The Dál Riata Distillery Campbeltown
Had drones existed in the early 1900s, or any aerial photography been attempted, the view over Campbeltown would have been truly incredible. Granted, the billowing black smoke which poured out from the long, brick coal chimneys and mingled with the gentler and more fragrant smoke of the peat kilns would have made the view obscured; but consider a lull in production, or perhaps a balloon over on Sunday (as workers attended one of the many churches built by distillery owners) the town would have looked like one giant whisky-making factory.
Campbeltown is a quite remarkable place - perhaps the most ‘Island-like’ town on the mainland - perched at the natural harbour at the end of the Kintyre peninsula. It is arguably a terrible place for a distillery to exist – accessed by one long, meandering, but quite beautiful, road. In the past it was the reliance on shipping - now sporadic at best - that kept the flow of goods and people in and out. Yet whisky, in its infinite peculiarities, cares nothing for ease of access - Islay, accessed by a ferry terminal some 30 minutes’ drive North of Campbeltown, is an even greater hurdle for distillers - and yet it thrives like no other island on Earth.
Whisky really has no rhyme or reason for its success. Modern or old traditions, proximity to coast or surrounded by hills - no one truly knows what makes a whisky special. But certain areas are special, and their whisky invites in the drinker. Campbeltown is such an area. Once boasting over 25 distilleries it now has three - but not for long. The once ‘Capital’ of the whisky world is experiencing a renaissance it hasn’t known for over a century, with the birth of the Dál Riata Distillery.
Located on Kinloch Road, the Dál Riata Distillery accompanies a bottling company called South Star Spirits. With a capacity of 850,000 litres of pure alcohol per year
The directors are Iain Croucher, Ronnie Grant and David Stirk who all bring their own unique skills.
Utilising local barley grown at Dunadd Hillfort, which was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dál Riata, will allow us to produce single malt scotch whisky with traditions and styles consistent with whiskies distilled and matured on the Western Seaboard.
"It’s Campbeltown’s time and it’s beyond exciting" - why Scotland's smallest whisky-producing region is having a renaissance
As a host of new distilleries are set to open in Scotland’s smallest whisky region, Rosalind Erskine asks if Campbeltown is having a renaissance.
“Campbeltown is going to come out as the new Islay,” says a smiling Iain Croucher, co-founder of one of the town's newest distilleries Dal Riata.
And while Iain has skin in this game, he may not be wrong as his isn’t the only new distillery in the works in what was the ‘whisky capital of the world.’
Once home to almost 30 distilleries, Campbeltown was a powerhouse and, as such, is recognised as a whisky region.
Now this wee toon, as it’s known, is only home to three distilleries and, a few years ago, risked losing its regional status.
But there are plans brewing. Quite literally. The Dal Riata team have submitted plans for their distillery, which will be located on Kinloch Road overlooking Campbeltown Loch.
The name Dál Riata is derived from the ancient kingdom that existed on the Western coast of Scotland and Northeast Ireland between the 6th and 9th Centuries.
Permission is also pending on distillery plans for Dhurrie farm in Machrihanish.
These plans come from the owners of the Isle of Raasay Distillery, R&B Distillers, who want to add a second single malt whisky brand to their portfolio by building The Machrihanish Distillery to create Campbeltown’s first farm-to-bottle single malt.
Whisky expert Charles Mclean also hints that there’s a few more in the planning stages, when we sit down to chat during the first in-person Campbeltown Malts Festival since 2019.
“The good news is that there are two distilleries that are going ahead and another two that are proposed, so there is a renaissance in distilling in Campbeltown,” he said.
“It has had its ups and downs, not only because of the whisky but also because of the fishing.
"I’ve known Campbeltown for over 30 years and my goodness it has really picked up in the last 10-15 years and is a very vibrant place.”
While Campbeltown has a rich whisky history, why is it now that new distilleries are being planned and built?
For R&B Distillers’ it was a link to the area plus a clear plan to be a leading artisan distiller in Scotland.
Co-founder Bill Dobbie’s family were from the Campbeltown area and, he said, they can now build on Raasay’s success. There’s also the growing global demand for quality drinks with a strong provenance.
For Dal Riata, it was the history of the location, and Iain’s belief that Campbeltown produces some of the best whiskies as well as timing.
Iain said: “It’s a perfect place to make whisky. The whisky and history - they just lend themselves to (Campbeltown) needing a resurgence. It needs people who have the ability and the resources to invest in a place like Campbeltown.”
This growing interest in Campbeltown’s whiskies, old and new, will no doubt bring a boost to the town and malts festival (which is still relatively new and small in comparison to Spirit of Speyside and Feis Ile) but as Iain said: “it’s Campbeltown’s time and it’s beyond exciting.”