I have written in the past about J&A Mitchell’s going through the pain of some major changes. J&A Mitchell and Company Ltd. are the parent company of Springbank Distillery, Glengyle Distillery, and Wm Cadenhead’s independent bottler. Based in Campbeltown, this traditional business was bequeathed to a trust set up for Springbank Distilleries sixth generation owner Headley Wright. The trust’s beneficiaries include the people of Campbeltown.
Whilst change is inevitable, it’s unfortunate for a business whose products are loved by so many that many of the changes have been painfully public: debacles around changing the trading arrangements at the London Cadenhead’s Store, the decline in the Edinburgh store, and then the acute shortages of all things Springbank stick in the mind. Cadenhead’s maturing stock looks a little thin compared to the well-aged output of the last 10 years.
Whilst distillery capacity is not something that can be addressed, feeding the Ukraine Springbank direct to flippers allowing them maximum profit was a failure in the face of plenty of advice to maximise the donation going East through a different release strategy. I’m not even going to go into the Springbank Distillery blend that wasn’t.
Change is always painful, and clearly it had not been managed fantastically in Campbeltown. However, change is always necessary. Businesses need to develop and adapt. Inventories decline and the remaining casks need managed to bring a profitable profit to market. Naturally there will be some shocking examples of finished whisky when the team learning what works. Clearly you can’t just shove any whisky in any cask and expect fireworks. Take the disastrous Tomatin 10 Years Old PX Sherry Cask; of course it would have been better if the brand ambassadors had not told everyone the Tomatin was finished in a PX cask because the original spirit was “not any good,” but everyone must to learn somewhere.
I really hope the end of 2022 marks a turning point for the team at J&A Mitchell. There is a lot to celebrate. The Online Scotch Whisky Awards, publicly voted on by approximately 8,000 whisky fans, awarded Springbank Distillery best distillery for the second year in a row. Watching the crowd of staff receive the award in the midst of a rowdy Guy Fawkes evening reminded me that behind the brands and the chaos there is a willing team trying to do their best.
This year also saw the new management arrangements at the London store get finalised, and a refurbished store got off to a fighting start. A new manager in Edinburgh has restored a sense of order to the outlet and rekindled a feeling that Cadenhead’s club members might once again feel a real benefit to their membership as cliques get dismantled and some fairness returns.
There will be fewer superb value well aged releases from Cadenhead’s, but there are gems from the back catalogue still available on their online shop. Springbank and Glengyle distillery releases will remain hard to come by. The new cage-bottle arrangements at the distillery are as much as to discourage flippers as to encourage true Springbank fans to make the pilgrimage to Campbeltown and to stay a few days, boosting the local economy more than the secondary market.
We may even hear more about the new distillery that was promised when the Washback Bar was opened. Personally, I’d rather hear more about increasing the capacity at Glengyle distillery so that we have more Kilkerran to enjoy in the near term. A second distillery operation would also be a great way to train up operators for the mooted third J&A Mitchells distillery. If for any reason that third distillery does not materialise, we can console ourselves with an abundance of Kilkerran.
Campbeltown Loch blend appears set to settle into stock on the shelves, and hopefully the other core range of NAS expressions and the Springbank 10 will also become easier to locate. The more limited expressions will remain hard to find.
But it would not be an article about J&A Mitchell without at least one new mystery. In this case: the Authentic Collection from Cadenhead’s. When the Small Batch range at batch strength was withdrawn it was replaced with the similar Original Collection, which significantly saw a lower standard 46% ABV strength. Long-term Cadenhead’s fans felt that the Authentic collection would be a suitable fallback. Today Cadenhead’s still market the Authentic Collection as single cask, cask strength whiskies bottled without colour or chill-filtration. Typically, the Authentic Collection’s green labels denote bourbon barrels, with other styles getting cream labels with cask content such as Wine and Sherry Casks.
This takes me to the mystery. Released as part of the autumn Authentic Collection is the Hazelburn 13 year old sherry cask reviewed below. It struck me as interesting that ABV was just 48.3%, which is very low for a 13 year old whisky. Then the latest club release had a 23 year old Hazelburn at just 46% ABV. It appears that these cannot be cask strength whiskies, and therefore most likely have had an element of watering down. It doesn’t matter greatly, but the Authentic collection is just not as accurately Authentic as claimed.
It’s also a break with another aspect of regulation, as cask strength whisky is defined in the Scotch Whisky Association technical file “The alcoholic strength of “cask strength” Scotch Whisky must not be adjusted after maturation.” Perhaps most interesting is that the EU version of the bottle is not labelled Cask Strength. Another confusion mystery from the Enigmatic team in Campbeltown.
Besides the wild decisions and dubious quality control that have, to an extent, always characterised J&A Mitchell operations there continue to be a regular outturns of absolutely smashing whisky. It’s always interesting but these whiskies also divide the room. Here are some recent bottles of note from the bottling line of J&A Mitchell and Company Ltd.
Cadenhead’s Hazelburn 13 Years Old – Review
Bourbon hogshead (2009 to March 2020) then Oloroso sherry cask (March 2020 – Autumn 2022). “Cask Strength” 48.3% ABV. £75.
On the nose: Initially, white fruits followed by a punch of chlorine, very soft Campbeltown funk does open up as the bottle depletes. A fragrant floral note throughout, Asian pear, vanilla custard, orange zest are all delightfully soft and integrated.
In the mouth: Fruity apple juice, pineapple, peach, followed with a splash of chlorine, blanched almonds, floral lilies, ashy, coal, Brasso, whisps of smoke. Then more white fruits and wood spices, very soft. Slightly effervescent white grape juice. Medium finish of tingling funky Campbeltown industrial notes.
This is a lot more delectate and sophisticated than many of the recent finishes released by Cadenhead’s. A triumph of finish, leaving the best of the bourbon spirit to shine through and augmenting with sweetness and a little depth of flavour. Does it matter if this is cask strength? Not at all from a flavour perspective.
Longrow Red 2022 Edition – Review
Tawny Port Casks. Aged 11 Years. 57.5% ABV. £75.
Colour: Dusky red.
On the nose: Baked forest fruit streusel, sticky jam, roasted plum, smoky bacon fat, prickly and spicy peat, spun sugar, liquorice, lashings of raspberry jam, peat smoke and toasted coconut.
In the mouth: Thick, oily, red fruits, but then savoury peat balances quickly, a little salty, the rich peat adds layers of numbing spices, aromatic smoke, charcoal, juicy red fruits, water softens the flavours and allows wood spices to come through. The red fruit notes cling to the front of the tongue. Peat spices dancing around the back of the mouth.
A big hit of a dram, with a great balance between sweet and savoury. Tawny is the port for me. This is brash, raw, but fun.
Killkerran 8 Year Old Cask Strength 2022 Port Casks – Review
57.9% ABV. £48.
Colour: Corten steel.
On the nose: Snuffed candle, plum sauce, forest fruit crumble, strawberry Jolly Rancher, raspberry ice cream sauce, burnt sugar, lumpwood charcoal, sour charry, raspberry vinegar, herbal notes, numbing Sichuan peppercorns, pickled pink peppercorns, Deep Heat, water brings out more sweet red fruit and eucalyptus.
In the mouth: Pork pie topped with cranberry, cranberry juice, cherry, strawberries with cracked black pepper, red chilli, water enhances the few savoury notes, Twiglets, milk chocolate. In time there is more toasted malt and Campbeltown funk apparent, and Yorkshire Fruit Cake. The finish is fully of numbing pepper.
This is a dram that could give you a nosebleed. Wildly punchy, I initially slated this dram due to being overly sweet and overly fully of sweet red fruit, but I have come to really enjoy it and officially take back my words. This has become a complex roller coaster of flavours which is well worth experiencing. There are striking similarities in the malt and peat levels compared to the Longrow Red, which is well worth a side by side if you find them together on a bar.
Killkerran 8 Year Old Cask Strength 2022 Sherry Casks – Review
58.1% ABV. £48.
On the nose: Smoked beef brisket, cherry wood, polished leather, Bakhoor, Medjool dates, Moffat toffee, BBQ sauce, praline, red cherries and eucalyptus.
In the mouth: Sweet rich malt, rich sherry, juicy raisins, halawa, toffee and vanilla. Golden syrup, burnt sugar, damp coal in an open hearth, Brioche dipped in beef juices. Caramelised macadamia nuts, dark chocolate with a fruity spicy finish.
Sherry and peat is always a crowd pleaser, but add in Campbeltown industrial funk and you cannot fail, this is a big bold and delicious dram albeit overstated and overpowering.
You can say what you like about the folk in Campbeltown; they don’t really appear to listen anyway. But, no matter what sort of managerial chaos goes on the ability to produce and bottle great whisky seems unaffected, which is fantastic news.