Campbeltown Malts Festival 2019 Review Part 1

Following previous club excursions to Speyside, Auchentoshan, Waterford and Loch Lomond, the Kintynre peninsula beckoned and, well, what better time than festival season? With planning going back nearly a year and a generous hold baggage allowance in tow, new club member and old friend Calum and I set off for 2019’s Campbeltown festival with a spring in our step.

Before arriving in the promised land, and as a frequent business traveller to Glasgow, the opportunity to visit some famous institutions guilt-free for the first time was clearly too hard to resist. Upon arrival at the Pot Still and Bon Accord the floodgates duly opened, accompanied by that most elusive of beasts at our usual end of the country… the 35cl dram! With both our backgrounds firmly rooted in Islay, this felt like a worthwhile chance to exorcise any demons before Campbeltown and the opportunity duly presented itself via a couple of drams of an early (and most exquisite) Laphroaig 15. I have to take this opportunity to reflect on just how assertive and bold a whisky this was at an ABV of 43%; a strength about which I’m invariably far too dismissive these days.

With further superb rarities from the likes of Clynelish, Highland Park and Edradour, the holiday was off to a good start.

Or, to put it another way, probably the last time we really knew what day it was. Whisky heaven beckoned and, after a propeller plane flight that performed some fairly forensic analysis for any residual hangover on both our parts, Campbeltown’s rolling hills and luscious greenery emerged from the clouds.

Upon arrival in town and with two days before it all kicked off, things seemed eerily quiet; it only felt appropriate to calibrate at The Black Sheep with a dram of good old Springbank 10 and a Longrow Peated. It was time to start getting our bearings and initiate the first of probably a hundred meandering walks along the seafront.

After taking the requisite amount of time first to react to (then photograph) a road sign reading ‘Longrow’, we landed at the fabled Ardshiel Hotel – as it would transpire, almost our next-door neighbour! Quite the lucky accident, I’m sure you’ll agree. It was here that we’d have our first encounter with the notorious ‘cage’ bottles – know your enemy, and all that. Whilst one could debate the economic sense in paying £19 for something that came out of a bottle with a hand written sticker on it, it certainly whet the appetite for what would become a very indulgent week and the whisky absolutely did not disappoint.

Honourable shouts at this stage go to the Longrow Red Malbec cask, which had been eluding me for years, and to the consistently impressive independent Glasgow bottler North Star for a ten year old cask strength Benrinnes, fuelling my burgeoning relationship with a most underrated Speyside institution.

We awoke to sunshine, which would become something of a theme. As someone who grew up near the sea I’m prone to bang on without prompting about how life enhancing such an experience is, but Scotland really does put a very special spin on it. Campbeltown was truly resplendent.

Today was technically a fallow day – the calm before the storm. If I’ve learnt one thing from a week like this in retrospect, it’s that such an ambition is a lofty one. First stop – AKA what one does whenever a spare twenty minutes presents itself at this time of year – the Cadenhead’s shop, and, *drum roll* – the virgin cage purchase! This is a well-hidden section at the back of the store where hitherto anonymous casks, each hand-selected by the distillery manager, find their way into bottles placed onto a rickety set of shelves and many a bargain is to be had… if you can handle the queues. We took a punt on a fourteen year old Springbank refill bourbon cask, and it did exactly what it said on the tin. Very nicely, too.

The first fixed slot in the diary was with SMWS at the Ardshiel, who were showcasing a cracking selection of Glen Scotias past, present and future. While I found the festival bottle itself a little lacking until it had a splash of water, I was really excited by 93.105: Tea Leaves and Seaweed, and the European festival special, 93.110: West Coast Warlock. Oh, and did I get what I deserved for expecting to be able to sneakily procure a Feis Ile Laphroaig ahead of the crowd at this point? Yes, I did (and I’m glad this provided such enduring amusement for Julie and team throughout the remainder of the festival!). Serves me right.

After ticking check-boxes for “small hike” and “fish and chips”, this paved the way for the Cadenhead’s Club member tasting in the famous Springbank malt barns. Tradition dictates, amidst the larks / buffoonery (and passion!) of Mark and team, that the members choose the Club bottling for the next year and, after the example set by last year’s incredibly smooth and luxurious Glenrothes 22, we did feel a certain responsibility on our shoulders.

On offer were whiskies from the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, a Barbadian rum, a well-aged blend and finally a youthful Islay with all of five years on the clock… all anonymised until the moment of truth, of course. It was a pretty diverse representation of Cadenhead’s stock and certainly an interesting and most democratic exercise given the communal inebriation levels. It ended up in what was almost a dead heat, but I get the impression both will see the light of day eventually. My choice? Actually – probably the rum!

With the first day of the festival proper upon us, it was down to Glen Scotia to get things started. After a decidedly groggy beginning to proceedings, fully deserved after helping a few non-attendees with their drams the previous evening, we ambled across town to the dunnage warehouse in time for master distiller Ian McAllister’s Hidden Gems tasting.

On the menu were bottles ageing between eight to seventeen years spanning the 60s, 70s and 80s – a remarkable testament to Scotia’s history, the 60’s twelve year old showing a degree of that trademark oiliness that took the breath away. Something perhaps even more special concluded the proceedings, which all I can say is significantly older than myself (not a situation I would otherwise encounter all week) and, we gathered, slated for release in the coming year.

In all honesty, Glen Scotia is the one distillery of the Campbeltown bunch that I have spent the least time bonding with, most often via indy bottlers like the SMWS which is, while often brilliant, probably not always the most accurate reflection of its core DNA. I’ve also sensed from social media that there is a palpable – albeit light-hearted – degree of banter between themselves and Springbank. I’d often pondered if this was a case of “the big boys picking on the little guy” (despite their comparable production levels) but actually, it’s nothing of the sort; there’s a whole lotta’ love going around here. An inevitable degree of tribalism is always at play with whisky fans, but it was heartening to witness the mutual support enjoyed between the remaining handful of institutions in a town that once enjoyed thirty-four.

After a whistle-stop tour of the distillery itself, the afternoon signalled a return to the dunnage warehouse for a tasting straight from the barrel; two casks returned from last year, together with three surprises. Ian drew a 2001 bourbon cask (my personal favourite) alongside peated offerings finished in tawny port, oloroso sherry and Chateau Maurac wine respectively, and a 1989 sherry cask to finish things off. Each had their merits and I found myself getting unusually excited about a red wine finish which, rather than drying, offered fruitcake and juiciness in abundance.

Now riding the crest of a wave following the serendipity of snapping up a sixteen year old port cask Springbank in the cage, the evening provided a perfect opportunity to while down the ample remaining sunshine with TLWC members Sattu and Shiv (who had travelled up the previous day) and indulge in some impromptu team-building exercises using only the tools available to us.

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