There’s a chill in the air…
As I write this, temperatures in my area have abruptly fallen from their summer heights to levels that are decidedly more autumn-like. I have spent the morning reorganizing my closet, packing away bathing suits and flip-flops and replacing them with corduroy trousers and boots. But what of the whisky cupboard?
I have noticed a strong seasonal pattern to my whisky consumption. While I typically enjoy bourbon and rye whiskey year-round (either neat or in mixed drinks), I reserve malt whisky – and especially peated Scotch – for the colder fall and winter months.
There’s no good reason for this; I have written before about the delights of Islay whisky as the base for a refreshing highball cocktail. As for neat whisky: that Glengoyne Cask Strength tasted just fine when I opened it in June. Still, I can’t resist the mental pull of heartier styles of Scotch once the leaves start to fall.
I’ll be delving into just such an example of Scotch whisky today. If you’re wondering why the first part of this review has all the thrust of a meandering woodland stroll during a chilly October day, it’s because I am reviewing a whisky from a distillery about which, I fear, there is nothing more to say. If you guessed Springbank, you guessed correctly.
A perusal of this site provides a timeline of the evolution of opinions on Springbank. A few years back, Adam had tweeted that Springbank was boring to write about because it was universally beloved. Markets moved in response; bottles of even the core expressions disappeared from shelves near me. In a bit of meta-complaining, Dora bemoaned the moaning about the lack of availability of limited release. You know a distillery has reached a rarified level of prominence when people are carping about all the carping about it!
My last dalliance with Springbank – the officially bottled 17 year Madeira Wood – gently poked fun at how dull the discourse about former prices and availability had become. Most recently, Graham chastised Springbank for lending their imprimatur to a budget blend in a way that seemed likely to sow confusion.
And yet, Springbank still captivates. Look no further than Graham’s detailed meditation on the distillery’s history and flavor creation. Every time we feel wearied at the back-and-forth, frustrated by the endless (often fruitless) bottle chase, . Like Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in his later years: just when you think you’re out, Springbank pulls you back in.
I’m hoping that is what I have in store for me today. I am clutching another sample beating the unmistakable calligraphic tag of Ryan, who remains a much-appreciated benefactor. This is a “cage” bottling of the type for which Mark provided a splendid introduction back in 2018. I’m even more psyched that this is a “fresh bourbon barrel,” per the information Ryan provided. If you have been following the Scotch whisky zeitgeist, you’ll know that the cognoscenti now prefer bourbon barrels for evaluation of a distillery’s pure DNA, without the heavy overlay of notes from a sherry cask.
This comes to us at 53.8%. I’m using £200 as a reference price for our Scoring Bands, which is a “finger in the air” estimate of about what I’d expect to pay for a 17 year old Springbank if I found it on the shelf of an honest retailer, and also what bottles like this one are going for at auction.
Springbank 17 Year Old 2002 Fresh Bourbon Barrel – Review
Color: Medium pale yellow.
On the nose: The first whiff of this is a delight; it is a seamless fusion of barrel and barley in a way that accentuates and improves both. A touch of creamy oak is accented by maritime nuances of saline and iodine, in a very pure form. This transforms into a round and plushly rich fruitiness; picture a Bartlett pear at the moment of optimal ripeness, both juicy and crisp simultaneously. As before this is not without a darker shade, at this point the unmistakable scent of petrichor, though deftly and gently expressed, and leavened by a countervailing note of spring flowers.
In the mouth: This is fully resolved from the moment it touches the tongue. There’s an immediate bloom of moderate peat that turns and rolls over into the aforementioned creamy oak, in mirror-image inversion of the presentation of these elements on the nose. This rises up the tongue with an increasingly woody mouthfeel, taking on more piquant spiciness and some tannic texture, but never in a way that crosses the line into sour or bitter territory. Rather, the crescendo is of vanilla crème with a nip of cinnamon, as well as some jasmine and lemongrass elements added for intrigue. The finish is interminable; a minute or more after the final sip, I am still tasting sporadic bursts of lemon juice, more creamy oak, and smoky salinity.
I cannot recall the last time I had a whisky this complete, from front to back. This whisky knows what it is and presents itself in unabashed fashion. That’s not to say that it’s one-note or simplistic; on the contrary, that initial barley and barrel dichotomy is but a binary star around which an entire solar system of diverse and interesting aromas and flavors orbit. It’s a perfect autumn dram and nearly a perfect dram in total. In recognition of this fact, I am giving it a rarely-awarded score.
If you ever need a reminder of what all the Springbank fuss is about, you should try to find this bottle, or one like it. At its best, Springbank is capable of delivering whisky that teaches us what whisky can be. The ability to do so relatively unadorned, through the influence of the humble bourbon barrel, is – to me – what separates the great distilleries from the merely good or very good ones. On the strength of this example, Springbank is a distillery almost without equal. If you are able to set aside preconceptions, to set aside auction results, to set aside hot takes and hipsterdom, you might find yourself amazed.
Image courtesy of Ryan.