A couple of weeks ago, myself and The Drinks Lady headed over to Campbeltown for a couple of days to visit Springbank distillery, before heading to Islay (more on that soon). A lot has been written about Springbank, about the variety of the three styles of whisky it produces, about its continued use of ‘old school’, traditional production methods, and about the rise and fall (and rise again) of Campbeltown, once the whisky capital of the world. Safe to say that a trip to the distillery is a trip through whisky history.
A Short History of Springbank Distillery
Officially established in 1828 by William Reid, Springbank has been under the ownership of the Mitchell family since 1837, when John and William Mitchell bought the distillery. William left the company in 1872, at which point John brought his son, Alexander, into the fold, and ever since the words J&A Mitchell have adorned bottles of Springbank.
During the early-mid 1800s there was an insatiable thirst for Campbeltown whisky, with 34 distilleries producing spirit in the town between 1817 and 1829. Well placed with regards to shipping to Ireland and across to Glasgow, Campbeltown soon became one of, if not the, richest town per capita in the UK. Following years of prosperity, there came a thunderous crash in the 1920s, whereby all but three distilleries closed. Springbank just about survived, but like so many other distilleries in the town, it suffered huge blows to its reputation. Eager to produce whisky as quickly as possible, their distillers had rushed their product, creating poor quality whisky which soon found itself out of favour with the big blending houses. Coupled with the opening of the Highland railway line, blenders soon turned to previously-a-pain-in-the-arse-to-get-hold-of Highland whiskies with which to create their blends.
Distilling in Campbeltown was restricted to two distilleries, Springbank and Glen Scotia, following the closure of Rieclachan in 1934. For the next 70 years or so, these two distilleries were all that remained from the once glorious 19th Century heyday of whisky making in the town. Springbank closed its malting in the 1970s and was actually mothballed from 1979, before reopening in 1987, and re-establishing its malting in 1992. Thankfully, its reputation has grown to such stature of late that this cult distillery appears to be in safe hands for a long while yet.
Production at Springbank Distillery
As most of you will be aware, Springbank produces three different types of whisky, Springbank, Longrow and Hazelburn. In terms of peatiness, Longrow is heavily peated, Springbank is medium peated and Hazelburn is completely unpeated. At the same time, Springbank is two and a half(ish) times distilled, Longrow is double distilled and Hazelburn is triple distilled – see the photo below for more info.
From its inception, the distillery produced only one type of whisky (Springbank) but branched out into very heavily peated whisky with the first distillation of Longrow spirit in 1973, and again into unpeated territory with the first Hazelburn spirit coming from the stills in 1997. It is also arguably the most traditional of all the active distilleries in Scotland, with it malting 100% of the barley it uses on traditional malt floors, having a directly fired wash still, and having everything maturated and bottled on site.
The 10yo and 15yo are widely regarded as very, very good whiskies, and the 21yo (if you can get your hands on it) is fantastic, however I thought it would be nice to end this article with a rather special Springbank. Loch Fyne Whiskies have recently released a private cask, distilled in December 1992 and bottled in March 2014 as a 21yo at a hefty 51.6%. After all that, what a bummer it would be if this turns out to be shit…
Springbank 1992 b.2014 (21yo)
Loch Fyne Whiskies Single Cask Exclusive
Nose: Black pepper, soft peat, walnuts, cinnamon stick and charred logs hit me first. Then there’s smoky toffee, banana fritters, butterscotch and caramelised sugar.
Palate: Big wood spice initially (nutmeg?), followed by cinder toffee, caramel, BBQ embers, dry wood smoke, cask char and a touch of old logs. The trademark oiliness is there on the mouthfeel too.
Finish: Some leather, sultanas and cask stave linger, along with gentle smoke.
Overall: A fascinating distillery and a must-visit whenever you’re in the area. To visit a distillery which does everything from barley to bottle is very special in this day and age. It doesn’t have, or want to have, a polished veneer and buffed up façade or a shiny new visitor’s centre like other distilleries do. But it doesn’t need to. It’s an honest distillery where nothing is hidden, and (almost) everything is done as it was when the distillery was first established in 1828. The single cask from Loch Fyne is also a great example of Springbank, the smokiness and oiliness are well balanced by spicy notes and a chewy caramel sweetness. Want to see how ‘old school’ whisky is made? Look no further.