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Springbank Flavours

Springbank is the distillery of the moment, much to the chagrin of everyday whisky drinkers.

The writing has been on the wall for much longer than many may be aware. It was in 2019 when Springbank rose to the top of the Rare Whisky 101 Investor Rankings, demonstrating that keen-eyed investors focus on both limited output and quality. It’s fair to say that those looking for long term gains find that rarity alone is not enough if the contents are reputed to be unpleasant. Obviously, we see a lag between the professional investors in 2019 and the more casual opportunistic investors of 2021 and 2022.

Image: The plan of Campbeltown from the 1840s shows the Mussel Ebb at the head of Campbeltown Loch (top centre), this was to become unsanitary with the extensive distillery effluent that was discharged there. Eventually it was reclaimed, filled in and a road linking Campbeltown to Dalintober was created. The Ebb is now under Kinloch public park.

The rarity of the whisky is driven by the same old worldly charm that whisky lovers enjoy. Springbank is one of the few distilleries that performs all parts of the process – from malting to bottling – on site. The site, physically constrained by the town itself, prohibits expansion and limits output.

It can be surmised that the direct fired nature of the stills at Springbank may contribute somewhat to the malt character. All other Campbeltown malts would have been direct fired during the heights of the industry. However these industrial notes are also found in indirectly heated Kilkerran malt, so perhaps the peat that is used for malting may be causing the famous “Campbeltown Funk” and would have contributed to the regional style. No matter the source of the characteristic flavours, the taste of the whisky does not sit well with everyone. Springbank’ s reputation has not always been so positive. I took a deep dive into some literature to bring you a flavour-based history of Campbeltown whisky.

Long before the founding of Springbank distillery Campbeltown was a renowned smuggling capital:

Source: Perthshire Courier – Thursday 25 August 1814

Although often claimed to have been founded in 1828, Campbeltown local historian Angus Martin has made some significant and thoroughly researched claims that 1836 appears to be a more accurate date, given that no record of an 1828 licence could be found. However, plenty of information about costs of distillery construction can be found around 1836. The first record of whisky sales exists in 1837, which further corroborates the view.

In the 1830s, Campbeltown whisky was being sold at a premium, alongside Islay malt and the Glenlivet over and above other Scotch. Ordinary Scotch was described as “punch making scotch;” what we might call mixing whisky today. By 1839, the whisky was described as “the celebrated Campbeltown,” commanding a price almost double “good Irish” but just two thirds the price of “good French brandy.” Around this time, much of the Campbeltown whisky appears to have been going to Glasgow and Liverpool.

One of the earliest accounts of Springbank is by Alfred Barnard in 1886. Whilst his account of Springbank is charming, he does not venture an opinion on the taste or quality of Springbank itself. Elsewhere he, described the Campbeltown style “as thin, only to be used in moderation in blends and never allowed to predominate.” Indeed, by the time of Barnard’s visit newspaper adverts for whisky had all but dropped the references to Campbeltown whisky.

Smooth blends were on the up and Glenlivet remained a celebrated drop. In a recent investigation into the history of Springbank, local man David Stirk comments that the success of Springbank in outliving so many other distilleries in the town is, “the lightness of the spirit in comparison to others producing the Campbeltown style.” Springbank’s reputation for quality appears a reasonable assertion today but, overall, the Campbeltown style has not always found favour.

By the 1930s, Aeneas Macdonald had provided more of an opinionated view about most things whisky related. Macdonald’s account of whisky, beautifully dissected by Ian Buxton, is a must read for whisky enthusiasts. He describes the Campbeltown whiskies thus:

“A spirit is produced which differs widely from any of the other types of Scotch whiskies. The Campbeltowns are the double bases of the whisky orchestra. They are potent, full-bodied, pungent whiskies with a flavour that is not to the liking of everyone. Indeed, the market for these whiskies is largely confined to Scotland and to the western parts thereof. So masterful and assertive are they that the marrying of them to obtain a smooth evenly-matched blend is an extremely difficult business.”

By 1933 Campbeltown’s whisky was described as “stinking fish,” perhaps due to the proximity to the herring trade, perhaps because of a reuse of herring barrels, or maybe just as a rude slight on the generally pungent whisky. Despite a decline in distilling, Campbeltonians retained their love of this spirit. In 1937 the elderly townsfolk organised a revolt to ensure that the local council would allow them to purchase a nip of whisky with their monetary gift of ten shillings from the town council to celebrate the Coronation of the King.

Image: The Old Campbeltown Quay in 1920 with the quayside full of barrels of salted herring not whisky although the proximity of the two industries may be a source of the ‘stinking fish’ complaint.

From the 20 distilleries operating in 1886 to the 10 listed in 1930 by Macdonald, eventually just two remained: Springbank and Scotia. There is no doubt there are many factors beyond flavour that played out in the rise and fall of the town as a mighty whisky producer. The closure of the local coal mine, the development of the railways elsewhere in Scotland, World Wars, {rohibition and economic depressions all contributed to perilous decline of the town. As captured in Scotch Missed, the factors which allowed Victorian Campbeltown to boom also contributed to its loss.

By the 1970s, the rise of single malts saw Speyside – not Campbeltown – championed as the best of the best (Springbank’ s first single malts were released in the 1960s). As for modern flavour: recently whisky writer Iain Hector Ross described the Campbeltown whisky flavour as “characterised by their depth of flavour conveying distinctive sea salt notes to the palate.” Iain McAlister of Glen Scotia described the Campbeltown Style as “Dirty… in a good way.” Whereas Broom more expansively discussed “That mix of oil, smoke, and a tiny saline bite. That robust element which underpins fruits and citrus, a dram – as they all are – which is grounded, not overly pretty, but real.

The Duke of Edinburgh was a notable fan of Springbank, having one hopped off the Royal Yacht as it passed Campbeltown to collect a bottle. His liking was thought to have influenced a decision to use Springbank as the Balmoral Castle Whisky, sold in the gift shop as miniatures in the early 1990s.

Campbeltown now faces a whisky resurgence, with Raasay Distillery owners R&B Distillers opening at Machrihanish. Dal Riata is planned for the town itself, being named after an ancient Celtic kingdom that covered the region. Whilst Dal Riata have been most open about attempting to achieving the historic Campbeltown style in their malt, R&B have been more cagey about the style of whisky planned for Machrihanish Distillery.

Accumulating all of the Malt reviews published previously we can see a range of individual scores from 6 through to 9 that represents a very high batting average for any distillery. Aggregating the tasting notes into a word cloud is, for a change, elucidating:

I recently gave a dram of 2022 Springbank to an aspiring whisky drinker, who responded with the comment “absolutely an experience, but I’m not sure I want to repeat it.”

Springbank’s low output and a varied approach to batch releases has been a source of interest and bemusement to Springbank fans. They will all have a favourite batch of the 12 year old cask strength, and will wax lyrical with their opinions of the random sherried local barley release of 2021. The batch variation does mean that the core range can be hit and miss. Whilst one or other batch may be preferred, there is no doubt each will be full of flavour either from the spirit or the casks chosen or both.

Throughout my research I came across the most amusing opinion on whisky reviews of which Angus Martin states that he has given up trying to “interpret the adjectival fluff which passes for descriptive analysis of individual malts,” which seems a shame, really. So long as you are enjoying the whisky, Angus, then you can skip my “adjectival fluff” that follows.

Campbeltown Loch Blended Malt – Review

2022 release; a blended malt of all five Campbeltown Whiskies (three Springbank expressions, Glengyle, Glen Scotia). 46% ABV. £40.

Colour: Pale straw.

On the nose: Grist, struck flint, coal dust, grapefruit pith, hoppy and yeasty, mint toothpaste, cloudy apple juice, unripe pear, white grape, bread dough, brake dust, some dirty Campbeltown funk is here, it’s damp and earthy, inspection pit.

In the mouth: Juicy and fruity, oil-fired AGA, cracked black pepper, jalapeno brine, oaky, Victoria sponge, sawdust, graphite, snooker chalk, poppy seeds, Greek yoghurt with grapefruit and tropical fruits, damp hessian, pedal bike puncture repair kit, citrus rind on the finish which is sharp and dry.

Conclusions:

As with everything J&A Mitchell, it benefits from some time and air, so always be wary of the initial reviews on release day. I split this in half using a spare second bottle to give it a little extra air. Even so, I drank a fair amount before reaching any conclusion. It’s one of the hardest drams to pin down. Some days it’s just right, other days a little bemusing. Of course, the price is decent, and the availability is good, letting people get a bit of a Campbeltown fix without camping out overnight or paying silly auction prices. But overall, it’s lacking the balance and poise of the individual components.

Score: 5/10

J&A Mitchell Campbeltown Loch 21 Year Old Blended Scotch – Review

Believed to be 60/40 grain to malt ratio. 46% ABV. £87.

Colour: Soft pale gold.

On the nose: Bright and fruity with a gentle smoke, with time a subtle soft fruity Campbeltown funk, vanilla, sponge cake, tropical fruits, a little effervescence from the spirit. Slightly dry and dusty.

In the mouth: Smooth silky sweet grain followed by toffee, a good custardy body, the Springbank character appears to effervesce across the tongue but falls away quickly. Rich ripe fruits and spicy peat. It’s the fruit and spice that continues to build on the tongue but always remains gentle.

Conclusions:

Slow to reveal itself, but builds into a really solid dram. The softer side of Springbank, perhaps a gateway drug into Springbank addiction. Worth the effort.

Score: 6/10

Springbank 8 Year Old Fresh Sherry Hogsheads – Review

2021 Release bottled for Springbank Society members. 57.3% ABV. £55.

Colour: Hazelnut skins.

On the nose: Punchy sweet Campbeltown funk, sherry, and peat. Salty and smoky malt spirit, anthracite, sweet spices, baked dark fruits, a little antiseptic and iodine, wax colouring pencil, black treacle and burnt butter.

In the mouth: Thick oily silky sweetness followed by spicy peat. Peperoncini, cracked black pepper, more salt, without water all the flavours are an overwhelming onslaught. With water mineral notes toasted cask, more approachable and balanced. The fruits burst out, blackcurrants and brambles, tart tatin, more aromatic and more Springbank funk, not too medicinal, more industrial.

Conclusions:

So much going on with this dram, a few drops of water really help it perform, very worthy of a Society bottle and a real example of how delicious young whisky can be.

Score: 8/10

Springbank 15 Year Old Sherry Casks – Review

2022 Release. From Luvian’s in Cupar, Fife. 46% ABV. £67.99

Colour: Stag furniture.

On the nose: Sweet spicy peat, rich sherry, sour warhead candy, sour apple, cinnamon, cocoa powder, coal dust, chimney soot, iodine and TCP.

In the mouth: Sweet and spicy, very prominent peat brining medicinal notes most usually associated with Islay distilleries such as Laphroiag. Blackcurrant cordial, bearings grease, chilli spices, hobnail boots. It’s like tasting an LS Lowry painting, oil paints and all. Medicinal notes and a slightly swampy finish.

Conclusions:

Too much of everything for me, a very modern, almost forced style of whisky. Lots of Campbeltown industrial funk but it’s crude and heavy handed.

Score: 4/10

Springbank “Starkicker” 20 Years Old – Review

Distilled 2000, Bottled 2021. Fresh sherry and port hogsheads. 42.5% ABV. Sample from a bottle purchased at auction; current prices around £600

Colour: Amber.

On the nose: Springbank funk, some cheesy feet and a waft of sulphur which eases with time in the glass, dirty engine oil, dry spicy peat, heavy fig jam, old leather jack boots, baked apple, aromatic spices, oud, incense wafting over the bazaar.

In the mouth: Very soft, a little too light for Springbank, sweet spicy peat, ripe fruits, lots more Springbank character on the tongue, tarred wood, pine sap, TCP, leather, gentle lingering spicy finish.

Conclusions:

I tasted this from a 1920s blender’s glass to get the most out of the low ABV. The sherry tasted old, the port was more subtle, perhaps tawny port even? The spirit was not overpowered by the cask, but overall the experience was underwhelming. I’ve taken a point off due to the ridiculous market prices which are not justified by the flavour.

Score: 6/10

Springbank Single Cask #26 – Review.

Bottled for Its All About Springbank (IAAS) Facebook group. 1993 to 2020. 27 years old. 51.3% ABV. £320.

Colour: Pale gold.

On the nose: A bit tight initially, soft dusty fruit, soft smoke, some Campbeltown funk, soft white pepper, honeydew melon, kumquat, citrus marmalade, more smoke, and a slight saltiness, some ground almond.

In the mouth: Gentle smoke, spicy peat and cask spices give way to a ripe fruitiness that then sours to a lovely rancio. More gentle peat – not gentle as in underpowered, gentle in a sophisticated way, more fruit builds to become juicy, a balancing act between fresh fruit and over-ripe fruit is performed on the tongue. Some fresh tobacco leaf before more fruit on the finish surrounded by light peat smoke and wood spices.

Conclusions:

A great cask pick by some serious Springbank fans. The old fashioned style of whisky that demands patience, but not quite as juicy and tropical as some well-aged Springbanks.

Score: 8/10

The Malt scoring bands can be found here.

Bibliography and References

Perthshire Courier – Thursday 25 August 1814

Gore’s Liverpool General Advertiser – Thursday 18 December 1834

Linlithgowshire Gazette – Friday 16 April 1937

The Albion, Monday 23 December 1839

Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald – Wednesday 18 December 1889

Illustrated London News – Saturday 01 January 1977

Aeneas Macdonald, Whisky (With Appreciation from Ian Buxton), 2016

Carol McNeill, Old Campeltown and Machrihanish, 2004

David Stirk, The Distilleries of Campbeltown – The Risk and Fall of the Whisky Capital of the World, 2019

Angus Martin, Campbeltown Whisky – An Encyclopaedia, 2020

Ian Hector Ross, The Whisky Dictionary, 2017

Brian Townsend, Scotch Missed – The Lost Distilleries of Scotland, 1993

Aberdeen Press and Journal – Saturday 31 July 1993

Dave Broom, The times they are a-changin’ (Springbank), Whisky Magazine Issue 19, Early 2000s,

Dave Broom, Wee Toon Tellings – The Whisky Manual, February 22, 2022

Lead image: Springbank Distillery and Campbeltown during the annual malts festival; courtesy of WM Cadenhead’s.

Springbank 8 year old image courtesy of Just-whisky.co.uk

 

CategoriesSingle Malt
Graham

Graham is at the consumer end of the whisky world; constantly seeking out a bargains and generally very cautious with his limited budget. An occasional visitor to distilleries and a member of the odd whisky club. He does not collect whiskies but has a few nice ones put away for some future special occasion. He enjoys discussions with the wider whisky community and may resemble the ‘average’ Malt reader.

  1. Chris says:

    I had the good fortune to visit Campbeltown a little while ago, and really enjoyed reading this, thanks for providing your references. Your comment on batch variation is pretty spot on, no two bottles I’ve had from JA Mitchell have ever been quite the same. I wonder if we had very dissimilar 15-year olds? I had a bottle which was probably bottled in the tail end of 2020 last year and found it very moody. Some evenings it just would not relax and open up, but I really rated it. I wouldn’t have said swampy, more a slight clag like overdone porridge at times.

    I’m making a concerted effort to wean myself off the two distilleries, because the variation is such an alluring hook for me: why go anywhere else when there might be a real puzzle in the next bottle? Yet even the best Springbank isn’t all whisky can be. I tried Port Charlotte 10 in a noisy bar, and that’s a very, very good malt. It fits very neatly into that enormous hole in the Laphroaig range between their rather weak entry level and Cairdeas/Cask Strength malts. Ben Nevis 10 is my current open bottle, and it’s absolutely excellent. Both of those, however, are priced at around £50, and I think this is a big part of why they’re still readily available despite also being fairly limited in supply: because despite creeping prices (looking at you, Pernod) I think people have a big jump in expectations when they’re spending £50, and may hesitate to spend that much on a ten year old malt.

    1. Graham says:

      Chris,

      I believe that many Springbank fans who usually highlighted the 15 as the best in the range for quality and price are complaining about the 2022 batch. I’m sure your 2020 bottle is far superior.

      Ben Nevis is another pungent full flavoured dram and a great alternative to Springbank. Port Charlotte too is super but the focus on wine casks at Bruichladdich can be a bit hit and miss. Sadly the £50 threshold seems like good value these days!

      thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

      Graham

      1. Mark says:

        Dal Riata sounds like a resort in Benidorm if you ask me.

        Great article and a very interesting read. I turn to Glen Scotia for my Cambeltown fix nowadays as I find many of their releases to be as good as I remember Springbank being when I used to be able to buy a bottle of anything other than the 10 in a shop.

        1. Graham says:

          Mark,

          LOL! I was a bit confused with the name myself until I found the historic link.

          Glen Scotia! best whisky in the world acording to some. Certainly the subject of a future article. For me the funkiness of Glen Scotia is more subtle and by no means industrial like Springbank but I’ve had some very individual Glen Scotias. Generally the Loch Lomond group are doing interesting things and I’m sure Scotia will get better and better.

  2. Scott says:

    “like tasting an LS Lowry painting, oil paints and all” Great line Graham and wonderful write up. A 4/10 will have the Springbank Police on your back though!!
    I don’t subscribe to the “love in” for all things Springbank, and the ridiculous availability issues over the past 3 years means that I have long ago given up the chase for CS12 / 15 yr / Longrow 18 or wine finishes / Hazelburn 13; it’s pointless and we all need to see the hundreds of alternatives out there for us to imbibe. I’d be concerned that SB ends up with a negative reputation as being impossible to get and pointless to review, becoming a “niche” product only available for flippers/hoarders and those “in the know”.
    With regards to the core offerings, totally agree with the variations – I was fortunate to get a 10yr SB and Hazelburn last year along with the standard LR this year. The 10yr SB (2021 bottling) left me cold, there was a sweet spot half way down the bottle but then in a couple of weeks it disappeared and fell apart and I did not really enjoy it. The 10 yr Hazelburn was better fare, oily and biscuity and so on, but tried alongside “The Gauldrens” (I think John reviewed this earlier), I preferred the latter.
    I have better hopes for the Longrow when I get round to opening it – the last bottle I had of that 3 years ago was superb, and a great alternative to Islay.
    IMO, better options are out there for the core, available and decent price range- Arran 10, Ballechin 10 and the aforementioned Ben Nevis (bloomin’ amazing) blow ’em out the water.
    Great work Graham!

    1. Graham says:

      Scott,

      thanks for sharing your thoughts. I too agree that it would be a shame it Springbank went the way of Macallan in terms of flashy packaging and marketing but little substance in the whisky. It’s a shame for them too because there are some incredible Macallans out there still if you have £20k to splurge.

      I agree also with your assessment of Springbank alternatives, nothing is quite like a Springbank but certainly the Ben Nevis and Ballechin are strong contenders. The McDonalds Glencoe cask strength blend is particularly ‘pungent’!

      with any luck the furore around the Campbeltown core range will move on to another distillery and some reasonable normality will return.

      Thanks for dropping by, Graham

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