There are palm trees outside of our house, the sun is out, it’s hot, and I’m wearing aviator sunglasses. This is not what I was hoping for when arriving at Campbeltown. I was expecting cold misery, grey skies and buildings, and people shuffling in and out of shops to avoid the rain.
But here we are, at the sunny 2018 Campbeltown Festival, and the weather is most unconducive to drinking whisky. Despite that, we will soldier on. Because you join Mark and Jason (along with the rest of the reprobates that make up the Tormore 4) at the Campbeltown Malts Festival 2018. We have had – it should be said – many drams at this point, although not as many as some, who may well need medical intervention by this point. Compared to them, we’ve been angels.
The Campbeltown Malts Festival is rather fun. Whereas the Speyside Festival is a considered, sprawling, slightly touristy and very-well-considered sort of event, with different themed sessions, the Campbeltown Malts Festival is a condensed, focussed and… well, it’s about trying lots of different whisky, with lots of different whisky geeks, in as little time as possible. And it’s all very splendid.
I’d like to describe this in terms of some sort of structure, but that would be disingenuous. There is some vague schedule, scrawled on a blackboard in a courtyard. But ultimately it’s about walking around Springbank (Longrow, Hazelburn) and Glengyle (Kilkerran) distilleries, which are dozens of yards apart, whilst drinking as much spirit as possible. That sounds like I’m endorsing alcoholism, but it is merely to give you an idea. In between, you might want to visit the Cadenhead’s shop, raid the ‘cage’ which has some really interesting single cask offerings that have become legendary.
And eat the local delicacy: burger and chips. (There is nothing healthy in this town.)
So, in short, this festival is about whisky. Geeks drinking whisky. Being proud of being geeks. And emptying their wallets because the prices for what you get are ridiculously good. I won’t bore you with too much detail, largely as we have lots of whiskies to get through – the three main festival releases. (There’s a Glen Scotia release too, but we’ve not got that as, let’s face it, this is really about the Springbank brands, which Glen Scotia has managed to tap on to.)
Both myself and Jason are here making joint tasting notes, along with – because festivals are nicely random, and because I’m typing this in our cottage garden – Distiller Ian, who works for Waterford Distillery.
Hazelburn Festival Release 2018
Aged 10 Years – Refill Marsala Hogsheads. Distilled June 2007, released May 24th, 2018, bottled at 59.6% ABV.
Colour: old gold.
On the nose: a nice earthy, slightly industrial oiliness that underscores plenty of herbal notes. Slightly floral with dried apricots and sultanas. Baked apples. Peaches and cream. Vanilla.
In the mouth: the oiliness endures, and it’s massively herbal with olive oil. Tangerines, dried apricots, sage and fennel. Slight menthol note. The citrus notes return, and though it isn’t peated that slightly industrial note lingers very pleasantly.
Colour: apple core
On the nose: a certain redness with cherry stone, rubbed brass and a honeyed dynamic. There’s ginger root followed by golden syrup. It’s not huge in layers but satisfying. With water more of those oils and a buttery dynamic followed by apple pie, sweet cinnamon, tinned peaches and caramel.
In the mouth: sweet and sugary initially, tangerine with bay leaf and black pepper. It’s not complex but satisfying nevertheless followed by a brassy aspect with water, lemon and icing sugar. A touch of smoke, a rich maple syrup and more honey.
Distiller Ian’s Guest Notes
Colour: Irish toffee
On the nose: the Spring of freshness of buds.
In the mouth: chocolate chip followed by berry compote, very light with not much mouthfeel or development beyond the initial salvo.
Longrow Festival Release 2018
Aged 13 Years, Refill port casks. Distilled Feb 2005, released 24th May 2018. 58.7% ABV.6
On the nose: lovely peat, slightly aggressive, but with jammy tones in the back. Blackcurrant (Ribena) with soy sauce, plums, balsamic vinegar and HP Sauce smeared over BBQ’d meats.
In the mouth: bright, prickly smoke that merges with deep blackcurrant flavours. The port is present still, despite the refill nature, but we’re looking now at something altogether more mellow in flavour despite the high ABV. In short: jammy, plums, elderberry and some gorgeous smokey (rather than ashy or sweet) peat. Black tea. Cigars. The charred meats linger into the finish.
Colour: cinder toffee
On the nose: smoked bacon fat, smashed cloves and red berries. Savour flavours with beef stock, walnuts, orange peel and aniseed. The addition of water reveals a pine freshness with vanilla toffee and smoked haddock.
In the mouth: in a word flavour, or flavor if you’re Rose or American. Port scratchings bring that meatiness and saltiness to the equation and experience. Cinder toffee and earthy on the finish with a balsamic reduction. Water isn’t beneficial overall, it saps the character somewhat. More honey, syrup and a touch of rubber come through.
Distiller Ian’s Guest Notes
On the nose: peppery initially and then red chilli flakes.
In the mouth: very abrupt and forceful but nothing lingering. There’s some vanilla and not much more port – its as if the casks cancel one another out.
Springbank Festival Release 2018
Originally one sherry hogshead and one Madeira hogshead married together into a first-fill Madeira butt in 2008.
On the nose: rich hedgerow jams – elderberry, blackberry, redcurrant and cranberry. Maybe even blueberry, and then the oiliness and dried tea come in. With time: some tropical fruits in the back end, with mango, dried raisins, Turkish Delight, leathery.
In the mouth: not unlike the Longrow, in many respects, but the industrial elements are dialled down. Rich in jammy fruits again: the blackcurrants and strawberry notes, heather honey, then Turkish Delight and milk chocolate. Lapsang Souchong towards the finish.
Colour: an incredible layered assortment of toffee – 3 distinct layers.
On the nose: a touch of smoke, dark chocolate shavings, all-spice, orange and redcurrants with a little toffee. The addition of water reveals sweet tobacco, more delicate peat, cask char, rhubarb and red leaf.
In the mouth: a rich marzipan but a jumbled aspect at first – this dram needs time to reveal itself. Orange sherbet, a sweet cinnamon, arrowroot, smoke and dark chocolate. Given more time to set aside this brings our more fruit sweetness, apple pulp, pears and creme brulee.
Distiller Ian’s Guest Notes
(Ian was too drunk by this point, and started strutting around the garden saying how good this was – Christmas in the summertime, Bondi Beach.)
Whisky from this place is good. We all felt the Springbank 21 was good, but was it worth £250? Some of our tasting party felt that yes, it was, in fact, worth that much. For me, the Longrow was the value dram, but to be honest, just about everything here – and at the festival at large – was interesting. Springbank makes great whisky – across all three of its brands.
This festival has just reaffirmed what we already knew. If you’re not buying these at auction, and you’re relatively new to whisky, just know that the Springbank brands represent some of the best Scotch whisky you can buy.