The Best Scottish Distillery You've Never Heard Of

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There are few secrets left in the whisky world these days, with social media driving awareness of even the most micro of distillates and a relentless thirst for new blood among consumers. Despite what our speakeasy culture may convey, there are no more underground brands or clandestine gems being guarded by insiders in-the-know. It’s somewhat sad, as hidden knowledge is always an exciting discovery, but we’re living in the age of information. The internet has exposed every dark corner of our planet. What’s worth searching out has been discovered, and what was once lost has already been found. Hoping to capitalize on our inherent desire to be special, many brands still attempt to “unearth” something profound from the vault, but there’s little truth to those gimmicks. The market has never been more crowded with one-of-a-kind opportunities as it is today.

That being said, with so many different brands available and retail shelf space expanding like a supernova ready to burst, it’s easy to miss what’s right in front of you. But that’s exactly where you’ll find the real treasures, buried in between the 700+ whiskies at your local retailer, unassuming and completely overlooked. Today’s modern secrets are hiding in plain sight, tucked in between the fifty different Johnnie Walker variations, and the rainbow of Macallans. They are covert only because they’ve gone unnoticed, inconspicuous by their lack of bravado, but they’re visible to those who know where to look.

Glengyle is one of those secrets.

Producing a rich, unctuous, and creamy style of whisky, its malts are well worth seeking out for those on the hunt. You just need a few key pieces of information. For example, don’t look for the name Glengyle. Look for Kilkerran.

A Kilkerran delivery truck making a stop in downtown Campbeltown

A Kilkerran delivery truck making a stop in downtown Campbeltown

The Glengyle Distillery in Campbeltown, a tiny facility that only operates for three months a year, makes a very, very small quantity of single malt known as Kilkerran, a brand that few will recognize. Along with Springbank and Glen Scotia, Glengyle is one of three distilleries left in the area, still recognized as one of Scotland’s five main whisky regions along with the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, and Islay/Islands. That being said, it’s only because of Glengyle that Campbeltown retains its status as one of Scotland’s distinctive malt whiskies. In the late nineties, with only two remaining distilleries, the Scotch Whisky Association thought it was time to retire the regional distinction of Campbeltown, much to the protest of its remaining producers. After pointing out that the Lowlands only had three working distilleries, the SWA responded with an ultimatum: either open a third distillery in Campbeltown, or lose the classification.

So they did.

In November of 2000, 75 years after its closing, Headley Wright announced that he was reopening the Glengyle Distillery in downtown Campbeltown, right next door to his other iconic distillery: Springbank. Wright is the eccentric chairman of J&A Mitchell and Co Ltd, and the great-great nephew of William Mitchell, the original founder of Glengyle, so it made sense to keep the family lineage alive along with the Campbeltown distinction. It also made sense from a practical stance. Despite its dormancy, Glengyle’s campus had remained in relatively constant use over the years. In the 1920s the facility was rented out to Campbeltown Miniature Rifle Club, and the buildings were later used a depot and sales office for an agricultural company, therefore it remained the best preserved of all the former Campbeltown distilleries. All it needed was a little love and some new equipment.

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You can visit the Glengyle website for the full story of the rebuild, along with videos that document the process. It’s an incredible story. What’s important to know today is that you can easily purchase a bottle of the delicious 12 year old Kilkerran, distilled and matured at Glengyle in Campbeltown, from most specialty retailers. You don’t need a secret password, or a special code word. While many of the new distilleries we read about are busy allocating their young creations, Glengyle has been silently churning away in the background, preparing for this moment. With a tiny marketing budget, little to no social media, and a reliance upon word-of-mouth fanfare, Kilkerran has remained completely under the radar of most drinkers. Considering that Glengyle only runs for three months out of the year, that’s probably for the best. There isn’t much to go around, and the team at Kilkerran isn’t looking to expand. It’s meant to be small, insider’s brand; one that provides bang for the buck and expands on the classic Campbeltown profile.

What is the Campbeltown whisky style? A heavy, oily, mouth-coating malt that encompasses a little bit of everything. Personally, it’s my favorite style of Scottish single malt because I like creamy, full-bodied malts, but in order to understand how it came about it’s good to know a little more about Scotch whisky history.

Despite its quaint stature today and working class appearance, Campbeltown was once the whisky capital of Scotland, home to 22 thriving distilleries at the end of the 18th century. Scotland’s Kintyre Peninsula, which juts out to the south, was the landing place for settlers in 1300 and remained important as a trade outlet to England and also to the West. The city of Campbeltown was established in the early 1600's by the Dukes of Argyll to encourage farmers to practice agriculture in the region, so they planted barley. That barley would ultimately get distilled into Scotch whisky. 

At the end of the 17th century, the numerous distilleries in Campbeltown were pumping out millions of gallons a year and the town became one of the wealthiest in the UK. At one point, the demand was so high they were forced to import barley from the Baltic just to keep up. Yet, with the rise of blended whisky and the expansion of the industry, the bottom fell out. The heavy and oily whiskies of Campbeltown were ultimately passed over in favor of Speyside's lighter style, and the region fell into decline. Other factors such as the exhaustion of local coal supplies as well as the start of Prohibition in the U.S. played a role. The distilleries still selling directly to Canadian middlemen were forced to lower their costs, and in turn, lower the quality of their whisky. The introduction of low quality spirit was the end for Campbeltown, a region that had long been associated with quality.

That’s how Campbeltown went from 22 distilleries to only two, and almost lost its regional designation entirely.

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One thing you can always count on with any malt in the Mitchell’s portfolio, however, is supreme Campbeltown quality. Throughout all the tough times and the hard years, Springbank distillery survived because of its reputation as one of Scotland’s iconic whiskies, and that same commitment to excellence is palpable in the Kilkerran malts. Having recently revisited the 12 year old edition, I was taken aback by how salty and oily it was. It is a thick and lip-smacking whisky, utterly delicious and distinctive; everything I want from my Scottish malt. If you had to define the Scottish regional styles, Campbeltown would be the kitchen sink. It incorporates many of the best aspects of the other four regions and combines them into the perfect dram. There’s no smoke in the Kilkerran 12 year, but you can always go for the cask strength, heavily peated edition if you want that punch. Fat, resinous, and sooty, it’s nothing like an Islay whisky, if that’s what you’re thinking. Rather than the bright citrus and iodine you’d find in Laphroaig, the Kilkerran is more like a peat bog covered in butterscotch with a finish that oozes its way across your palate at a snail’s pace. It’s more earth than smoke.

With the popularity of Springbank and its other iconic labels, Longrow and Hazelburn, it’s easy to overlook what’s been happening right next-door at Glengyle: the resurrection of a once-great distillery, the rescue of Campbeltown’s century’s-old heritage, and the production of a delicious new label. And that’s the way the team at Kilkerran likes it. Rather than plaster its branding all over the web and hire a few brand ambassadors to conquer the world, Kilkerran is more than happy to quietly produce one of Scotch whisky’s few remaining secrets.

Unassuming, hidden in plain sight, it’s been right there in front of you the entire time. You probably just didn’t know it.

-David Driscoll