"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Monday, 13 September 2010

Springbank Distillery, Campbeltown

Ah Springbank, blessings upon ye. More than any other distillery Springbank has not only retained the tradition of distilling in this fabled whisky town, but their owners have sought to revitalise it with the re-opening of Glengyle Distillery in 2004, the first new distillery in Campbeltown in over 125 years. I will discuss my visit to Glengyle in a later post but for now my journey takes me back in time to the traditional methods still used “in the heart of the Whisky City”.

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
Springbank is the only distillery in Scotland with full end to end production on one site. From floor malting, including some locally grown barley, right through the mashing and distilling processes, maturation and final bottling, all stages include elements of traditional hand craft methods. Modern equipment has been installed only where required to replace older worn machinery and often seems out of place. No need for computer control when a simple chalkboard will do.

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
Barnard only wrote one page on his visit to Springbank but that offers enough to compare the current operation with. I entered the yard through the same single gateway as Barnard and there met Frank to begin the tour. We started with a long climb to the top of the buildings to see the barley store and malting floors. This is a first for me, and to be in the presence of germinating barley, preparing to give up its sugars to the still, feels like an honour. Blessed be the barley, without which the people would endure such a drouth.

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

The malt is transferred to the kiln using electric powered elevators, which I am a little disappointed to hear as Barnard mentions a steam lift and 'hand elevators'. I half expected to find a student on summer placement working a rope for 8 hours, but she may have drawn the line after shovelling tons of barley into a wheelbarrow. Hey, stop whinging, it’s tradition you know!

Springbank kiln with peat ready to reek.
Next stop was at the kilns which Barnard had described as “large and lofty, and floored with English perforated tiles.” Large and lofty still; the tiles now replaced with more common mesh to allow the circulation of air. Frank describes the kilns as ‘pressure kilns’ and he explained that there is no actual pressure involved, simply the re-routing of warm air back into the kiln to aid the drying process. The current kiln equipment was installed in 1966 when the distillery was renovated and was considered state of the art then.

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
As for so many other distilleries, Barnard’s description of the old milling, mashing and fermenting stages is fairly standard; the current processes in some ways are not. The current mash involves four waters rather than the three common in other distilleries, the final water draining through the mash after it has been lifted to a hopper outside ready for the draff to be dropped into carts for removal. The old open tank that was once used beside a Morton’s refrigerator for air cooling of the worts still sits above the tun-room, the modern compact heat exchanger sitting by.

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
The current low wines stills were installed in 1971, the wash still earlier with its top from the 1960s renovation and the base from the mists of time. The sizes of the stills are very different from Barnard’s time with the two low wines stills now almost double in size and the wash still seemingly smaller.

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
In my post on Greenock distillery I asked if anyone had any information on what Barnard described as “the ancient chain arrangement for agitating the liquid” within the wash still there. Since returning from Springbank I read in Udo (2005) that their wash still has a tantalizingly named ‘rummager’ with a similar purpose. I can guess as to the purpose but the means of operation is still a mystery.

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
When Barnard visited the distillery they had their own small cooperage but this is sadly no more and I have yet to see coopers at work on my journey. Frank mentions that he knows the techniques but I think I may be pushing my luck to ask for a demonstration so we move on to the bottling hall. This is a labour intensive operation situated on the site of the old Longrow distillery on the other side of Well Close. There is little to see of the old distillery buildings but the attention to detail and pride of work in the bottling hall reflects the craft that old Mr Ross, the proprietor at Longrow, would have expected there.

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.