky capital of Scotland. This small town was once home to 37 distilleries, and 26 distilleries worked here simultaneously. A lot of water, a lot of peat, enough barley and good location, which was convenient to send whisky to the United States and which was inconvenient to control whisky production – all that contributed to the development of distillation in Campbeltown. At the end of the 19th century, Campbeltown sends to customers more than 5 million liters of whisky annually — a huge figure in those days.
However, the introduction of Prohibition in the United States caused a sharp decline in demand for whisky from Campbeltown, and it turned impossible to find other markets to maintain the production volume. Whisky was available in excess, and malicious tongues say that whisky from Campbeltown was not competitive enough to survive. Loss of markets has forced almost all the distilleries in the city to shut down.
At the conclusion of the conversation about the region as a whole, I shall note that the third distillery of the region, Glengyle, gave its first spirit only in the year 2000. Glengyle was restored by the Mitchell family, the owners of Springbank and Cadenhead, and the founders of Glengyle. After that SWA commissioned Campbeltown as a separate whisky region. We may assume that it was done rather as a tribute of respect for the historical contribution of this territory into the history of whisky production rather than an evaluation of today’s significance of Campbeltown whisky industry — now all the three distilleries in the city do not produce collectively even a million liters of whisky per year. However, there is no doubt that Campbeltown fully deserves this title.
The history of Glen Scotia distillery reflects all the twists and turns of the whisky production history in the region. The distillery was built in 1832 and had the name “Scotia”, “Glen” was added only a hundred years later, in 1935, two years after the distillery was acquired by Bloch brothers. The building, which houses Glen Scotia, was rebuilt considerably at the end of the 19th century, and you may see what was on the block near Glen Scotia in the early 70-s of the last century on the picture below.
In 1920 the Prohibition comes into force in the United States and by the year 1929 only three distilleries — Springbank, Rieclachan (closed in 1934) and Scotia – remains in Campbeltown. However, production at Scotia stops in 1930 already, and the distillery stays «silent» till 1933 when owners changed. Thought Scotia resumed production, the load was unstable, it stopped and started distillation again many times until finally, in 1939, the distillery worked almost all the year through. Unfortunately, due to the Second World War, whisky distillation was suspended in the UK from 1942 till 1945.
In 1954 Hiram Walker & Sons came into possession of the distillery, the company which already operated 18 distilleries in Scotland. However, Hiram Walker almost immediately re-sold Glen Scotia to a local company, A. Gillies & Co., associated with the previous owners, with one of the Bloch brothers. In 1970 this company was absorbed by ADP, and three years later big reconstruction works begin. Reconstruction was finished in 1977, and newly opened distillery starts to sell its whisky not only for blends but also as a single malt, and even exports it.
Economic problems of the late 70-s — early 80-s and whisky overproduction resulted in the fact that Glen Scotia was mothballed in 1983. In 1986 the distillery changed the owner again and in 1989 it resumes production. In 1994 Glen Scotia was sold to Loch Lomond Distillery Company and again became silent for another 5 years. The distillation started again only in 1999. So, it turns out that in addition to pauses in production in 1930-s and during the World War II, Glen Scotia did not work from 1983 to 1989 and from 1994 to 1999 also.
Even knowing that the distillery worked in the 2000s, we must realize that production volumes could be very small those times. So, in 2008, Glen Scotia produced only 80 thousand liters by the efforts of only three employees.
In 2014 Loch Lomond Distillery Company was sold to a specially established Loch Lomond Group, and all the distilleries of the group started to relive a renaissance, all we are witnesses to that. In a period of just five years, the value of the assets has grown so much that it made it feasible to sell the business to investors from China.
Do I care, as a consumer, of another change of owners at Glen Scotia, especially considering that now it is a company from Asia? To some extent, yes. It seems to me that the last team, the Loch Lomond Group, has done a great job to revive the past glory of Glen Scotia. In 1885 the distillery produced 385 thousand liters of whisky, and in 2008, as I have said, only 80 thousand. Glen Scotia now makes more than 500 thousand liters of whisky per annum and has in its portfolio quite remarkable releases, such as Victoriana or Double Cask, which were developed by Loch Lomond Master Blender Michael Henry. The previous owners made investments in the good casks inventory, they re-thought and developed a product range, etc. At the same time, if the same people, whom I met at the distillery, will remain to rule the production, we should not worry for the future of the distillery. On the contrary, it is perfect if someone, who loves to make whisky and knows how to make whisky, gets extra money from investors to make most of the own wishes true.
The author would like to express his great gratitude to Iain McAlister for the outstanding distillery tour; to David Lind and Grisha Shalamov for helping to make it possible.
Materials from the book by Alfred Barnard «The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom”, 1887, and from the book by Angus Martin «Glen Scotia Distillery: A History”, 2019, were used to make this article.