After the amazing suprise of the Gordon & Macphail masterclass, there was barely time to draw breath (and send gloating tweets to my whisky-loving friends) before heading off to the next one, the storied Campbeltown distillery Springbank.
Campbeltown, of course, used to be one of the whisky capitals of Scotland until the vast majority of its distilleries were gradually shuttered. Only three remain today – Glengyle, Glen Scotia, and Springbank.
I haven’t really explored Springbank’s range very much, so I was looking forward to this session. It turned out to be very educational, not only in the sense of their whisky but also in getting a feeling for how the company is run. Ranald Watson, the charismatic “professional alcoholic” and marketing exec for Springbank did a great job of putting us all in that remote and historic distilling town for an hour or so.
We got started with Hazelburn 12-year-old. Normally Springbank distills two and a half times; what they mean by that is that some of the output from the spirit still and some from the wash still are mixed and distilled again to make the final new-make spirit. Hazelburn is an exception in that it’s triple-distilled, so all the output from the spirit still is distilled a third time before maturation. It’s matured in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks, and also in 2nd and 3rd fill casks “for balance”. It’s a very light dram as you’d expect from that distillation process, and has a delicious citrus character. It was the first time I’d tried this whisky (true for almost all of the lineup actually) and I really enjoyed it.
Springbank 15-year-old was next, and in fact this is the only Springbank expression I’d tried previously. It’s lightly peated, to the extent of around 20% of a typical Islay malt, and that gives it a nice smoky undertone to the dried fruit character that comes through. It’s bottled at 46% ABV, like the Hazelburn before it.
The Springbank 18 is only a few years older but to my palate is significantly more developed. The extra time in the casks has softened the character a little bit, and it has a wonderful dark chocolate succulence. It’s still smoky with a long, long finish – delicious. The maturation casks are an interesting mix at 60% bourbon, 35% sherry and 5% port wood. As good as it was though it wasn’t QUITE my pick of the session!
The Longrow CV is more heavily peated than the preceding drams, and wears it very well indeed. It’s matured in bourbon, rum, sherry and port casks – clearly a complicated mixture and it has a complex flavour to match. I got smoke, citrus, and a honey sweetness on the palate. Ranald gave us some amusing ideas as to what CV could stand for; apparently it varies depending on who you ask!
Alright, so enough teasing and foreshadowing; the next glass was the one I liked best. It’s a new expression – Springbank 10 year old: Rundlets and Kilderkins. Rundwho and Kilderwhats?! Well a rundlet is apparently a small 60 liter cask, and a kilderkin is slightly larger at 80 liters, half the size of a standard barrel (and as of course you already know, a firkin is half a kilderkin)! For this first run, Springbank saw a 6% loss of volume per year from these cask types, and ended up with only 9000 bottles. I loved it though! Darker in colour than the other expressions due probably to the extra contact with the wood, it’s oily, viscous and mouth-coating. Even smokier than the previous expressions, it has a wonderful brown sugar and molasses character. Bottled at the natural cask strength of 49.4% this one is a winner. I went back to the Springbank table at the grand tasting later that night just to introduce my wife to this one. Currently not available in BC, I begged Ranald to hook us up with it soon. It’s that good.
The final sample was of another new expression, the Longrow Burgundy finish. I expected to like this one a lot but I actually didn’t. The wine character came through too strongly for me, like it had spent too much time in the Burgundy casks (three years apparently). It was the only miss of a session otherwise full of hits as far as I was concerned.
I hope Springbank is around for a long time to come; the quality of their output, combined with the passion and community spirit evident in the way the distillery operates really resonated with me. They employ only people willing to make the commitment to live in Campbeltown. They’re family-owned and stick to the old ways of doing things; they malt their own barley and even do their own bottling, in part to help maintain traditional skills and to employ as many craftsmen as possible. As consumers we should encourage and reward practices like this, especially when it leads to such outstanding results.
And so my masterclass adventures were over, and all that remained was the grand tasting later that evening. Was I suffering from whisky fatigue? Well… not quite!