Whisky fashions come and go. Take rye in the States, for example. Once the American whiskey and only now starting to make a comeback after more than 70 years of neglect. And in a number of export markets heavily-peated Scotches sometimes seem to be the only game in town.
In general, whiskies from the former distilling ‘capital’ and fishing port of Campbeltown, on the remote Kintyre peninsula in Argyllshire, have been resolutely out of fashion since the years between the two world wars, when one after another of Campbeltown’s 30-plus distilleries fell prey to changes in taste, commercial pressures and a decline in quality and reputation.
Happily, however, one Campbeltown distillery has managed to ignore fashion and not only survive but develop something akin to cult status. That distillery is, of course, Springbank, and for the first time in 60 years it is now being managed by a local man.
The latest person to sit in the manager’s chair at the historic Longrow premises is 36-year-old Gavin McLachlan, who took over the position in August from Stuart Robertson.“It’s an honour and a privilege,” declares McLachlan. “I never thought it would happen. It’s great to work with a brand like Springbank – I still have to pinch myself at times! And I think it’s even better that I’m from Campbeltown; it feels even more of an achievement for me as this is my local distillery.”
Remarkably, McLachlan only began his distilling career in 2002. After leaving school he worked for 10 years in the town’s now-closed Jaeger Tailoring Ltd factory. Six months subsequently spent in Australia were followed by two years driving taxis in Campbeltown.
“Then I started work in the bottling hall at Springbank in 2002,” he recalls. “At the time it was just a job, really, it wasn’t because I desperately wanted to get into the whisky industry. I was in the bottling hall for seven months then got a post in the maltings and as mash man. The way it works at Springbank is that the production guys spend three months making malt, then three months distilling, and then back to malting again. So we are usually distilling for six months of the year, if you like.”
In 2006 a vacancy for an assistant manager came up, and feeling he had nothing to lose, Gavin McLachlan applied. “There were something like 35 to 40 applications,” he notes, “and when they offered me the job I was quite surprised. But I’ve never taken a day off and I just worked hard. I learnt a lot from Stuart Robertson, and also, of course, from director of production Frank McHardy. He’s been in the whisky business for more than 40 years, and you can’t buy the sort of experience he has.”
In addition to running Springbank on a day to day basis, being responsible for the production of Springbank single malt, the heavily-peated Longrow and the triple-distilled, unpeated Hazelburn, McLachlan’s remit also extends to nearby Glengyle distillery. Like Springbank, Glengyle is in the ownership of J & A Mitchell & Co Ltd, and was redeveloped from a semi-derelict state and re-commissioned to produce whisky in 2004.
“Springbank is a very traditional distillery,” states McLachlan. “The maltings are worked manually, with the barley being turned by hand, and there’s no computer screen in the stillhouse. It’s all about the skill and experience of the individual operators, working with hydrometers to decide when to cut the spirit and so on.”
He makes the point that “Distilling is vital for Campbeltown, both in terms of employment and for its image as a place with a great whisky heritage which is still going strong.
“When I started work at the distillery it surprised me how many visitors it attracted. And it’s growing year on year, currently being around the 4,000 to 5,000 mark.
“ There’s a benefit to us in that most of them buy something in our shop, but also because Campbeltown is pretty isolated, most of our visitors are staying here at least one night, so hotels and bed and breakfasts and places to eat all benefit, too. People go away knowing that the way we make whisky, from the floor maltings to the on-site bottling line, is different to how many other people make it. They remember the visit and the brand.”
Having ceased production temporarily in June 2008 due to the high cost of malting barley and fuel, Springbank returned to full production in August of this year, with McLachlan noting that “We are currently malting, and once we have all 10 malt bins full in November, we will distil for three months. The malt we are making will translate into approximately 115,000 litres when distilled.”
He notes that “We use the same Springbank-style of malted barley at Glengyle distillery, and we will be distilling there next January and February, filling about 150 hogsheads. Glengyle produces Kilkerran single malt and we’re very pleased with the way the whisky is maturing. The main release of this product will probably be at 12 Years Old, during 2016, but until then each year we will be issuing limited bottlings of Kilkerran as ‘work in progress.’”
Meanwhile, the Springbank ‘family’ of whiskies has been augmented by a Hazelburn CV expression, which carries no age statement, following the success of Longrow and Springbank CV bottlings, and next January will see a nine-Years Old Hazelburn Sauternes Wood variant.
As for the distillery’s new manager, he declares that “I’m Campbeltown born and bred and I’m very happy here. I’ve got a young family and it’s a good place to bring up children. It’s been a very quick eight years at Springbank for me and I’ve no ambitions to move on. I love going to work every day. There’s so much variety. When I worked in the Jaeger factory it was like being a battery hen!”
For more information on Springbank distillery, its products and tour details see www.springbankdistillers.com