I was soaked to the bones, properly shivering and shaking, when I was handed my first dram of whisky directly from the cask in the Springbank warehouses. To say I was feeling bleak is an understatement. Worse, it was December. And December in Campbeltown – where the legendary distillery is located – is not warm. But as the cask strength whisky slid softly down my throat, a warm exuberance overcame me and suddenly the winter weather didn’t seem so terrible after all. 

Like many distilleries in Scotland, the best time to visit Springbank may not be in the winter months if you fancy enjoying your dram without extra water soaking through your layers or sprinkling into your dram from a dripping wet head. I suppose the old adage of: ‘There is no bad weather, only bad clothing’ definitely rings true to this situation. 

But whatever weather I found myself in, there could be no doubt that the beauty and uniqueness of this distillery was still able to shine through. After all, there is something rather magical about getting into a whisky warehouse feeling a bit worse for wear and having the glorious prickly heat of a fiery dram fix things. 

Alwynne Gwilt

Welcome Alwynne Gwilt to the Master of Malt blog

Campbeltown – former whisky capital of Scotland

Situated on the southern end of the Kintyre Peninsula in the town of Campbeltown – also the name of the whisky region – Springbank distillery has been making whisky officially since 1828 when it received its licence. Like many distilleries in Scotland it can trace its roots back to at least the 19th century, whisky was said to have been made on the site since long before that, but if you inspect a bottle today, that’s the date that it will carry proudly on its label. 

Set up by Archibald Mitchell, the distillery was the 14th licenced one in the Campbeltown region – an area which for decades was the beating heart of Scottish whisky making before being taken over by Speyside in the late 19th and early 20th century. Today, it is one of the last remaining distilleries in the area which is now the smallest region on Scotland’s whisky making map. 

Many things are at the heart of why that came to be, but it can be strange when walking around the sometimes ghostly streets of this town to imagine that it was once said to be one of the wealthiest towns in the United Kingdom per capita due to the sheer number of successful distilleries and local people who did well out of them. 

When Mitchell set up the distillery, the desire and taste for Campbeltown whiskies was only growing – so much so that his sister, Mary, even built another distillery called Drumore distillery next door. Over the next few decades, the distillery passed through family hands first to Archibald’s sons John and William, before John’s son joined in and the company became known as J&A Mitchell. Its popularity only increased and by the 1870s, William set up the third distillery in the family stable: Glengyle. 


Unfortunately, by the turn of the century, the demand for Campbeltown whiskies began to diminish. Springbank attempted to cater to palates by cutting back on the peat flavour in its whiskies and using coal rather than peat to dry its malt. But even so, the reputation and quality is said to have decreased and blending companies turned their attention to their more northern neighbours in Speyside to get a hold of quality malt for blends which were becoming ever more popular. Glengyle eventually closed down in the 1920s, leaving just Springbank and Glen Scotia still in operation. A far cry from the town’s heyday when there were over 30 distilleries. 

Springbank plays an important role in keeping the region alive. Glengyle was brought back into production in 2004 after Hedley G Wright – the great, great grandson of the company’s founder Archibald – bought the abandoned buildings back and spent four years building the distillery. It sells whisky under the Kilkerran brand sits alongside its sister distillery Springbank which makes three distinct whisky brands: Hazelburn, an unpeated and triple-distilled malt first created in the 1990s; Longrow, a peated double-distilled malt brought in by the company in the 1970s; and of course, Springbank. It’s also, perhaps, most famous for showcasing more traditional ways of making whisky. 

springbank distillery

The unique still set-up at Springbank

They do things the old way at Springbank

What makes it stand out in a world which has become increasingly more automated is the fact the full whisky making process is still done on site and by hand. Take a wander around the distillery – preferably not in the pouring rain or, if you must, at least with an umbrella and dram in hand – and you’ll see myriad touches that point to a storied past. On my first visit, someone from operations was taking a quick break to pop up a ladder and repaint one of the many bright red pipes that run through the distillery, while later on I discovered that a local children’s school fundraiser had rendered the poles in the floor maltings a rainbow of colours in a Willy Wonka theme. It was immediately clear that Springbank’s owners do things their own way. 

And so it should come as little surprise that the distillery malts all of its barley and the floor maltings are housed in 19th century buildings that seem to have changed very little over the centuries. It’s highly unusual for a distillery to malt barley on traditional floor maltings, let alone 100 percent of it, on the premises where the whisky is made.  The process is labour intensive, with the barley needing to be carefully raked and moved across the floors by hand again and again to encourage the germination needed for the later stages of whisky making. It fell out of favour across Scotland throughout the 20th century as malting became more affordable to do off-site via large commercial setups that specialize in doing with greater automation and more efficiently.

A walk through the light filled malting warehouse is one of the most special moments for any whisky enthusiast – the sound of the barley being moved using the shiels (or shovels), the glint of a root or shoot beginning to poke out of an awakening grain, the smell of barley on the first step of its way to becoming whisky. It’s a romantic atmosphere, if not the most cost effective for the producers. 

Continuing on the journey of whisky making, the distillery then kilns (or dries) its barley, grinds it down into grist, and makes the initial wort from it, before transferring it to old school wooden washbacks to create the wash with the addition of yeast, and finally moving that wash into the first still for the initial distillation. All of this is fairly standardised, though the use of the wooden washbacks is always nice to see when visiting a distillery. 

Springbank Madeira

Springbank, it’s the whisky everyone wants

The Whisky Drinker’s Whisky

Where Springbank’s uniqueness springs back into form is when it comes to the distillation process it uses. To start, the wash still is direct fired rather than heated by gas, which most are today. Separately, it has three rather than two stills in its process: a wash still, low wines still and spirit still. Springbank is distilled 2.5 times, a style seen at another Scottish distillery Mortlach. This allows for more flexibility when it comes to making the other whiskies which come off of the same stills – triple-distilled Hazelburn, for instance, can come off of the same set up because of the use of the low wine still which most distilleries do not have, while Longrow is swapped over to just two stills, giving a unique characteristic to each new make spirit. Its marketing tagline is: ‘The Whisky Drinker’s Whisky’ and it’s very clear upon seeing it why. 

All of the whiskies made at Springbank are put into cask and stored on site, rather than being shipped off to big warehouses somewhere else on the mainland. Since its inception in 1828, the distillery has continued to produce whisky bar a few notable periods such as in the 1980s when many Scottish distilleries scaled back as demand globally plummeted and for six months in 2008 when a combination of building works and soaring goods costs led it to take a break (later, naturally, causing a hole in the Springbank stock system which didn’t help its already limited supply to its eager audience).

In demand

Today the distillery has a limited number of releases, with those that do come out getting snapped up fairly quickly upon release. Alongside any single malts that find their way to the shelves, the company also has its Campbeltown Loch Blended Malt Whisky, which is made from the five malt whiskies produced at the three distilleries in Campbeltown (Springbank, Hazelburn, Longrow, Glengyle and Glen Scotia). Hedley – that last family member in the long line to run the distillery – passed away in 2023 and the distillery was put into the hands of three trust funds, with a family member being appointed to the board to ensure it stays with links to the family that loved it and grew it for so long. 

When I first got to Springbank to see it in person, I was fairly new to the world of whisky writing. My eyes were wide open as I’d only seen a handful of setups and watching the casks being filled on site, and the bottling line rolling along as people hand labeled and bottled their whiskies was quite a sight to see. Fast forward to my last visit in 2018, and I could have been more jaded, having by then seen dozens of distilleries worldwide. I’d gone back for a special birthday celebration for my other half who’d managed to miss it during all of his distillery visits, despite it being an absolute favourite. So it was with pleasure that I realised the distillery had lost none of its magic – even in the freezing winds of a wet and grey December. That day, as we sipped sample after sample from various casks in the warehouse, I felt a sense of joy I found in my early whisky-distillery visiting days. The fact that almost nothing had changed in the years between my visits was testament to the energy the company puts into ensuring its traditions are adhered to, to the desire for it to stay a bastion of the world of whisky making in Campbeltown. 

Springbank single malts are available from Master of Malt. Click on link to buy.