Springbank’s sales and marketing manager Peter Currie is a happy man, and he has every right to be. The whole distillery frontline team has been away travelling recently, to trade shows in Oslo, Calgary, Milan and New York. They have been speaking to scores of people, listening to lots of views. Wherever they have gone the message coming back to them has been the same: that Scotch whisky in general, and Springbank in particular, are on the crest of wave right now. The stats in themselves may be impressive, but for the time being at least forget sales figures and profit, this is about taste. On whisky’s frontline, drinkers are getting it.
“This is without a doubt a great time to be selling whisky,” says Currie. “Once whisky drinkers stuck to one favourite brand, now people are drinking from a wide choice of whiskies. I like the fact that there are new younger drinkers coming through, and more women drinking whisky. They are all asking the right questions and they are not scared of big flavours.
“It’s not just for whisky, either. We have seen a similar thing with big flavoured beers, Belgian beers. We see it with cask strength whisky. It’s not about the strength of the alcohol, it’s about the intensity of the flavour.
“People are more comfortable with the idea of cask strength whisky now. We have long experience in full strength whiskies because of Cadenhead but it is generally understood a lot better now. In fact we’re finishing Springbank 100 proof and replacing it with a cask strength Springbank because people get the idea of whisky with no water added.”
No wonder Currie’ s pleased. A couple of years ago the industry was rife with rumours about potential future of Springbank when it seemed to fly in the face of logic and shut its doors at the height of a whisky boom. The reasons for the closure weren’t clearly communicated and were misunderstood, but that’s all in the past.
Now it has a smart-looking and balanced portfolio of whiskies, a huge range of flavour choice, and as strong and as loyal following as any distillery in the world.
“Back then the costs of everything got ridiculously expensive,” he says. “Our warehouses were pretty full because we were storing a lot of Arran. So we decided to step back and look at the economy. Then a month after that all the business with the banks happened, prices started to fall and by December we were distilling again. We haven’t looked back since.”
Perhaps we sometimes underestimate just how difficult it is to be an independent whisky maker competing at the highest levels with the big boys, especially one which operates in such a remote location. Although the industry has talked a good game for some time about breaking out of the cycle of discounting, distilleries such as Springbank still have to face the fact that supermarkets and large retail stores will offer malt from their bigger competitors at almost non-existent profit margins.
“It is still very much the case and not just over here,” says Currie. “In Singapore recently the trade was being offered 17 cases of Singleton for the price of 10. I know Macallan does it over there as well. Over here leading whiskies are being sold under£20 a bottle. We’re in that mad season when everybody wants whisky so it’s heavily discounted. Madness. They should be offering the discount in June and July not when demand is at its highest. You can’t blame the customer. I’d do exactly the same thing.”
So how does Springbank stay relevant?
“There are several ways. We have the Cadenhead link for a starter. There are now nine Cadenhead shops through Europe. But we rely heavily on the independent sector. They’re our bread and butter and I’m talking about the very small ones.
“They stay loyal to us and would do anything for us because they know we will look after them and we won’t pull the rug from under them. They know they’re not going to see Springbank heavily discounted in their local supermarket.”
You get the feeling that this is the key to Springbank’s enduring success. They engage directly with customer and supplier, building a strong and loyal base from the bottom up. It helps, though, that the distiller’s output is arguably at it’s highest and most consistent level.
“I think that’s the case,” says Currie. “Certainly the 10 Years Old would seem to be the best it’s ever been. I think it’s very much linked to the return of Frank McHardy here around ‘96/’97. A lot of our whisky was maturing in second fill casks and he moved them in to new bourbon. He did a lot of work on casks back then.
“I think we have been reaping the benefits of that in the last two or three years with really good quality whisky.”
To coincide with that the packaging across the Springbank range and for the distillery’s distinct malts Longrow and Hazelburn has been brought into line and now the company offers a smart and comprehensive portfolio.
“I have a managing director who likes to play with the packaging,” laughs Currie. “But the range we offer now makes sense. We have the entry level CV across all three distillery styles, and the 20cl gift pack was a good way of showing the range of flavours we offer from the very peaty ones through to the rounded triple distilled Hazelburn.”
Each year the range is augmented by a special release, and Currie says there are one or two more changes still to be made to the range. The next special finish is Sauternes.
“It’s very dark, darker than we intended and very rich but very nice,” he says. “When we do finishes we tend to put them into the finishing cask for a considerable length of time. With Sauternes it was three years. The Madeira finish was actually fully matured in Madeira for the full 11 years. That will be released in January and we’re planning to do 9,000 bottles.
“And early next year we will also be releasing a cask strength Longrow and an 8 Years Old cask strength Hazelburn, so there is plenty going on.”
Indeed there is, and with Springbank’s reputation very much in the credit column at the moment all the enthusiasm from Currie and his team is understandable. All the pieces seem to be falling in to place for the distillery at just the right time.
10 Years Old
As complex as a whisky this young gets, with honey, barley, candied lemon, earthy peat and salt and pepper all contributing to a bitter-sweet malt.
15 Years Old
An outstanding, rich and fill flavoured malt with a soft and crystallised peach nose and a full oily, fruity palate which again pulls off the trick of being sweet and savoury all at once. Red and tropical fruits can be found in the taste, and there’s a rustic grunginess to it, too.
18 Years Old
Surprisingly soft and delicate nose, with grape, some green fruit and a touch of smoke. The taste is massive, with an early hit of black pepper, some unripe bananas in the centre and some cocoa and smoke towards the end. Peat is noticeable in the finish.
14 Years Old
Smoke and peat on the nose, as well as fudge, but the taste is all coal tar, peat and bonfire. Distinctive seaside notes, too, make for a deli of a whisky for savoury malt lovers. Oak and spice are a late showing.
8 Years Old
Smooth and rounded, this is a chocolate malteser in a glass, with honey, honeycomb and milk chocolate flowing through it.
Springbank Est. 1828
Production capacity: 125,000 litres
Water source: Crosshills Loch
Mashing and fermentation: Cast iron open topped tun, three tonnes of grist per mash. Five Scandinavian Larch washbacks, 26,510 litres each. Fermentation is 72 hours
Distillation: One, fitted with a rummager, open oil fired and internal steam coils, 20,000 litres charge.
Two low wines stills, with steam coils, 12,274 litres charge.
Maturation: Six on site ranging from dunnage to modern rack warehouses. Bourbon, sherry, rum and refill casks used with 70 per cent going for single malt bottling.