Had I elected to partake of my flatmate’s evening menu – chicken breasts with a pine nut crust, creamy leek sauce and steamed veg – I would have missed this superlative tasting, the first which I have had cause to chronicle since the Adelphi tasting back in October. Striding into the Scores Hotel after a hasty pasta-’n'-sauce, the atmosphere spoke of more than 300-odd glasses of single malt gently exhaling, but about 50 persons squabbling for seating, too. The place was packed out.
Such exponential interest could have been down to the projector/PowerPoint assemblage, which certainly conferred upon Ian from Springbank a heightened aura of professionalism. Unfortunately, as I had experienced when I gave a talk to my local Rotary Club, there were technical difficulties. Solutions were soon improvised, however, and an exterior shot of the distillery gateway, of which I had likewise taken a photograph with my bike lent against it, appeared on the screen. After a preliminary request that someone keep him informed as to the latest developments in the Rangers match, we got under way.
Springbank – and indeed the Argyll area as a whole – made a singular impression on me, yet I have had minimal opportunity to explore their output beyond the delicious 10 and 15yos. Ian would redeem my ignorance.
The first of the six sparkling glasses of the evening contained a dram I have been very keen to source: Kilkerran. Produced in the J & A Mitchell-owned and restored Glengyle distillery, expressions have been released annually for the last couple of years as ‘Works in Progress’. The representative on this occasion was 6-years-old and mightily intriguing it was, too. Firm, clean and very sweet, barley sugar notes stood out on both the nose and palate, the former became more tropically fruity with waxy mango skin after a touch of water. Honey and citrus also made an appearance. Spicy, oaky and vaguely biscuity on the palate, a creaminess slowly developed. The casks have been doing their jobs impressively, and this is set to be a very enjoyable malt.
Ian was to surprise me with his next selection: not the CV expression of the triple-distilled and unpeated Hazelburn expression, produced in the Springbank distillery, but the limited release and Sherry-matured 12yo. Apricot-like initially, that Springbank saltiness came through in a rush. Grungey, oaky, leafy and oily, there was a dustiness in the mouth that reminded me of very old houses. These drying flavours lightened, and intensely herbal aromatics appeared. Returning to this later on in the evening, however, the Hazelburn seemed a tad washed out beside its richer, peated siblings.
A couple of gents whom I had not met at previous tastings were asking some very intelligent questions and between them and the folk on the committee table, Ian was given a real work over. However, with rakish assurance cask-variety percentages, barley strains and peating levels were all related to us – although he got a little bit distracted when news of Rangers’ last-gasp goal which ensured their passage to the next stage of the Europa League came through. On the subject of barley, the distillery has been using Optic for some time now, and malts 100% of their requirements on-site. Where possible, they aim to use the produce from local farmers in the west of Scotland, but during especially damp winters, supplies from the East (Lothian) have to be brought in. As I mentioned in my review of the Springbank experience, they were distilling batches of ‘Local Barley’ again from farms immediately around Campbeltown and this is intended to be kept back for a few years yet. On the subject of peating levels, we now embarked upon the Springbanks.
At roughly 20ppm, the standard Springbank is a medium-peated malt whisky. It is no Ardbeg, but peat does constitute a large proportion of its character, although as we would all discover with the next three malts, in complete harmony with the other flavours hailing from the Mull of Kintyre. The first of these was the CV expression. CV stands for Chairman’s Vat, and represents the company’s endeavours to market both a more affordable whisky and a perfect introduction to the Springbank house style. If it helps, it gets my seal of approval. Matured in a mixture of Bourbon, Sherry and Port casks, with an age profile of between 6 and 10 years, this boasted lovely sweet and rich notes. Banana cream pie, nutty, very toffeed with a breath of sea air, the palate was a medley of crisp peat and smoke, big, lively richness and a slight appley character.
Much has been said about the 10yo, and even amongst such exotic company, the principal bottling held its ground. I loved the soft leather, barley, orange and pepper notes, and especially the velvety muscular body. The palate hadn’t the peaty presence of the CV, but was richer, oakier and nuttier.
The very best – to my mind – was saved for a penultimate encounter. The new addition to the range and hot on the heels of the other fairly young, age-statemented and above all cask strength releases from around Scotland was a 12yo at 58% ABV, which took the breath of some other tasters. A blend of first- and refill Sherry casks, I couldn’t help but glory at the complexity of body and depth of oak flavours faithfully rendered by the preserved strength. Perfumed, with oak and lots of pear and apple, the nose carried on into baked bread and earthy spice. Vanilla and nuts appeared, as did paprika, sawn oak and toffee. I loved the palate: thick and phenolic, with apple peel notes and general citrussy qualities. A touch of water revealed the maritime character, as well as barley sugar and burnt bark. The whole thing was a thrilling triumph and I want more, please.
The tasting concluded with the peat monster: Longrow. One of the best drams I was implored to try during my tour was a nip of the CV in Cadenheads after my tour of Springbank and I adored its rugged, seaside freshness in addition to thick, oily industrial smoke. The 14yo was somewhat disappointing after such fond memories. Peat had been present at first, but with so much time interacting with the air, this had if anything disappeared, blown over the sea to Islay where they know how to keep hold of their smoke. What I detected instead was a very pleasant rich pear aroma. Then came creamy toffee and ginger biscuits. I was beguiled by its apparent softness. Peat appeared on the palate, but only after a slow build. Otherwise, the experience was clean and sweet, with heather and more fruit on a return to the nose.
Ian encoutnered very little resistance selling the Springbank story. The traditional – some might say stone-age – approach to making whisky has not failed them yet, it would seem, and it is a very strong range, happily polished off but us thirsty students in the process of the raffle. I would like to thank Ian for bringing the word of Campbeltown from distant Argyllshire – we thoroughly enjoyed his company and knowledge. Credit must also go towards the committee of the Quaich Society who put on yet another seamless tasting. The next few promise to be very entertaining indeed, but I shan’t give anything away just yet…