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Springbank at the Quaich Society

The Springbank Range

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.

A healthy turnout.

A healthy turnout.

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.

Our measures for the evening.

Our measures for the evening.

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.

Ian in lecture-mode.

Ian in lecture-mode.

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…

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The Plaudits Post

I’m back now, and whilst I may miss my simple, if at times seriously debilitating life on the road, I am in a position to appreciate and marvel at the world of Scotch malt whisky on an entirely separate astral plain. You want to know (I assume) what was good, bad and indifferent, and where you can be guaranteed an unfeasibly large slice of chocolate cake should you be pondering an attempt at something similar (and you really should).

Therefore, this is a plenary post, an awards bash, for what really shouldn’t be missed if you are within 100 miles.

AT THE DISTILLERIES

Drams of the Odyssey

The Glenlivet Nadurra 16YO, 54.2% - Floral, honeyed and teeming with butterscotch and vanilla. A superbly bold Speyside from the more delicate side of the family.

Aberlour 14YO Single Cask First-Fill Bourbon, 63.3% – Full and intensely sweet. Freshly-sawn pine, wood oils, toffee. The malt by which I shall judge all other Bourbon-matured whiskies, and indeed single casks.

Benromach 10YO, 43% – Sweetly heathery, malty and peaty. My kind of whisky.

Ledaig 10YO, 43% – Properly, evocatively peaty. The first heavily peated malt I had tasted since Talisker, and an auspicious herald of the peaty monsters shortly to come.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask, 48% – Awesome. Perfectly assertive oaking, seaweed, smoke and power.

Lagavulin 12YO cask Strength, 57.9% – I was assaulted by this malt. It butted me in the ofrehead then kneed me in the groin. But I loved it. Smoke and sweetness. I need to find this again.

Longrow CV, 46% – Oily, wood smoke. Enormously complex.

Guides of the Odyssey

The Longer Shortlist:

Clare at Royal Lochnagar; Chris at Aberlour; Dagmar at Highland Park.

The Shortlist:

Gavin at Tullibardine – What more can I say about Gavin that I haven’t already? He is one of the most enthusiastic and friendly people I met on my travels. I phoned up the distillery once I returned to research exclusive bottlings in the VC and he remembered me after I mentioned that I had been the boy on a bike. He was brimming with admiration and congratulations, and eager for me to head back to Blackford. I’m just as keen.

Jim at Edradour - For being just a very funny man. His jokes were equally appreciated by the other twenty memebers of my monster tour party. As dry a Scottish sense of humour as you could wish to find.

Fiona at Glen Garioch - Fiona was another guide with an irrepressible sense of humour. Together with Jane, she gave me the much-needed kick up the backside, and in my darker moments thereafter, the thought of being in a position to roll up to Old Meldrum some time in the future and say “I did it,” kept me going.

John at Ben Nevis – It is very difficult to describe where John Carmichael fits in to the architypal breeds of distillery guide. He is  most definitely not the wide-eyed seasonal student; nor the passionate but casual part-timer, nor a member of the production team. He is, however, a complete professional, and a tour with him around the distillery (and he is the head tour guide so chances are good) is not to be missed. He is the second generation to have been in the industry all his days and it shows. His humour (dry), knowledge (supreme) and demeanour (you would think it was his distillery) are all compelling qualities. I learnt more from him about whisky, whisky hospitality and whisky history than from anyone else. It is plain, when he speaks of industry luminaries such as Richard Paterson, that he too enjoys a niche within the inner circle of people whose passion and experience are a good few rungs above everyone else. 

Ruth at Lagavulin - My tour of Lagavulin was perhaps the most relaxed and somehow intimate of my whole odyssey. It was a lovely warm day, the distillery was ticking over nicely and the tour group wasn’t too enormous. Ruth was spectacularly informative and was able to root out a bottle of the 12YO CS, something I’m very grateful for.

Henrik at Glengoyne - Henrik has kept in touch since I met him last month. Another very professional and passionate guide, he took time out of his regular duties to shoot the breeze with me after the tour. He said that he hoped I had enjoyed my tour with the “sweaty Swedish tour guide.” I assured him that these tours were my personal favourites. Michael, the Australian walker I shared a room with in Glasgow, had toured the distillery with Henrik, too, and he praised  his character and performance, as well.

A special mention to Martin at Bladnoch – not technically a tour guide at all but he delivered a top class performance anyway. I don’t think there was a dusty corner of the distillery I didn’t get a glance at. Obviously, his  chauffeuring was an added bonus, but if he does choose to follow his dad into distilling, the future of Bladnoch and distilling in Dumfries and Galloway is in extremely good hands. Thanks again.

And the Winner is…

Robert at Bunnahabhain – As I waxed in my post for the distillery, despite everything that had drained, annoyed and bored me that day, I hung on Robert’s every word. This can’t have been his first tour of the day, but the pride for his plant couldn’t help but shine through so brightly. Hilarious, and with the insight that only comes from actually making the stuff, Robert was by far the best guide of the tour – and he insisted he was “only a stillman.”

Tour of the Odyssey

To win this accolade, it is vital to show the visitor unique insight into the whisky-making process, accommodate them comfortably and stylishly and dram them well. Bowmore, Kilchoman and Springbank would qualify under the first requirement; The Glenlivet and Tullibardine are notably superior exponents of the second, and Aberlour and Glenfiddich are streets ahead in terms of the whisky handed over. There can only be one winner, however.

Highland Park – The emotions triggered when I think back to my visit are wonderful, unique, inexpressible. The location; the unusual logistics of getting there; the typical difficulties with the Scottish weather; the one-to-one tour; the maltings; the spitting, sparking kilns; the warehouses; the video; the beautiful VC; the drams – it was all deeply special.

 Highland Park 2

***

Cafes of the Odyssey

‘The Arch’ in Fettercairn; the wool place on the road between Strathdon and the Lecht Ski resort, ‘Fresh’ in Aberlour; the cafe on the A9 bridge in Helmsdale; ‘Morag’s’ in Wick; the chocolate shop in Tobermory; ‘The Kitchen Garden’ in Oban; ‘The Craft Kitchen’ in Port Charlotte; ‘Fresh Bites’ in Campeltown.

Restaurants of the Odyssey

‘The Ramsay Arms’ in Fettercairn; ‘The Clockhouse’ in Tomintoul; ‘Taste of Speyside’ in Dufftown; ‘Chapter One’ in Forres; ‘The Red Poppy’ in Strathpeffer; ‘The No.1 Bistro at the Mackay Hotel’ in Wick; ‘The Port Charlotte Hotel’ in Port Charlotte.

Locations of the Odyssey – the Best Places to Cycle

Between Gilmerton and Aberfeldy in Perthshire; Angus; Between Forres and Inverness; The North-East coast to John o’Groats; Orkney; Skye; Mull; Arran; Dumfries and Galloway.

Beds of the Odyssey

Stirling Youth Hostel; Pitlochry Youth Hostel; Kishmul B&B in Fettercairn; Argyle Guest House in Tomintoul; Norlaggan B&B in Aberlour; Milton of Grange B&B in Forres; Carbisdale Castle Youth Hostel; Netherby B&B in Wick; The Picturehouse B&B in Ard Dorch, Skye; Inverasdale B&B in Oban; The Carradale Hotel in Carradale; Lochranza Youth Hostel; Glasgow Youth Hostel.

To be Avoided

It would be remiss of me to not warn you of the less rewarding components in the Scotch whisky family.

The Distilleries that Could Do Better

Glenturret (too expensive); Old Pulteney (too expensive and your questions won’t be answered); Oban (never mind too expensive, this is highway robbery); Caol Ila (disinterested guide and not much on show).

***

If you have any questions about anything you have read, or there is anything which you feel I haven’t fully described or made clear, just drop a comment and I’ll do my best to help out. Scotland is an unspeakably beautiful, pleasingly accessible and thrillingly complex country made for exploration, just like the unique spirit it creates.

 

Pagodas, sea, sky and a bike. Just right now I can't think of a more stirring combination.

Pagodas, sea, sky and a bike. Just right now I can't think of a more stirring combination.

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