Springbank is one of those distilleries that doesn’t do marketing. I mean, everyone has to do marketing in some way or another. But generally Springbank’s notions of branding are… well, a little primitive, shall we say, and its methods of engaging consumers in 2018 are a wee bit behind the times.
And that’s a reason a lot of people like them, I’m sure. It takes us back to more innocent times. It also goes to show that if you treat punters well by giving them good whisky, you’ll do all right. Springbank’s packaging and design are… well, as I say, primitive. Basic. The sort of thing that you wouldn’t have blinked at 50 years ago. These designs just about do the job. The labels are not the most aesthetically pleasing, but we’re all fine with that. Because the moment Springbank goes down the route of Macallan and hires model-bothering photographers like Mario Testino to help promote its whiskies, the good people of Campbeltown will turn the place into a Police Academy riot scene (except a lot less racially diverse).
Even less stylish are the famous Springbank Cage whiskies, which you will find in the Campbeltown Cadenhead’s shop. The photos that accompany this review give you an idea of the labels you find on these bottles. The whisky’s details are written in biro onto a basic template label that’s really fit for sampling. It isn’t suitable for public consumption. Yet, in the alternate dimension that is Campbeltown, an absence of style makes whisky fans foam just that little bit more at the mouth. When people see these scrappy labels, particularly when they are arranged behind bars in a dingy room inside that Cadenhead’s store, they go a bit wild.
You see, the Cage is a strange place. Each day, in the Cadenhead’s store, new bottles of these mysterious whiskies are arranged along four or five shelves. They’re a mixture of Springbank, Longrow and Hazelburn whiskies, which are matured in a variety of random casks, for a variety of random ages. And that’s it. You take your pick. You pays your money and you take your choice, as they say. No details, no reviews, no idea of why that particular bottle is there or how it came to be chosen.
And the Cage is raided all the time. Mostly by European whisky drinkers. I mean this in a non-Brexit manner – these foreign drinkers coming over here, stealing our bottles – but because every time I hear someone talking about the Cage they reference the fact that our continental cousins are lining up to raid it first thing in the morning. Luckily, while we were there during the festival, the Cage was being re-stocked thrice daily, which meant that you didn’t have to fight it out to get something interesting.
So what did I plump for?
Whilst everyone else was eye-gouging one another to find those unusual wine or port casks, I wanted to get something very simple. Very simple indeed. Springbank in a fresh bourbon barrel. Nothing more, nothing less. None of your refill crap. And – lo! – that is precisely what I found. A 12 year old Springbank from a fresh bourbon barrel. It was claimed from warehouse 5, distilled on 22.07.05 and bottled at 57.6% ABV. I paid £70 for it.
Springbank Cage Whisky – Review
Colour: old gold.
On the nose: gorgeously honeyed. Notes of vanilla, creme brulee. Malty, husky, cereal notes, with citrus, brine, and just a waft of smoke. Olive oil – meaty. Slightly herbal. Ginger. Golden syrup. Stewed apples.
In the mouth: stacks of vanilla, yet vanilla – which 80% of Scotch whiskies seem to drown in – can’t overpower the robustness of the Springbank spirit. That oily, maritime, industrial undercurrent shrugs it off. And it’s thick, oily stuff, with nutmeg, black tea, lime marmalade. Heather honey. Dried apricots. A spicy, ever-so-slightly cloying finish.
This is as wonderfully old-school and honest as they come, though perhaps a shade too much (yet that didn’t seem to stop people from emptying it each day, so I moan about prices all I want, this is the reality). It’s just a shame you’ll never get the same experience as this bottle, but all I can say is that you should most definitely visit the Cage. This was exactly the whisky that I hoped for.
The Cage is a delight. Is it some super-advanced form of word-of-mouth marketing, a clever, style-agnostic, brand-wonk-ignoring approach to getting people to talk more and more about Springbank whiskies? Can’t rule it out. This is just a reminder that if you do good things, and make good whisky in the right way, you don’t have to spin a yarn to shift your wares.