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.»

This is not yet Kintyre, this scenery can be observed passing by the Loch Lomond National Park

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.

Grazing cattle was sometimes small and hornless
Even a gloomy weather cannot spoil this idyll

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.

Main street in Campbeltown is called simply — Main Street
Campbeltown Loch — a great place both for receiving barley from all over the world, and for loading the whisky to ships to send to the United States.

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.

The biggest distillery in the city – Hazelburn, which could produce more than one million litres of alcohol per year – was closed in 1925. It is still possible to see the traces of the distillery’s name letters on the half-ruined building. Did Masataka Taketsuru use this entrance in 1920?
Besides the volume of its production, Hazelburn distillery was interesting by having actual shell-and-tube condensers in the necks (!) of two in its pot stills. I haven’t met such design at the modern distilleries yet.
Presumably, this is the former Lochhead Distillery — once it was used to produce whisky for a hundred years, now it is used for washing buses.

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.

Campbeltown today: if you head right, you will get to a distillery; if you head left, you will get to a distillery; if you go straight – you will be explained how to get to a distillery.

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.

This is the distillery building now
There was a grocery store before at the beginning of the High Street, and the grocery building was previously a school (and children spent lesson breaks on a green lawn on the distillery’s territory). This building has been already demolished on this photo from the 70-s. However, you still may see the three-store house of the distillery employee. It was also demolished later. (Photograph courtesy of Charles M. Campbell, Campbeltown).

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.

Glen Scotia uses the Porteus patent mill by the famous Robert Bobby & Co. Its age, 65 years, is not too big by the standards of this kind of mills. There are 70% of grits, 20% of husks and 10% of flours in the grist.
Iron cast mash tun is more than 100 years old. Glen Scotia uses 3 «waters» — 66, 76 and 85 degrees Celsius. Final wash (which can be repeated twice) is used as the first water for the next mash.
Classic mash tun system is the system with rotating rakes. Such a system usually takes less sugars from the malt than lauter tuns, but whisky orthodoxies say that whisky from such wash tends to be lighter and tastier.

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.

Washbacks at Glen Scotia are quite new and made of stainless steel. On the other hand, the fermentation time is impressive — it can reach up to 140 hours! On average, it is around 130 hours. The distillery believes that the work of lactic bacterias after the work of yeast is very important and it enriches notably the flavour of the spirit.

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.

Glen Scotia’s pot stills are chubby and relatively short, pear-shaped. Coupled with the hearts cut from 73% to 63% ABV, it gives oily and full of flavors new make of a wonderful texture with a strength of 69.4%. Glen Scotia works on the peated malt one month a year ordering malt of three different phenolic levels.

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.

Iain McAlister, distillery manager and master distiller. The person, who easily agreed to show the distillery to a visitor from Russia on Sunday afternoon — on a holiday after the exhausting week of Campbeltown Whisky Festival and after several weeks of preparations for that festival. If anything can be called «selfless devotion” – this is exactly it, such simple things at a first glance.

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.

After the distillery tour, I was lucky to sample few interesting casks at Glen Scotia warehouse. It may be not directly relevant to what we may expect tomorrow on the shelves, but it gives a great insight into the distillery potential, as well as into the existing stocks. The general level of the whisky I tasted was very high, and it is hard to say what I liked more, so different it was – ex-bourbon and ex-wine casks maturation; peated and unpeated malt. But I should say that the citrus notes and salinity, which I found in many samples, just conquered me!
This absolutely stunning festival release from Glen Scotia  — 2003 Rum Cask Finish – accompanied me to Moscow and will go in line with other «rum» releases from Campbeltown at a planned tasting session.

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.

Oily new make – oily whisky. Glen Scotia, tapadh leibh and sláinte mhaith!

Alexey Nearonov

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.