It has been raining, of course. There are puddles on the ground, and a haze of moisture blurs the air. We walk into the distillery courtyard, past a yard full of empty barrels—French oak barriques, old bourbon casks, a few containers labeled Maine Rum—some stacked, some standing upright. Weeds sprout between paving stones. Some of the buildings around us are whitewashed; others are gray-brown brick stained black by smoke and weather and burred with umber moss. There are black iron braces on some walls and jungle-gym tangles of scaffolding and pipes, and an avalanche of charcoal-hued blocks of peat heaped in one corner. The roofs are grooved tin. This is a working factory, not some tourist showplace. The Industrial Revolution doesn't seem very far away.
There are four categories of scotch malt whisky, classified according to geography: Highland, Lowland, Islay, and Campbeltown. The Highlands region is the big show, the area with the most distilleries by far and most of the ones everybody's heard of (The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, The Macallan, Glenmorangie, and so on). The majority of the other well-known ones come from Islay (pronounced EYE-la), the most important of whisky islands, among them Laphroaig, Bruichladdich, and Bowmore. Lowland whiskies are marginal to the American consumer. And then there's Campbeltown.
Sitting all by itself, a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Glasgow and almost 160 miles from the Highlands capital of Inverness, on the east-facing side of a long prong of land extending into the North Channel, Campbeltown has only three distilleries. And only one of them is currently producing any quantity of whisky: Springbank.
If Campbeltown today seems like a footnote to the story of scotch whisky, it was once a main attraction. This part of Scotland may even have been the birthplace of scotch: almost everybody, even the Scots, believes that the art of making whisky was born in Ireland; no part of Scotland lies closer to the Emerald Isle than Campbeltown's peninsula, and trade (illicit and otherwise) between the two places was common. The earliest written reference to whisky in the region dates from 1591, and Campbeltown became a hotbed of illegal distilling before it developed a legal whisky industry. By 1800, it is said, there were 22 legal distilleries operating within the town itself and another ten in the surrounding area. The Mitchell family opened a distillery called Riechlachan in 1825 and three years later built a second one—Springbank.
Traditional Campbeltown whisky was heavily peated and similar in style to the iodine-scented whiskies of Islay. It was much in demand for blending, and ships headed across the Atlantic stopped at Campbeltown to load on what was—as Peter Currie, Springbank's sales and marketing executive, puts it—"the last whisky before America". Unfortunately, distilleries got greedy and started cutting corners to increase production, ultimately damaging the whisky's reputation. Technological improvements also meant that larger distilleries elsewhere were able to mass-produce comparable whisky on such a scale that they put smaller producers out of business. Campbeltown distilleries closed down one by one, until only two were left: Springbank and one called Glen Scotia.
The unglamorous Glen Scotia distillery, with its flaking paint and boarded-up windows, still exists but has been in and out of mothballs for decades and today operates on a limited basis. (It has three full-time employees; Springbank has 53.) Springbank, meanwhile, is still owned by a descendant of its founders, Hedley Wright, under the banner of J. & A. Mitchell & Co. Ltd.—which also owns a spirits bottlers called Cadenhead's (hence the rum casks in the courtyard) and has recently revived Glengyle, an old distillery next door. "Glengyle is our blank piece of paper," says Peter Currie. "Springbank is tradition, but here we can do whatever we want." The first Glengyle whisky of modern times is scheduled for release in 2014, at the age of ten years.