The Springbank Open Day. This was the big one. The only challenge at a time like this really is ascertaining exactly how to achieve everything you want to do, which is effectively the same as dividing by zero.
Having been spooked by stories of rabid travellers camping overnight in their hundreds for festival bottles on Islay, it felt like getting in a queue was the probably the right thing to do first (plus a national tradition worth celebrating)… 40 minutes of morning sunshine later, a Springbank 8 sherry cask and Longrow 15 rum cask were in our possession! A fine start to proceedings.
The Hazelburn breakfast tasting, kicking off at a bright and bold 11.30 a.m, presented a broad selection of expressions including oloroso, rum, sauternes and two twenty-one year olds, the latter of which representing their festival bottling for 2019. The first of the two I found rather underwhelming but the main event, a refill sherry hogshead, improved things markedly. I didn’t find it to be a religious experience (more on them shortly anyhow) but a.) many others did and b.) I think that says more about my still quite naive relationship with Hazelburn than anything else. The fourteen year old oloroso cask did rock my world, as I already well knew was the case, and still heartily recommend it to anyone who can track one down.
One point I really must raise about the whole Springbank experience, and vibe, is just how shockingly good value the whole shebang proves to be. A pop-up bar serves the world’s best selection for one day a year (at a rate where they’re almost paying you to drink it) and the events themselves were all a measly £30 with one exception – the headlining ‘Good, Bad and the Ugly’ tasting at £50. But frankly, I would have probably paid double if I’d known what was coming.
A brief tactical lunch enabled us to link up with the others, some of whom had attended the Art and Science of Maturation tasting, a fascinating session offering new-make of each of the distillery’s spirits followed by a sample of the original cask spirits in isolation (wine, port etc) and finally the whisky that emerges from a fusion of the two. Tasting oloroso sherry for the first time was quite the eye opener. While I had always placed it quite close to Pedro Ximenez in my head, I was struck by the borderline bitterness of what I tasted and it engendered a new respect for any well-considered exercise in oloroso maturation.
Words are wasted when attempting to do justice to the venerable selection of spirit that ensued. A forthcoming twenty-five year old Springbank captured Calum’s heart, while some combination sherry cask experiments from the early 90s – one the very colour of balsamic vinegar – certainly did it for me. Astonishing. We were also treated to something a.) rather old b.) rather special and c.) forthcoming from Longrow, and the most self-indulgent of token 1981 Caol Ilas to polish off proceedings. Because if you can, then – well – why wouldn’t you, I suppose?!
By this time we felt lucky again, and all roads led to one place only. Feeling like we’d struck a rapport with the Cadenhead’s shop staff after what were now around seven visits, we sensed in our waters that a cage restock was imminent and formed a firm defensive wall at the entrance. Fifteen minutes later and bingo; rum, sherry and Burgundy cask Springbanks were added to the haul. I don’t take any pleasure as such in depriving others of what they want, but it certainly did feel like a stone-cold case of ‘you make your own luck’! For a day that kept on giving, it feels almost weird to consider it ever had to end but it certainly wasn’t going to go without a fight.
Last stop: the Springbank warehouse tasting, overseen by the watchful (yet not too watchful) eye of distillery manager Findlay. Sumptuous excursions into aged Springbank, Hazelburn and Longrow followed amidst much merriment (particularly when the wrong cask was opened to reveal something rather exceptional, and generously offered regardless). For something different, I really enjoyed the refreshingly unusual intensity of an 8 year Springbank drawn from a quarter cask; a brief insight into next year’s Longrow Red concluded proceedings and it tasted to me like the best one yet. Admittedly by that stage my judgement was seriously clouded, but it’s probably best we just go along with it.
Seeing the evening out to the sound of local schoolchildren playing the pipes, bathing in the relentless evening sun, was a profoundly moving experience and not one I shall forget in a hurry. After another photo-shoot of our plunder on the seafront (and very photogenic it was too), all that remained was a critical evaluation of proceedings at the Ardshiel, where I have to single out the staggeringly farm-y nose of a 1999 Ledaig as a particular highlight. I also think this is probably what finished us off, and made for quite an interesting final day.
Springbank Warehouse Tasting:
- 1998 Hazelburn 21 year old, Fresh Bourbon Cask, 55% ABV
This cask is a part of the first generation of Hazelburn that accounts for 10% of the annual production and provided a special and unique insight into the history of the distillery. It is clean on the nose with some vanilla and sweetness from the malted barley and bourbon cask. It continues with bursts of vanilla sweetness, toffee and fudge with hints of citrus on the palate. This has to be one of the best Hazelburns I have tasted.
- 2011 Springbank 8 year old, Refill Sherry (Octave) Cask, 48% ABV
Nose had an unmistakable sweet sherry, dates, beewax and almonds – all that you expect from a sherried Springbank. Taste was sweet with leather, dates, some liquorice, and fine bittersweet chocolate finishing short to medium with some syrup and coffee beans.
- Springbank 21, Vatted + Final 12 months Fresh Sherry Cask for 2020 Bottling, 49.3%
Apparently this a mix of bourbon, port and rum casks? Not sure if that was full term maturations. But it was vatted and put in fresh sherry casks for the last 12 months (with 9 months still to go) for the 2020 bottling. Nose was a mix of red fruit, tobacco and earth with hints of raspberry, floral infusions A bit of time in the glass brought out hints of candied dark fruits. On the palate, I got candies orange peels, granola, dark fruit and christmas cake and golden syrup along with some farm-like Springbanky goodness underneath. It finished with good length, tobacco, dried dark fruits and jam. I would wait for the finished product, as it will have elegance and complexity.
- 2002 Longrow 17 year old, Fresh Sherry Cask, 54.3%
Lots of sherry-soaked raisins and figs on the nose with an elegant smoky note. First pour gives a whiff of the nasty “sulfur”, but lasts only for a few moments before evaporating into notes of vintage furniture and leathery tobacco. Palate has an oily beginning with sherry sweetness, sawdust or even pencil shavings and the leathery tobacco notes. Finishes medium with dark chocolate and almonds with some spice and smoke – not evident on the palate but clearly makes an appearance at the end.
- Longrow Red 13 year old, Malbec Cask, 58%
A coastal sea salty nose that settles into fruity, dark fruit and redcurrants. A gentle hint of boxes of cigars is evident in the form of tobacco. The fruitiness continues on the mouth with poached apples, apple strudle, plums. This is followed by a touch of peat finishing off strong with red wine tannins, smouldering ambers and the consistent fruit notes.
Open day bar:
- 2011 Springbank 8, Fresh Sherry Cask, 56.8% (Open Day Bottle)
Begins with a leathery deep sherry sherry like nose – maybe even a bit earthy! Hints of tobacco, star anise and some rather punchy, briney notes. Taste is that of bitters orange, herbs, bacon and pretty spot on with the sherry that is rather good. Decent long finish with summer barbeque like notes and maybe a touch medicinal (think a very, very light Laphroaig).
- 2004 Longrow 15, Fresh Rum Cask, 52.4% (Open Day Bottle)
Rum, peat – not a big fan, however this one has full rum maturation, so it may change my perceptions! Nose is strong on rum and coastal notes. Secondary notes of lemon, fever tree, beach and cow sheds. Palate has lots of peat, smoky barley, lemon cordial, fish sauce and meaty-salty notes with very little domination from the rum. It finishes rather long, citrusy, briney, peaty-sooty and full of coastal notes.
- Longrow 14, Sherry Cask, 57.8%
- 2006 Kilkerran 10 year old, Calvados Cask, 58.1%
- Hazelburn 10 year old, Refill Marsala Cask, 59.6%
A struggle. In reflection this was probably only ever going to go one way when plonking two fanatical whisky drinkers in a festival environment for the first time; needless to say the day began with a heady cocktail of stuff you’d be more likely to find in Boots.
Nevertheless, this was Cadenhead’s and Glengyle’s turn to shine and the show had to go on, so off we trundled (on a mercifully cloudy morning) to the first engagement of the day; one of the infamous warehouse tastings. Whilst I’d probably have chosen not to stand for the first couple of hours of the day, the pain did subside temporarily after we were plied with a rich variety of their wares. Highlights included a thirty-eight year old blend of Macallan, Tamdhu, Highland Park, Glenrothes and Invergordon, a thirty year old Tormore, a typically excellent twenty-three year old Benrinnes, another Springbank 14 and a rather punchy twelve year old from Loch Lomond’s Croftongea.
I’d not really had the pleasure of drinking through a hangover on quite this scale before but with no rest for the wicked, thirty minutes’ respite flew by and up next was the Evolution of Kilkerran tasting. This was the one event that still hadn’t sold out by the time the festival arrived, much to the consternation of most people we spoke to; it felt like a super opportunity to learn more of a whisky about which we knew comparatively little. However, once I had a moment to survey a better-lit room full of sore heads, it started to make more sense… perhaps people knew what a breakfast tasting feels like on the last day of a festival!
Though less said about Calum’s will to live at this stage the better, I soldiered on via two drams from their Work in Progress series, the standard 12 year old and cask strength offerings, concluded by a sixteen year old and the bruiser that is the new heavily-peated vintage. I actually have to say I found the WIP drams piqued my interest the most (alongside the sample of a super-rare port cask that Shiv shared with us following a separate tasting he attended). I do enjoy the transparency of being given the opportunity to enjoy how their product ages year on year, not to mention the debate it provokes. These drams are not perfect, but in many ways that feels like the whole idea.
Lunchtime offered an opportunity to snap up the warehouse bottles, triggering something of an avalanche on the TLWC side of things; with one eye on that Feis Laphroaig I elected to save my pennies but the blends were flying out of the blocks, as were the Springbanks. Credit cards let out a collective, weary groan. With the sun now out and our spirits returning (ahem), it was back to the Kilkerran warehouse for the Cadenhead’s Masterclass – an opportunity to sample some extraordinary variation from releases likely appearing somewhere further down the line.
A grain from Girvan finished in Pinot Noir and aged all of nine (!) years old certainly divided opinion with a fearsomely spirity nose – as did a Colombian rum that, despite an incredibly heady ABV of 69%, slipped down almost alarmingly easily – but I think the real showstopper was an eleven year old Cooley. Or when I say eleven year old, this reflects the total time it was matured in Ireland – as according to Irish whisky law. What we in fact were drinking was a twenty-six year old spirit that had spent the rest of its maturation in Scotland, displaying an incredible palate of tropical fruits alongside a faint smoke that lingered in the background throughout. Beautiful. Not buying one of these would prove a major error on my part!
Last but not least, the Kilkerran warehouse tasting heralded an opportunity to delve into some rather more experimental casks from the archives. Going by the enthusiasm to snap up the few available seats in the room, you could tell it was the end of a long week and, in all honesty, I felt rather bad that I wasn’t able to do it more justice. But on the plus side, it does mean another trip is surely in order to rectify this.
On offer were several older expressions, including three fifteen year olds first matured solely in bourbon, then five years of bourbon preceded by ten years of first madeira and then rum. The madeira was a little too drying for me by this stage but the rum certainly married well with the Kilkerran character without proving overly dominant. It does feel as though rum finishes are everywhere you look at the moment, and it’s certainly something some do better than others.
And with that, it was time for plenty of water and an early night.
Cadenheads warehouse tasting:
- Aultmore 12 year old, Bourbon Hogshead, 56.7%
A ‘generous’ entry-level bottling, excellent quality for the value.
Nose: floral, vanilla, honey, ginger, grassy and mossy.
Palate: Sweet, nutty, dark chocolate and oak.
Finish: Medium, sweet moving to bitter.
- 1993 Benrinnes 23 year old, First Fill Bourbon Hogshead, 52.9%
A rare, hard to find Benrinnes at this age and a gem in its own right.
Nose: Oat biscuits, shorties, the smells of a bakery! Evidence of sweetness from the bourbon.
Palate: Roasted nuts, marzipan and cocoa.
Finish: Medium-long with subtle smoke and a hint of liquorice.
- 1980 Cadenhead’s Blend 38 year old, at least 8 years in Sherry Cask, 45.3%
Dense dark aroma? Tick. Rich sherrieed palate? Tick. Luxurious feel? Tick. Ridiculous value 38yo Blend? Tick. This blend of Macallan, Tamdhu, Highland Park, Glenrothes and Invergordon, was aged in sherry casks for at least 8 years after blending to create the depth of character of this rich sherried whisky, as anyone would expect! And it does not disappoint even a wee bit.
Nose: Sherry, spices, dark fruit, toasted nuts, vanilla and a wee bit of sulphur!
Palate: Sour Cherry, dark fruit, baking spices, toffee, and buttery with hints of anise. The nuttiness alongside vanilla and malty fruits play hide and seek.
Finish: Nice and long, winding down sherry, dark fruit and cocoa. A rounded, well balanced and oily feel.
- 1988 Tormore 30 year old, Refill Bourbon Hogshead, 48.1%
Nose: Caramel, citrus fruits and vanilla.
Palate: Sweet, toffee, vanilla ice cream and apples.
Finish: Long, with a subtle spiciness.
- Loch Lomond (Croftengea) 12 year old Peated, Refill Bourbon Hogshead, 55.7%
This heavily peated malt from Loch Lomand is probably the best thing they make. A solid Highland peater that definitely satisfies even the most sensitive palate, but also interest a real Islay lover.
Nose: Powerful smoke, woody, earthy with hints brine and sandy beaches.
Palate: Pristine. Chewy, leathery, earthy, smouldering coal briquettes, ripe mirabelles and other stone fruits.
Finish: Rich, full without any overwhelming medicinal notes.
- Springbank 14 year old, Sherry Hogshead, 54.4%
An avant-garde, lovely experimental malt – one that the sherry has put on a fluffy cloud!
Nose: Sherry, oak, redcurrant syrup, dark muscovado sugar, caramel and a slight hint of sulphur.
Mouth: Sweet sherry, crème caramel, blackcurrants, raisins, damsons, cooked apples with an intriguing raisin bread taste.
Finish: Oak, cinnamon, raisin bread, nectarine, light smoke, sprity long finish.
- Cadenhead’s Blend 45 year old, last 3yrs in a Sherry Hogshead, 43.1%
A fine blend of Inchgrower, Glenfarclas and Glenlivet with an outturn of 130 bottles that will be released soon.
Nose: Caramel, honey, oiled leather, chamomile tea, shoe polish, fresh citrus and hnts of rosemary and thyme.
Palate: More fruit and malt content than on the nose, apples, tangerines, honey, pepper, dried fruits and nuts and some herbs.
Finish: Long, nutty, oaky with herbal infusion.
- 2017 Girvan 9 year old, Pinot Noir Cask, 61.4%
An unusual grain that will be a part of Cadenhead’s Summer Batch Release 2.
Nose: Vanilla and fudge with a slight dryness followed by a buttery aroma.
Palate: Very smooth, light and creamy with some light red wine tannins.
Finish: Warming and sharp that grows on you quickly.
- Littlemill 27 year old, Bourbon Hogshead, 49.8%
This will be a part of Cadenhead’s Summer Batch Release 1.
Nose: Herbal, peppermint, perfumed floral bursts and bits of Cedar.
Palate: Predominant fruit, subtly sweet, green apple, grapefruit bitterness
Finish: Spicy like stem ginger, nutmegish.
- Colombian Rum 26 year old, 20 years in Bourbon Barrels and 6 years in Port Casks, 69.4%
Star of the show! A fine blend of column and pot still rum.
Nose: Intensive and very precise notes of coffee, oranges, plums, jam and truffle.
Palate: Crème caramel, chocolate and vanilla. Spices, raisins, oak and molasses follow with smoke accents.
Finish: Long lasting with dark chocolate, caramel and cloves, molasses.
- 1992 Cooley 11 years old, 53.4%;
A 26 year old Irish whisky that was matured in Ireland for 11 years and outside of Ireland for the rest of the period by mistake! This was the cask rolled into the tasting that was available for purchase.
Nose: Fruity, honey, not complex but gentle a hint of spice.
Taste: Fruity-sweet, waxy, barley and some spice. Again not very complex. Water brings in nutty flavours together with hints of white chocolate.
Finish: Warm, medium length with no significant peaty or smoky notes.
- Bunnahabhain 5 year old Peated, 3x Bourbon Cask Vatting, 59.4%
Nose: Peat-smoke, malting barley, earthy and herbal.
Palate: More mature than its relative youth, muscular and smoky, pepper infusions and hints of fruit.
Finish: Dry lingering and smoky but well rounded.
With the week drawing to a close, we clocked that in all our toing and froing up and down Longrow, we hadn’t actually yet spent any time in Springbank’s distillery itself. With the rain finally announcing its arrival, there definitely are worse roofs to have over one’s head and it felt like a no-brainer.
Much is made of Springbank’s almost cultish status in being the only distillery to floor-malt all its own barley on site, and witnessing this in the flesh was just one constituent part of what proved by far the most informative and enjoyable distillery experience I’ve had. With equal importance afforded to the three methods of distillation (double, 2.5 and triple for Longrow, Springbank and Hazelburn respectively), the comparatively rare sight of a worm tub, the importance of sap in their peat’s character, the contrasting kilning processes and the all-conquering 1940s Porteus mill that does quite literally make their world go round, our tour guide left no stone unturned and left me feeling both much more at home with (and endeared to) a brand that arrived relatively late in my whisky education.
There is something resolutely old school about everything at Springbank, and they’re really quite happy that way; one senses that the latest tech would be wasted on an institution that instead maintains its quality control through the indefatigable dedication of a close-knit, passionate group of people at one of the few remaining family-owned distilleries. From the mould on the warehouse floors and the austere machinery to the fraternity of its fan-base and devotion of their staff, everything about the place contributes to its reputation and legend.
All in all, we had an absolute blast and feel like we learnt – and drank – a great deal. All that remained was a solitary night on the other side of the peninsula while polishing off a cage bottle, and taking a deep breath before the internal flight back to Glasgow the next day. We’ll be back!
Story by Toby Grimes. Tasting Notes by Sattu Sarang.