Springbank Distillery in the evening...
Springbank has been an escalating and growing love for me over the past 3 years. It’s no secret to single malt lovers around the world that the brands produced here including Springbank, Longrow and Hazelburn, are all stellar whiskies. As I’ve become more and more entrenched in a career of whisky, my obsession with Springbank has erupted to a new level. No worries, not in an alcoholic sort of way but in a non-corporate, against the grain, do what we want sort of way. This distillery produced 125,000 liters of pure alcohol last year and the only plans they have to increase capacity is to hire more people for the malt floor. As you can imagine the malting process is a bit of a bottle-neck in production. Although lately we have seen many major brands double, even triple in size and amount of equipment. For Springbank, that is not in the plans and the process will remain mostly untouched. They are in the heart of Campbeltown on the Kintyre Peninsula south of Glasgow. The town and peninsula carry the weight of the infamous story we have all heard “the Campbeltown demise”. Dozens of distilleries closed here during the 1920’s for a multitude of reasons. As a private family and employee owned company since 1828, they know that the whisky industry is not always glamorous. They have been through the good and the tough times. Steady quality is their game and they intend to keep playing it that way.
I was more than fortunate to spend the day with David Allen, Sales Manager for Springbank and Cameron McGeachy of Cadenheads. A quick timeline of the brands I will mention in this story:
Springbank Distillery & the brand Springbank (1828) – medium peat, 2.5 times distilled. Founded by the Mitchell Family.
Longrow (1973) - heavily peated, double distilled whisky produced at Springbank Distillery
Hazelburn (1997) – unpeated, triple distilled whisky produced at Springbank Distillery
Cadenheads (1972*) – when the private bottler was brought into the Mitchell Family
*not when Cadenheads as a private bottler first began
Glengyle Distillery (2004*) - purchased by the Mitchell Family. Now producing Kilkerran Whisky.
*I will talk about Glengyle in a separate post
The chart above shows the 2.5 times distillation run for the brand Springbank. We all understand two and three times distilled for the other brands.
Springbank stands apart at the beginning of the process starting with barley. They do 100% of their own floor maltings. It’s easy to calculate the amount time, loss of yield and manual labor this entails. They take this a step further with additional transparency when they release “local barley” bottlings. These releases allow you to track which farm the barley came from and you can typically expect the barley to have come from a local Kintyre farm. After malting, the saturated barley will be kilned utilizing different regionalities of peat. They use Tomintoul area peat to kick start the kiln fire because it tends to be dryer while the Inverness area peat is damper and gives a richer broil of earth flavors seeping into the barley and makes for a better simmer. Barley that is destined for a Springbank release is peated to around 10-12PPM and Longrow will be in the 40-50PPM range. Springbank is still the bread winner. Only about 20% of production is dedicated to the production of Hazelburn and Longrow. A fun fact about the iconic colored posts on the malting floor. They were painted a few years back for the distillery managers birthday party!
They have an open top, cast iron mash tun. Very similar to Bruichladdich. They run 4 waters through the 10-hour mash. The sugary wort is moved over to the Larchwood washbacks where 75KG of dry distiller’s yeast is added. Fermentation will last around 72-100 hours and only equate to a 4.5-5% ABV beer. The three iconic stills at Springbank represents how they can achieve such vastly different spirits in one distillery. The wash still is a combination of direct fire and steam coil. The intermediate (low wines still #1) and spirit still (low wines still #2) are both steam coil. Keep in mind the low wines #1 (middle still) also utilizes a worm tub instead of a shell and tube condenser. Just reading this makes it hard to keep track of the awesome flavor options that can come out of this configuration!
Casks are filled on site at 63.5% ABV. As we all know they have quite a broad range of casks that are used for limited edition releases but their core range relies on ex-bourbon and sherry casks. Here is a breakdown for the core range:
10 Year Old Springbank: 60% ex-bourbon and 40% sherry
12 Year Old Cask Strength Springbank: 70% sherry and 30% ex-bourbon
15 Year Old Springbank: 100% sherry *keep in mind these aren’t all first fill sherry casks
18 Year Old Springbank: the 10 year old’s big sister…. 60% ex-bourbon and 40% sherry
Most of the casks come from Speyside Cooperage although many of the sherry casks come direct from Spain. There are 8 warehouses scattered around the grounds of the distillery where 6 are dunnage and 2 are racked.
Here is a review of an all time favorite Springbank Local Barley that came out last year…
Springbank Local Barley 16 Year Old - 2017 Release
Barley: Low Machrimore Farm which is just a few miles outside of Campbeltown
Bottles: 9,000 released
Nose: Vanilla custard, lemon meringue pie, whipped cream, pineapple.
Palate: Pineapple, citrus, vanilla, buttery finish with slight smoke on the end. Delicious and foaming mouth feel!
After spending the morning with David I then met Cameron for a warehouse tasting. Cameron was born and raised in Campbeltown and has worked his way up to Sales Executive of international markets. The bottler Cadenheads started out in Aberdeen. The business began with George Duncan and after about a decade George was joined by his brother-in-law William Cadenhead. The bottler would change hands within the family and its employees until the 1960’s when the company fell into financial hardship. The 70’s is when Hedley Wright of the Mitchell Family took an interest in the operation. It’s fair to say that he was interested not only in the whisky stock but also the stock of glass bottles they had. At this time glass was hard to come by and Hedley needed the bottles for Springbank. As Cameron says and legend tells, Hedley never received the bottles!
As of right now Cadenheads has casks that represent over 108 different distiller’s distillates. Everything from single malt, bourbon, gin, rum, cognac and possibly other types of spirit in the near future! Every private bottler is a bit different and Cadenheads is a combination of them all. They buy distillate and age themselves and they buy already matured (the age can vary) whisky as well. They sometimes use a process known as 2nd maturation which is different than a finishing cask. Their 2nd maturation means the aged distillate will spend at least 3 years in a new style of oak. Imparting not just color but creating a whole new whisky. In saying this, there are many casks that are ready as is just after 2 to 3 years. That is why the whole team is involved in checking and selecting casks that are ripe for bottling. Cameron and I tried a few as we wandered through the warehouses including a Linkwood 30 Year Old refill sherry hogshead that was full of earth and sweetness. We also tried a blueberry filled Glenlossie 1993.
Cadenheads has single cask releases throughout the world and they also have 8 Cadenheads retail locations throughout Europe and a soon to be 9th location in Austria. You will find some of the most unique and rare distilleries from this bottler and the team is known to pick stellar casks!