Distillery Focus

The last show in town (Springbank)

Campbeltown was once a thriving centre for whisky production. Now little remains. Is Springbank worth the journey? Our mystery visitor made the lengthy trek to find out
By Mystery Visitor
It took a long time to get to Campbeltown and, when I arrived, the profusion of palm trees in this delightfully Victorian town convinced me that I had been magically transported from Scotland to the Caribbean.Surely this was a little rum distillery that I was visiting? Instead, in Springbank, I found a rum little distillery, though none the less interesting for that.Springbank is something of an anachronism – just about the last remnant of a once proud tradition that all but died out in the 1930s as, one by one, the Campbeltown distillers closed their doors. It’s not that easy to visit. Apart from the four hour trip from Glasgow, the distillery only offers tours from April to September, then only for four days a week and, even then, only once a day.You have to book in advance and you can forget any ideas of a fancy visitor centre with lavishly produced corporate videos. Or a tasting. Or even a shop.Instead, what you get is Jim, an ex-British Telecom engineer rescued from early retirement by the opportunity to host tours.“It passes the time,” was his laconic assessment of this radical career change.The distillery itself is a time machine.Though in the elegant little history book that you can purchase for £3 from the distillery office, owner Hedley G Wright makes the startling claim that “the company has been one of the pioneers in mechanisation within the distilling industry”, careful study reveals that this was written around 1962 – and little appears to have changed in the intervening 40 plus years.This, of course, is the key to Springbank’s charm. Jim was at pains to stress the traditional, unchanging, conservative nature of everything they do.From the floor maltings to the bottling hall, there’s a sense that any sort of innovation is looked upon with an Old Testament suspicion.So 100 per cent of Springbank’s malt is prepared on their own floor maltings, the whisky is never chill filtered, caramel additives are totally unknown and they bottle at a robust 46% abv.All of this is put across in a gentle and undemanding tour of the rambling and antiquated plant. As the guidebook reveals, it incorporates elements of no less than five of its extinct competitors.Though the layout would confound the time and motion experts and drive accountants to drink, it’s possible at Springbank to get a sense of what the distilling industry must once have been like across much of Scotland. The tour takes in the marvellous still house, with its unique Campbeltown method of triple distillation, and culminates in one of the bonded warehouses, racked high with barrels.There again a calypso rhythm could be faintly heard as our guide showed us first sherry, then bourbon and, finally, ex-rum casks all the way from the West Indies.All these variants go in to Springbank (and some in the more highly peated Longrow) and all are found on the tour’s final stop.For this you must leave the distillery and return toward Reform Square. There your £3 tour ticket may be exchanged in the Eaglesome’s off-licence for a specially bottled miniature (one for the collectors, this) and you can gaze admiringly at the exceptional range of rare and obscure Springbank cask bottlings.So, nothing here is quite like other distilleries, but is it Springbank that’s out of step, I wondered, or the world that now surrounds it? Contact
Springbank Distillery
85 Longrow, Campbeltown,
Argyll, PA28 6EX
Tel. +44 (0)1586 552 009