Saturday, 11 June 2016

Campbeltown Open Day Part Two: 19th May. Springbank

I have never had a good night’s sleep on Kintyre. Granted I’ve only slept four nights there, but I reckon my running total’s a combined 12 hours, and a pretty restless twelve hours they were too. Not because of some child-on-Christmas-Eve excitement at the prospect of visiting a Campbeltown Distillery I’m afraid, more the result of my usual insomnia coupled to unusual and generally uncomfortable locations. My Kintyre bed hit-list to date comprises a bunk house, a tent, the passenger seat of a corsa and a wigwam. Frankly you can keep the lot of ‘em.

Today it is the bunk house in which I awaken reluctantly at 5 in the morning. It is probably my sixth or seventh awakening of the night, and this time I concede defeat and get up. It’s my own fault; I have the same social confidence around strangers that a cat has at Crufts. God knows what I thought I had worth stealing in the night. My organs probably. Well joke’s on them; they won’t get much for my liver.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, my day – destined to be spent at Springbank – begins by leaving Campbeltown and driving nearly forty miles northwards. This is my own stupid fault, and a lesson in booking ahead, as I am making my way to pick up the keys to the closest accommodation available this evening; the aforementioned
wigwam, located just outside Tarbert. Having set off from Campbeltown at about 6 o’clock I arrive somewhat earlier than the agreed-upon 11:30, and find myself in a Tarbert café drinking surprisingly decent coffee and giving my thumbs a good twiddle.

I kill the next few hours having a wander around Tarbert, which I have driven through without stopping several times on the course of the pilgrimage. It’s a narrow isthmus which connects Kintyre to the mainland, and across which historical chaps had a penchant for hauling longboats. One such character was no less than Robert the Bruce, who fortified the castle on a hilltop overlooking the town. What he’d have made of it being advanced upon by a solitary English youth I shudder to think; the only remaining Scots in residence were a small herd of long-horned black sheep, who turned tail and scampered away at my approach in a craven manner which would have had Bobbie gnashing his teeth with rage had he borne witness.

Eventually my phone squawks at me, telling me that the keys to my wigwam are ready for collecting. After picking them up and depositing my bags unceremoniously on the judo crash mat which passes for a bed (just like in the original Native American wigwams...) I make my way to the nearest bus stop and head back South with all the speed I can muster. Not entirely sure how I'm going to get back again, given the last bus is due to leave Campbeltown before my final masterclass ends, but I decide that's a bridge to cross when I come to it. I'm so damn devil-may-care.

Lunch is hastily devoured, and a few presents for upcoming birthdays assembled before I turn my attention to Springbank, which this time I manage to find without phoning HQ and asking for directions. It’s certainly busier than Glen Scotia was the previous day; a veritable throng of people mooch in the courtyard, most clutching charged Glencairns. A tent at the far end seems particularly packed, the reason becoming apparent when I am told that it is where the open day releases are being sold.

Which calls for an addition to the mountain of praises which I have heaped upon Springbank over the last year. Three Special Edition whiskies have been bottled to mark the occasion; a Kilkerran 8yo drawn from a Sherry Butt, a Springbank 9yo matured in Marsala, and a Longrow 21yo. Unsurprisingly the Longrow isn't what you'd call cheap, but both the Springbank and the Kilkerran are priced at only £50. So a round of applause to this remarkable distillery for its dedication to affordable Single Malt. The downside is that I’ve arrived too late and the Springbanks have all been whizzed, but I console myself by purchasing the Kilkerran. Win some, lose some.

I’ve still 45 minutes before my first masterclass of the day, so I slope about to see what’s what. The crowds are massing around the open door of one of the warehouses, where it transpires that numerous Springbanks, Longrows, Hazelburns, Kilkerrans and Cadenhead bottlings are open to try. The system is that £5 buys you five tickets, each one exchangeable for a taste, which is good value however you spin it. They’re being hand-poured too, so you more than get your money's worth. My tactic for each dram is just to ask the pourers for recommendations. As it turns out I didn’t have time to use all five of my tickets in between masterclasses, but my tastes included a 2004 Rum Cask Kilkerran, 16yo Springbank (cask unknown - think a Bourbon-heavy vatting) the Hazelburn fill-your-own from the Campbeltown Cadenhead’s (superb incidentally - the whisky and the shop!) and the Kilkerran Work in Progress 6 (Bourbon Cask.) And very satisfactory they all were too. 

Masterclass number one as far as I’m concerned is the enigmatically named ‘Favourites from the Past.’ As we mill in the courtyard I can’t help feeling my youth rather. My lack of distillery-branded merchandise also puts me in a minority category, though weirdly the majority of that being sported bears the logo of an Islay distillery. Ardbeg is particularly well represented. Feels a bit like someone turning up at Old Trafford in a Liverpool shirt, but maybe that’s just me! Perhaps they were travelling supporters...

The masterclass is held in a spanking new warehouse by Ranald Watson, who has been in sales and marketing with Springbank for years. It turns out that the whiskies on show are some of his favourites from amongst those bottled in the years he’s been with the distillery. So really it wasn’t an enigmatic name at all; possibly I’m simply an imbecile. He welcomes us all with a little intro speech, receiving a round of applause from some particularly enthusiastic chaps near the front when he comments that ‘Springbank don’t really go in for non-age-dated whiskies, and we’ve no plans to.’ One bloke looked as though he was going to take off with the excitement - I half expected a whoop.

On to the whiskies, which were assembled in small plastic shot glasses around a Springbank-branded Glencairn (which we got to keep, thanks very much!) Ranald acknowledges that the first expression doesn’t really count as a ‘favourite from the past,’ as it’s a 19yo Hazelburn which hasn’t actually been bottled yet. So it’s more a ‘favourite from the past of the future.’ Either way, it’s tasty stuff. Matured in first-fill bourbon, which I think is definitely Hazelburn’s optimum barrel type. Really nice deftness and lightness of touch despite the age and ABV.

Hazelburn is followed by five more expressions: Springbank 10yo 100 proof, Springbank 10yo Rundlets & Kilderkins (teeny tiny 60 and 80 litre barrels in case you’re wondering), Springbank 14yo Local Barley, the 2012 release of Springbank 21yo and Longrow 11yo Rundlets & Kilderkins.

A particularly fun ‘fact du jour’ emerges on tasting the Local Barley expression, as Ranald explains that the barley is provided by local farmer Paul McCartney. You’ve possibly heard of him - he sings a bit. A fellow Merseysider with a healthy Springbank obsession then. My favourite of the session? Tough call. Loved the 21yo, but it might well have been edged out by the 100 proof, which had the most of what I consider to be 'typical' Springbank character. Shame they don’t bottle it any more - and particular thanks to Ranald for this one, as it came out of his own personal stash.

Thanking Ranald I patrol the courtyard for a few minutes, before the rain starts to hammer down and I shelter in the porch of the Manager’s office with a few others as we wait for the next masterclass: the Manager’s Warehouse Tasting. One of the shelterers is a good Kiwi bloke who seems to be getting everyone he can find to be videoed saying something on his ipad. My own role comes when he discovers I’m a wino by trade, and he then asks me to guess where he’s from, possibly forgetting that he’s wearing a cap with a silver fern on it!

Gavin McLachlan, Springbank’s manager, collects us from our shelter and we all troop into the nearest warehouse, Gavin armed with a stout whisky thief. He announces that we’re going to try four, or possibly five whiskies, before plunging his thief into a cask, and drawing samples for all.

First blood’s the oldest Hazelburn at the distillery, yet to be bottled
and understandably along the same lines as that tasted in Favourites from the Past. Indeed I wonder whether it’s the same one. Weighing up the size of the group, which is spread along a fair chunk of the alley between rows of casks I make the tactical decision to do a fair amount of sidling as I nose, so I’m always near the front for samples. (The first poured are almost invariably bigger!)

Next up is a port barrel filled with a very sweet and fruity Kilkerran, which is absolutely delicious, but in my opinion ought to be bottled sooner rather than later. Loads of blackcurrant, menthol and liquorice; distillery character not at all overwhelmed, but the balance is pretty spot on as it is. Note to all, if a port-matured Kilkerran is released any time soon, don’t hesitate. (Depending on price!) There follows a 21 year old Springbank, which is marrying away in a sherry butt, having been vatted from a mixture of Bourbon and sherry. As massive in body as Springbanks invariably are, but with a freshness belying its years. No prizes for guessing that Dram the Fourth is from the Longrow stable; in this instance a Malbec cask, destined to become the next edition of Longrow Red, unless I misunderstood. In my professional capacity I should really have questioned the origin of the Malbec, but it only occurred to me to ask after I’d already collected my sample and shuffled out of the way. Either way it was a cracker, but the palate had a lot more to talk about than the nose did.

Gavin’s feeling generous, so there is a fifth sample after all. It’s a riff on the third as it turns out; another 21yo Springbank (my third of the day - hard life) but in this instance being finished for a year in ex-Lafite. My notes are becoming more hastily scribbled as we’ve torn through the samples, and rather briefer too, but the
upshot was that I preferred the non-Lafite 21. More Springbank singularity. But that’s just me, and I’m certainly not complaining about sample 5! Many thanks to Gavin for every one of them.

Which concludes tasting for the masterclass, and so far as I’m concerned, also for the day. At this point it’s about half past four or so, so I nip to Cadenhead’s where I pick up a bottle of their exclusive 10yo Marrying Strength Springbank. The smell of fish and chips lures me to such an eatery across the road from the distillery. Excellent blotting paper after an afternoon’s sipping! And then to Springbank’s finale, which is an evening Ceilidh in a malt barn. A fine way to use up an evening, though I felt distinctly Presbyterian as, deciding I'd tasted sufficient, I supped bottled water whilst all around me Campbeltown whiskies exuded their joyful perfume. The band was a local group; couple of pipers, plus some drums and guitars. I enjoyed the festivities until around about 10, by which point I’d had about as much water as I could take, and thought I'd get some air.

The rain of the day had finally subsided, and the late evening Cambeltown streets were dark and quiet. For half an hour I lent against the railings of the harbour, watching a solitary seal. I don’t know whether he had forgotten the way he came in, or whether like me he  just fancied quietly watching the world go by for a bit, but he swam happily in circles and popped his head up every so often, looking about him in appropriate seal fashion. Finally he left the harbour behind, and after ambling around for a little while longer, going over the events of the day, so did I.

It was the far side of midnight when I arrived at my wigwam, having treated myself to a taxi-ride in the absence of other obvious options. (The Devil will put in central heating before I'm brave enough to hitch-hike.) In all honesty I wanted nothing better than to declare myself Big Chief Lying Down Pilgrim and flop onto the judo mat, but I decided that such a day would not be ended properly without a nip of one of my proud purchases. Quietly sipping as I continued my assault on John Cleese’s autobiography I knew that I had made the right choice. It’s not every day you can immerse yourself in one of your favourite distilleries to such a magnificent degree. My tasting book was a good few pages longer, my love for Springbank that bit deeper, and Glengyle had ascended several places up my personal rankings.      

Next year I will almost certainly make my way to Spirit of Speyside. In fact there’s no ‘almost’ about it. But for this year it was a joy to celebrate Scotland’s smallest and most stubbornly independent whisky region for a couple of days. So I'll see you again soon Campbeltown - and thanks. It was a real pleasure.


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