Amidst the ghosts of distilleries that passed over to the angels almost a century ago, the Springbank complex still spans the length of Well Close, perpendicular to that famous whisky avenue called simply ‘Longrow’. Easy to find in the ‘heart’ of town, just look for the tall bell tower of the Lorne and Lowland Church which dominates the view as you drive down the main road - the distillery sits in the shadow of the tower.
|Chalkboard recording for malt hoppers|
Built in 1828 in the middle of the Campbeltown distillery boom, Springbank is the oldest independent family owned distillery in Scotland, currently owned by a descendant of Archibald Mitchell, the original proprietor of an illicit still on the site. There have been short periods of mothballing during its 182 year history, notably five years in the 1930s and off and on during the 1980s downturn, but these always felt like short term stays in production rather than intent to close completely. The 1930s break came after the mass of distillery closures in the 1920s when 17 Campbeltown distilleries met their fate, yet at Springbank “the plant has been kept in perfect repair…it is possible for an immediate start to be made” (Campbeltown Courier, 1935).
My visit was in the hands of Director of Production Frank McHardy, who has a wealth of experience in the distilling industry in both Scotland and Ireland. Frank’s enthusiasm for the project shone through, despite a BBC camera crew keeping him up late the night before. Frank will be appearing on a small screen near you soon - today it’s just me, my still camera and my notes from Barnard.
|Springbank malting floor|
When Barnard visited there were two granaries and four malting floors, now only half that space is used and barley is stored in bins outside the old buildings for ‘health and safety’ reasons. The recent harvest has been good and the water content of the barley relatively low so not too much drying required before storage. The barley for malting is then raised to 48% moisture in a steep before lying on the malting floor for five and a half days, being turned once every 8 hours using some very traditional equipment. No industrial tumble driers here.
|Traditional malt turning equipment|
|Not so traditional malt mower|
|Springbank kiln with peat ready to reek.|
The kilns themselves are heated with either peat, or oil burning, or a mixture, depending on the spirit to be produced from each batch of malt. The peat used is locally sourced from Machrihanish on the west coast of Kintyre. Barnard mentions that peat was principally used but as Springbank now produces three distinctly different malt whiskies the drying process varies for each one. Springbank has an initial 6 hours of peat drying followed by 30 hours with just hot air from the oil burners; Longrow is 48 hours with peat and hot air to finish if required; Hazelburn is non-peated and malt for this spirit is dried for 36 hours from the oil burners only.
|Draff hopper for final wash|
On the washbacks (6 of them now to Barnard’s 7) the switchers are gradually being removed and instead a silicon ‘antifoam’ uses some kind of witchcraft to alter the surface tension on the CO2 bubbles to stop them frothing too much. Frank maintains that this is not adding something to the wort as the silicon never comes in direct contact, its all in the air. Given the variations in the air in the drying and maturing processes this seems reasonable, but I’m not a chemist so it’s not for me to quibble. Traditional – no, and Barnard refers to engine driven switchers in some of his reports. Efficient and effective – certainly.
The wash at Springbank ferments to an ABV of only 4-6%, lower than many other distilleries due to lower malt proportions used in each mash. Frank advises that the 7-8% achieved by modern techniques would not have been possible from barley in the 19th century, and so Springbank holds onto another of its old traditions. The fermentation time is 110 hours which is longer than many other distilleries and is believed to produce a fruitier spirit.
|Low Wines Stills|
Referring back to my previous post on Hazelburn, and appropriately enough given the whisky of that name produced at Springbank, the wash still here is heated both directly by oil burner and indirectly by steam coil. The brick flu around the wash still is similar to the process once used at Hazelburn, albeit there it was coal fired, as described by Barnard. The two low wines stills are steam coil heated.
|Heating flues and base of wash still|
Now, for each of the three whisky brands produced at Springbank, the spirit is distilled in different ways. Longrow is distilled twice, Hazelburn is triple distilled, and Springbank is distilled, erm, two and a half times, sort of. Look its too complicated for me to explain here but if you go to Springbank’s website at http://springbankdistillers.com/springbank/distillation/ there is a wonderful diagram that explains it all. Questions on a postcard to Frank McHardy, c/o…
In one example of modern equipment being used the condensers on the wash and no.2 low wines stills have an additional after cooler installed, the no.1 low wines still condenses spirit through a worm tub.
|Bottling hall on Longrow site|
The water used at Springbank still comes from the Crosshill Loch from where separate ‘Distillery’ and ‘Town’ Mains were installed by the Duke of Argyll way back in 1820 (Stirk, 2005). The town is now supplied from other reservoirs in the hills to the north but Springbank once again holds onto its traditions using the same water source since it was built.
Barnard notes that the whisky was then principally sold in London and Glasgow but it now enjoys an almost cult following around the world, Germany and Japan being major markets. The care, craft and tradition that goes into production is evident in the final product which has never been chill-filtered and no colour is added. The variety across the range offers something for most whisky connoisseurs and I even found another wine-(not)finished whisky that I (almost) really like, the now sadly unavailable Longrow 8yo which was matured in a Shiraz Hogshead since birth.
My tour ends back where we started at the courtyard around which the distillery is organised. Frank has very important matters to deal with here (I hope your golf match against the Ileachs was successful) so I leave him with warm felt thanks for a pleasurable and informative afternoon.
This all began at Whisky Fringe in Edinburgh where I met Sales Rep Jenny who had already heard about my project. Jenny arranged my tour with Frank and my thanks go to her for that and also for introducing me to the wonderful Longrow 18yo which I look forward to being bottled next year. My thanks also to Lea and Leslie for their hospitality and for looking after me at Cadenhead's shop and tasting room.
Springbank Distillery is keeping the flame of hope burning for whisky distilling in Campbeltown, not only through its own continuity but also through the other historic whisky names that it keeps alive. An afternoon spent touring the distillery and sampling a varied range of their drams is time well spent and offers a unique insight into traditions that Barnard would have been very familiar with.
Footnote – I also visited Mitchell’s Glengyle Distillery with Frank but will return to discuss this in a later post. I am now heading across the loch to where Dalintober Distillery once stood.