You may never have heard of Glen Scotia. But don’t worry; because you’re about to. On the shores of Campbeltown Loch, clinging onto the windswept Kintyre Peninsula, it’s a small set-up — sitting happily and humbly at the north end of town. It was founded in 1832, and is one of the three remaining distilleries in a region that once had ten times that. But the workers at Glen Scotia are content, the whisky is good — and there’s very little to complain about.
In fact, quite the opposite; there’s cause for celebration in the community. Because the fortunes of Campbeltown and the spirits created here, in Scotland’s smallest whisky making region, no less, are on the up. The sharp sea breeze is blowing in success off the Atlantic — for one special, premium bottle in particular. For, mere months ago, the distinguished Glen Scotia 25-Year-Old won ‘Best in Show’ at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition — the world’s most prestigious and renowned spirits competition.
It’s an accolade that saw the high-end bottle beat out almost four thousand other entries from around the globe. It saw it attract the attention of the spirit industry’s top sippers. And it saw it crowned — without expectation or entitlement — the best whisky in the world. And there’s a dram of it on the desk in front of me.
Next to it, on my computer screen, is Iain McAlister; Glen Scotia’s convivial Master Distiller. Zooming in from the wild whisky-soaked west coast of Scotland, he’s giving me a history lesson. It hasn’t always been plain sailing for whisky making in the region, he tells me, with all but a small few distilleries falling away over time.
“The recent renaissance of Campbeltown whiskies has been a wonderful thing to witness,” says McAlister. “And to be a part of! Almost all of the strong local distilleries that once made Campbeltown such a powerhouse of whisky production have since fallen away – but we’re proud to be among the last of the many.”
And Glen Scotia is nothing if not classic. With its roots in Campbeltown, a region recognised as ‘the Victorian Whisky Capital of the World’, the distillery reaps the benefits of extensive local knowledge and skilled generational workers. The town even hosts an annual festival to educate, celebrate and enjoy its rich whisky making heritage. And, of the three distilleries left in the town of 4,800 people, Glen Scotia’s hard-working team remains the smallest.
“That, partly, is what’s so humbling about seeing the name get the recognition it has in recent times,” says McAlister. “Our size allows us to focus on quality over quantity and try new things. Equally, it has been wonderful to see the growth of demand for our malts in recent years, and this has come from all over the globe. We recently expanded capacity to ensure we could keep up”.
And, while the 25-Year-Old is the highest-awarded whisky produced by Glen Scotia, it’s only one of bottles in the distillery’s portfolio. The core range begins with the ‘Double Cask’, a Scottish single malt whisky aged in both bourbon and Pedro Ximénez sherry barrels to give it an easy-drinking, spice-infused flavour. There’s also an 18-Year-Old expression towards the upper end of the range; luxuriously smooth thanks to a wonderful salted caramel character.
Between the two sits a reasonably priced 15-Year-Old single malt. The brand promises that this whisky will ‘deliver the true character of a 15 year old Campbeltown malt’. But what does that mean?
“We’re a remote coastal location,” explains McAlister, “and that provides subtle influences that you’ll find in every dram. On the nose, you’ll undoubtedly detect a subtle sea spray, just as if you were standing on the docks of our iconic harbour – once the gateway for whisky from Scotland to the rest of the world.
“There’s always a touch of salinity on the palate,” he adds, “and a rich oiliness that makes for a really satisfying mouthfeel. Campbeltown whiskies are unique, wonderfully intriguing, and appeal to those who appreciate something a little off the beaten track.”
Even further off the beaten track is the distillery’s ‘Victoriana’ whisky, an innovative single malt in a handsome green glass bottle. Inspired by the heyday of Campeltown, this cask-strength creation evokes the traditional whiskies of the 19th century — and tasks the team with selecting casks of exceptional character in pursuit of unfiltered, exceptionally smooth authenticity.
"The renaissance of Campbeltown whiskies has been a wonderful thing…"
“Over the last 100 years, it would surprise you how things have changed very little in the region of Campbeltown,” he laughs. “Both the Victorian period and our modern era would have whiskies with a subtle robustness, that coastal influence, oily with a salty hue, potentially a little smokey peat.
“Then that’s combined with a wonderful flavour profile; a nutty maltiness, with subtle spices, nutmeg, caramelised oak wood sugars, winter berries and a little wood smoke. That typical Campbeltown DNA.”
Which brings us neatly to the 25-Year-Old. Now more sought after than ever — the brand sold-out almost immediately after being awarded ‘Best in Show’ — demand has dramatically increased across the entire range since summer. But, as McAlister says, for the workers in Campbeltown, it’s less about the bottom line and more about bringing their singular spirits to new curious, clamouring markets.
“It is indeed a huge honour,” he adds, “and a humbling experience that gives something back to the incredibly dedicated Glen Scotia team. I feel incredibly proud of the distillery’s achievement, and what’s more wonderful still is that it helps to put Campbeltown whiskies firmly back on the map.”
With that, it’s time to taste. McAlister hopes that the history lesson has given me “a certain respect for the golden drop”. But he needn’t worry. It’s clear after even the briefest nosing that this is something special. The viscosity is the first thing that grabs you. The 25-Year-Old has legs on legs on legs. And it’s got the flavours to back up that bold consistency; seizing your senses with the crisp bite of red apple, before a wave of tangy orange peel offers up a zesty counterpoint. There are exotic fruits, tropical aspects and a caramel sweetness that develops — before it begins a long, lingering finish loaded with warming spices and ginger. It’s smooth, it’s soft and, despite all the wide-ranging and far-reaching flavours, it’s actually a very simple whisky.
McAlister nods: “And, in terms of what else makes it stand out, I’d like to think that it has the unique qualities of a classic Campbeltown malt, including that coastal influence we discussed. The Glen Scotia 25-Year-Old is an example of that fantastic relationship bourbon casks have with Glen Scotia, while allowing the Campbeltown characteristics to shine through.
“It’s been taken from refill bourbon barrels and given a 12-month finish in first fill bourbon barrels,” he continues. “And the refill encapsulates a tropical distillery flavour profile, whilst the first fill drives those rounded, sweet toffee-fudge notes. I like to think that all helped to make an impression with the kindly judges.”
It certainly did — and it’s making an impression with me, too. It’s clear that the Glen Scotia name means more than just whisky. As the Annual Malts Festival proves, this is a distillery that shows a deeper understanding of whisky — and knows the true spirit of the spirit.
“The act of enjoying a dram should be something that is a very social affair,” says McAlister. “And, sometimes, the best social meetings are steeped in tradition and ceremony. Most Scottish whiskies have close associations with their historical past — which again gives a sense of tradition and admiration.”
Admiration is the right word. Another sip; another confirmation that the judges made the right decision. Drenched in history and dripping with tradition, this 25-Year-Old whisky has been 190 years in the making. And its casked quarter century has successfully concentrated those age-old Campbeltown qualities — firming up the flavours and underscoring this top-scoring whisky as world-beating. McAlister, as he should, agrees.
“25 years,” he says, pausing for a sip, “takes off all those edges”.
Glen Scotia 25-Year-Old Whisky
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