With the sudden arrival and damage caused by hurricane Irma across the Florida coastline, our summer fortnight plans were thrown into a state of despair. Facing the prospect of a stay-vacation, I jokingly suggested a trip to the Costa Del Sol; otherwise known as the Costa Del Campbeltown. Expecting the usual whisky-related response from my better half, I was quite taken aback when the very next morning we were on the road towards the Mull of Kintyre.
We all have our favourites and soft spots for specific distilleries, except some so-called whisky connoisseurs who seem to love everything, especially if it’s free. My own leaning towards Brora and Tormore are well documented and I’m always open and honest about this – principles that the team here at Malt strive to maintain. There are no secret handshakes, back alley meetings and tweed protocols here that seem to blight the southern set.
With the cards laid out all fully on the table, there’s no disputing that Springbank has a special place in the hearts and minds of many whisky enthusiasts, as well as the people of Campbeltown. Frankly, as the greatest distillery on planet earth, its attractions are well documented and its heritage safely protected by the Mitchell family.
The essence of Springbank and of this Kintyre peninsula is one of tradition and respect. For the environment, its people and those further a field. The stubbornness and dedication to the core features of Springbank and its distillation are what endures. The modern and efficient practices that have swept through the whisky industry since the 1960’s, have failed to make land at Campbeltown. Yes, there are 2 racked warehouses, but in terms of centralised malting, computers and maximising yields and efficiencies, these are all shunned. It’s this stubbornness and dedication to the craft that maintains a legacy and the guarantee when you purchase a bottle of Springbank, Hazelburn or Longrow; you know what has gone into the whisky and the final result.
Approaching the distillery along a bustling Longrow, before we ventured down a side street, it felt as if you were walking back in time with every footstep. It was a typically cold and dreich day in Campbeltown, with the relics of bygone distilleries and ghosts of the past, waiting around every corner. Thankfully, due to the persistence of those involved, Springbank continues and thrives. For Malt’s visit we opted for the combination tour of Springbank and Glengyle (Kilkerran) distilleries, with the latter just a short 5-minute walk away. This gives you the best of both worlds as the team at Springbank traditionally spend a month each year at Glengyle, which offers a more modern layout but still based upon their core values.
The Malt Barns were closed during our visit for renovation. A necessary piece of work to ensure the tradition of floor malting continues. Remember, the floor malting at Springbank accounts for 100% of its needs and takes a team of 6, split into 3 shifts, to turn the malt on a regular basis before moving onto the next phase of distillation. Other distilleries such as Highland Park and Laphroaig do still thankfully maintain and utilise the floor maltings on their own sites, but these only account for 10-20% (if that) of their modern 24/7 requirements. I’m always told when visiting these distilleries that it forms an important part of the distillery character – the essence that has been widely abandoned in favour of efficiency and profit generation. I ask myself, as many no doubt do as well, if it was that important then why not 100%? Then quite possibly, the premium prices attached to some core distillery releases would be justified and more local employment would be available in the area.
With no malt barn access, a small concession was given for taking the tour at this time. Frankly it gives me the excuse – if one was needed – to return to Campbeltown in the near future. However, it underlines the respect visitors are afforded for making the journey south, as I’ve never seen silent season discounts at other distilleries whenever I’ve visited. In essence, this is what the tour equated to and whilst the smells and noises of distillation were absent, it allowed you to adopt a more hands-on and direct approach to the experience.
A great guide can lift the even the most mundane distillery tour. Springbank is anything but bland and oozes the qualities that Malt respects in any whisky. Our guide for both distilleries was actually from Dumfries, but charismatic and entirely knowledgeable – encouraging questions and banter throughout. Even if he did insinuate that I was a Dunfermline Athletic fan. Leaving behind the malt barns, we gathered around the kiln that to some forms the beating heart of a distillery. An eerily quiet monolith, we discussed the three different processes that commence here to separate Springbank from Hazelburn and Longrow. After this stage, the malt is moved into the bins where a complex Campbeltown computer keeps track of what’s within each. There’s something humbling and reassuring that a piece of kit such as a blackboard and a piece of chalk does the job perfectly without the need for complexity.
Springbank is laid out around a central courtyard premise, which historically was the traditional design blueprint for a distillery. The space is maximised and condensed with the washbacks being situated just off the 3 stills. It’s great to see wooden washbacks in use at whatever distillery and there were 2 newly constructed examples in the room, with remnants of the previous washbacks visible on our walk to Glengyle. On average they last for around 50 years and during this downtime in production were being kept moist filled with water – resulting in a pleasant aroma of pond water!
Standing in the stillroom looking up at the trio of stills, its hard not to be swept away by the imposing nature and creativity they offer. Gazing upon these vessels Malt was transported to Brora and its similarly confined still area with the tanks off to the right and the spirit safe. The unique Springbank distillation process – another historical relic – was detailed and will be well known to most readers. Stepping out into the Campbeltown sunshine, the filling station underlined that everything is performed on site. No modern centralised facility or tankers queuing up to take away the spirit that we see at so many Chivas distilleries or others such as Caol Ila. Also on site are 2 bottling lines that handle Cadenheads and Springbank. Manned by a bustling group of packers, it’s this team dynamic that ensures the whiskies from this remote region fan out across the globe.
We ventured into a nearby-racked warehouse to discuss cask types and refill status, before dropping by a traditional dunnage example. Thankfully the rain had cleared and our merry band headed towards Glengyle, walking past the shells of former buildings and the ghosts of Campbeltown’s past. Since Glengyle was revived at the turn of the millennium and the regional status restored to this part of Scotland, it’s slowly built towards the core 12 year old expression. In-between we had some glorious snippets with the Work in Progress series and one of my favourite releases from 2017, with the rum cask bottling. A high standard has been set out with this revived and reaffirmed distillery, whereas the tour transports us to a more modern setting housed within the old building. Stills rescued from the incredibly rare Ben Wyvis distillery (set within Invergordon) form the centrepiece of the modern layout. Everything takes place within the single cavernous room and during our visit, the team was distilling a heavily peated malt – roll on release day.
After a well-orchestrated voyage across both distilleries, it’s fair to say a certain thirst had taken hold of our group. Included on the tour is a dram from the exclusive Tasting Room casks of Springbank and Kilkerran, followed by 2017 miniatures for each distillery as a thank you for visiting. You may have seen these on auction sites, but here at Malt we’re all for opening, so all-4 whiskies round off an excellent visit to both distilleries.
Kilkerran Tasting Room September 2017 Review
Bottled on 28th March 2017, at 55.5% ABV.
Colour: pear flesh.
On the nose: a pleasant arrival of almonds and sweet white onion, caramelised in melted butter. More sweetness from a Milky bar, apples and a wisp of smoke. Digestives, white pepper and a touch of cardamom follow. Water unlocks more of the smoke but also lemon.
In the mouth: the smoke lingers across the palate and into the finish. Olives and plain tortillas follow alongside apples, creamed corn and a faded vanilla wafer. Water again, reveals more cereals and the underlying smoke.
Springbank Tasting Room September 2017 Review
Bottled on 4th July 2017 at 56.7% ABV.
Colour: a radiant light gold.
On the nose: it’s fresh and light initially for a Springbank. Patience reveals the earthy undertones you associate with the distillery but hiding in the shadows. A dirty vanilla, a light creamy caramel, the sharpness of apples and honey. Water provides a touch of varnish, smoke and lemon peel.
In the mouth: the light airiness continues across the palate with Hovis biscuits, lemons, apples and black pepper. Water unlocks more of the smoke, pastry with drop scones and Kiwi fruit.
Kilkerran Private Bottling for Distillery Visitors 2017 Review
On the nose: green apples with black pepper, cucumber flesh and a light caramel. Freshly spun candyfloss, green olives and some pears. Given time, grapefruit, ginger and lemons inject a vibrant quality. Adding water brought out more of the apples with icing sugar and a touch of cinnamon.
In the mouth: now the smoke makes an appearance alongside vanilla and crushed almonds. It’s very pleasant albeit gentle and limited. Water here should be used sparingly but when successful, apples and lime step forth.
Springbank Private Bottling for distillery visitors 2017 Review
Colour: white grapes.
On the nose: very similar to the Tasting Room Springbank with its light arrival. Delving deep, at the back is some orange and upfront dried bark, smoked almonds and honey. Cornflakes and milk chocolate follow but it’s a surprisingly clean Springbank. A liberal sprinkling of water reveals paraffin and a cotton freshness.
In the mouth: more fuller on the palate now with a touch of that classic farmyard quality. Rich Tea biscuits, toffee and a dark chocolate finish sum up a pleasing experience. Water failed to change the dynamics of the whisky.
Both of the Tasting Room samples offer a glimpse of what makes these distilleries unique but aren’t fully formed yet. The Springbank lacks the depth that age and a mixture of casks will deliver. Whereas the Kilkerran is fairly representative of many releases from this distillery and is the better option of the duo.
The private bottlings are fun and essentially as freebies do their job in giving visitors a taste of each distillery to take home. Both were pleasant but nothing memorable in the scheme of things hence the average scores overall.