Distillery Focus

The times they are a-changin' (Springbank)

Campbeltown was the one-time whisky capital that experienced a catastrophic boom and bust. Dave Broom explains how Springbank, by sharing the same mentality and philosophy as Bob Dylan, are well positioned to take advantage of a surge of interst in hand-crafted whisky
By Dave Broom
Frank McHardy is pushing open a massive black corrugated iron door. “Be careful,” he says as we step into the gloom. “There’s pigeon shit everywhere.” He’s not wrong. This empty shell is littered with feathers, bones and other detritus but the underfoot conditions are immediately forgotten as he begins pointing into darkened corners of the building.“The mash tun will be there, the wash backs over there and ... (spinning round) that’s where the stills will be. On a
mezzanine floor.” Not your normal distillery tour, but this is Campbeltown, Frank is Manager of Springbank and they do things differently here. This isn’t Springbank he’s showing me around of course, this is Glengyle. Or it will be Glengyle in a couple of years once Frank gets his whisky-making kit installed. Until then it’s a huge empty stone shed which last distilled in anger in 1925 and in recent years has been a garage, an animal feed store and firing range – presumably with pigeons as targets.The site came up for sale earlier this year and was bought by Hedley Wright, Springbank’s current owner whose great-great uncle, William Mitchell, had owned it. Barnard, who visited Campbeltown in 1887 was obviously irritated that Mitchell wasn’t there to receive him and gave it a cursory entry in his Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, most of which was taken up with a description of “the fine view of cultured gardens, cultivated fields and hill slopes.” This vista has been replaced by a less than romantic panorama of the local gas works and the Co-op.Frank locks up Glengyle and he and Springbank’s Sales Manager Euan Mitchell take me on an impromptu tour of the lost sites of Scotland’s first whisky capital. We walk the quiet streets, trying to read the archaeology of the stones. Some are easy enough. That block of flats with those tell-tale windows must have been Hazelburn’s warehouse, the pagoda roof on the bus depot is a dead give-away, there’s a faded sign on the facade of Lochend. Some are abandoned wastelands filled with rusting cars, Riechlachan’s warehouses stand in a field of head-high weeds, most of Glebe Street’s plants have been totally obliterated. We pass a pub with barbed wire round the wall of its beer garden. “To keep the punters in,” jokes Frank grimly. Things have changed since Barnard’s day. Whisky’s first historian paints a picture of a prosperous and contented town ruled by rich distillers and gentlemen farmers. Thanks to the new speedy sea link to Glasgow land prices were rising, the whisky trade was booming, cattle were fat and middle class refinements were appearing. Barley was being shipped from the Baltic to satisfy the needs of 21 distilleries mostly making rich, peaty, oily whisky which made its way into blends and was shipped to the US using long-established trading links. “Imagine the smell, the noise and buzz of the place,” says Frank. “Campbeltown Loch must have been filled with pot ale and spent lees.” ...and pigs. In 1854 there were estimated to be 2,000 pigs in the town alone, many enjoying as much freedom as pet dogs. In Angus Martin’s Kintyre – the Hidden Past he recounts that: “The free-ranging pigs of Dalintober (where Glen Scotia is made) relished ‘pottle’ or pot ale and werefrequently seen indulging that taste at the Pottle Hole. Piglets were prone to drown in the effluent.” Presumably things had cleaned up when Barnard arrived. Campbeltown was in the right place at the right time. There was local barley, peat, a fast sea route, coal from the mine at Machrihanish and whisky-making experience. Then it all went spectacularly wrong. Many distillers, seeing a never ending boom, upped production and quality slumped. The blenders turned their back on the town, already preferring the lighter flavours coming from Speyside. Prohibition spelled the end of the US market. From being Scotland’s whisky capital, Campbeltown’s distilleries were said to be making ‘stinking fish’, either because the whisky was put into old herring barrels (how long before someone does that as a finish?) or it was just badly made, peaty/medicinal, feinty spirit. By the 1930s there were three distilleries left: Springbank, Riechlachan and [Glen] Scotia. Springbank started selling itself as a Highland malt but at least it survived. How? “Luck,” says Frank. “Allied with careful management and the fact that we always made a different type of spirit, not the heavy Campbeltown style.” Ironically, Springbank is now the Campbeltown style these days but isn’t even recognised by the SWA as a region. Doubly ironic since the more you examine Springbank the more you realise it is a distillation of its birthplace. It has been owned by the same family since 1837, its whisky is all malted, distilled, warehoused and bottled on site. Campbeltown water is used to reduce it to 46%abv before bottling. There’s no colouring or chill-filtering. No other whisky can claim to be such a true expression of one site. So, Springbank survived because it was different. Every distillery puts its own subtle tweaks on the process, it’s this which gives each whisky its individuality. Springbank however has more tweaks than most, some of which seem to be wilfully perverse. The maltings, for example, which re-opened in 1992 at a time when virtually every other distiller had closed theirs down. “We did it because it’s traditional, it gives us control and it ensures quality,” says Frank. “It was going back to basics. As far as we’re concerned you don’t just change for change’s sake.” Everything seems caught in a time warp. The four staff spend one ‘season’ turning 200 tons of barley into malt and then start distilling. It’s an unconscious return to the natural rhythms of the past when farmers would harvest and malt in autumn and then distil in the winter, feeding their cattle on the draff. There’s an ‘if it ain’t broke ...’ approach to much of the distillery – the open topped mash tun, the insistence on boatskin larch washbacks – but there’s an old wisdom at play in these walls. Like the insistence of keeping the gravity of the wash to below 1050s. Old strains of barley would naturally give lower gravity ‘beer’ but this also has a positive impact on the ester levels produced in the ferment, which can then be collected in the distillation*. Needless to say the stillroom is different. There’s three stills for starters. That’s not all. The wash still is heated with direct fire and coil, while one of the spirit stills has a worm tub. “If you do away with direct fire,” says Frank, “you’ll get rid of the charring effect which gives a flavour all the way through. It’s expensive, but ... that’s Springbank!” With three stills there’s little wonder that the distillation is well, different. Not quite triple, more two and a half. The wash still gives low wines which are collected in a receiver. Most of them then go into one of the spirit stills and the total of that distillation (feints) is collected. The charge for the final spirit still comprises 80% of the feints and 20% from the low wines receiver. Low gravity wash, direct firing, worm tub. The distillery is constructed to create and maximise complexity. But that’s not all. This being Springbank, Frank doesn’t just make one malt, he makes three and it says something about the skill of the distiller that they are all high-quality individuals. Not many distilleries could make an unpeated triple-distilled (Hazelburn), a two and a half times distilled medium-peated (Springbank) and a heavily-peated double-distilled (Longrow) whisky and do it to such a high standard. There’s weird magic at work here. We head towards the warehouses where the cask management skills Frank learnt at Bushmills are being put to full effect. “In the old days there weren’t many casks bought, so the wood was tired and I chucked out most of the casks that we emptied,” he says. Now there’s rum, port, wine and bourbon barrels, oloroso hoggies and butts from European oak. The impact of this new wood policy (or the start of a wood policy) will be seen first in Springbank 10-year-old, which will be given a lift from first-fill sherry, though Frank is wary of drowning the spirit in oloroso. But the flavour profile will change? “Yes, but we haven’t changed Springbank’s flavour, just freshened up the wood profile. Now we can identify each cask and have a vatting recipe which will give us greater consistency. The changes in colour from one bottling to the next was one idiosyncrasy too far!” The shock is how empty the warehouses are. Springbank was badly stung by the whisky crash of the 1980s. While big firms closed distilleries and began using their own stock for blends, the small guys reliant on the fillings trade found themselves without a market. History was repeating itself. This time Springbank survived by selling its way out. Single malt was picking up, they had the stock and in [then Marketing Director] Gordon Wright, a born salesman. In hindsight, maybe too much was sold, but it saved the distillery. Springbank became a cult. “This place could make 750,000 litres of alcohol,” says Frank. “These days it’s making 160 - 170,000 litres.” Hang on a minute, here’s a cult whisky, which could sell all it made ten times over, being run at a quarter of its capacity? The Scots are a canny race, but this seems unnaturally so. “When you increase volume you start competing with Glenfiddich and The Macallan,” says Euan. “You have to have marketing budgets and you start being dragged into cut-price deals with retailers. We could double production but we’d lose our niche market and profit margins would be reduced. That’s dangerous for a firm our size. We have to make a margin. We’ve got 37 people working here.” Springbank is a major employer but unlike some distillers these days it knows it has a responsibility to its local community. “We’re not about marketing or the ethos of selling percentages,” says Frank. “It’s about concern for the product and attachment to the place.” Whisky moves in cycles. While much of the damage was self-inflicted, the old Campbeltown distillers knew what it was like for blenders to turn their backs on them. What Hedley Wright did was stick two fingers up to the whisky establishment and do his own thing. Rather than being reliant on the vagaries of the market, they’d become self-sufficient. It was like turning your back on society and retreating to the wilds of Nebraska. A voice whispers in my ear: Springbank is Bob Dylan’s favourite malt. Think about it, what else would he drink? Dylan has always sung what he wants to sing in whatever voice or arrangement he feels like. You take what you get. How Springbank is that? There’s an echo of an older voice. When Barnard moans about the green of Benmore Park not being turned into a civic park he writes: “It may be that the Campbeltown magnates are satisfied with making good whisky and let things remain as they are rather than as they might be.” This defiant belief in self-sufficiency and tradition isn’t peculiar to Springbank, it springs from Kintyre itself. Landscape affects the psyche. Campbeltown may have been close to Glasgow in 1880 terms but these days it is isolated. There’s no ferry link. You either take the one (expensive) flight a day, or embark on a long drive down a poorly maintained road. This virtual island is cut off from the rest of Scotland. Perhaps this is at the root of Springbank’s idiosyncratic, insular, approach – though a friend in the town points out that Campbeltown has in fact been a successful hub, trading with Ireland, America and Central Scotland. “The hub infrastructure (harbour and airport) remains intact but the services are lacking. Perhaps Springbank isn’t out of step with the ways of the modern world. Perhaps it’s just biding its time until Campbeltown once more becomes a hub.”That’s not to say they’re sitting still. Longrow, that richly flavoured, perfumed masterpiece that recreates the sooty briny reeking lums of old Campbeltown, is soon out as a 10-year-old – currently Springbank are bottling 1,000 six-packs of the 10-year-old per year, rising to 4,000 packs over the next decade. Following on from that, the 14 and the 18-year-old variants will be released in 2005 and 2009 respectively. Hazelburn is developing superbly, showing a floral, honeyed, yet still oily, character. Its first release, as an 8-year-old, will take place in 2005. A Springbank Wood Expressions range is starting next year with a bottling of Springbank from rum casks. It will have spent five to six years in rum wood showing how the complex malt behaves when matured (rather than finished) in different types of wood.
Springbank 15-year-old will reappear in early 2002, a 21-year-old in 2010. By that time Glengyle will be operating again, a new bottling hall will be built and more people taken on. The world wants hand-crafted whisky. A new cycle has begun and this time Springbank is poised to take advantage. * Thanks to David Robertson for the information about low gravities.Springbank specificsMalting: 25 tons at a time.
200 tons malted per season. Peat: 50 tons purchased each year. Comes from Tomintoul. Peating levels: Longrow 60ppm. Springbank 15 - 20ppm.
Hazelburn unpeated. Water: Crosshill Loch.Mashtun: 2.55 ton mash
(10 hour mashing cycle). Distillation: Longrow: double distillation. Springbank: 2 and a half times. Hazelburn: triple distillation.