Earlier in July, I ‘attended’ with a group of friends the ‘Eat, Sleep, Dram, Repeat’ tour introduced end of last year at Springbank distillery. For almost three days and three nights, you’re well taken care of by the Springbank staff, for visits, tastings, meals and accommodation. And boy, the name of the tour is right. Especially on the dram and repeat parts!
Day 0: Check-in and a First Tasting
The Springbank Eat, Sleep, Dram, Repeat adventure begins in the afternoon as you check in at the charming Still Guesthouse. As the rest of my group was to arrive at a later time in the afternoon, depending on their connecting flights Glasgow, Paolo and I, who drove from Glasgow and were the first to arrive, were warmly welcomed by Donald, a friendly member of Springbank’s staff. Throughout the two full days and a half, Donald will be our guide for several exciting events and activities.
The Still Guesthouse, conveniently located just a 3-minute walk from Springbank distillery, is a charming house with five tastefully decorated rooms, each named after and adorned in the colours of expressions from the distillery: 10-year-old, 12-year-old Cask Strength, Local Barley, 15-year-old, and 18-year-old. Even the nightstand lamps have been thoughtfully crafted from empty bottles of these renowned expressions. Amongst the rooms, three feature queen-size beds, Local Barley is a single bed room, whilst the last room offers two comfortable single beds.
Upon our early arrival, Paolo and I secured our rooms, and I opted for the inviting 12-year-old cask strength chamber. Besides the cosy bedrooms, the guest house provides a welcoming living room, adorned with an impressive selection of bottles for us to enjoy. Amongst the offerings are 20 cl handfills from each of the four brands of Springbank & Glengyle (Springbank, Hazelburn, Longrow, and Kilkerran), the Batch 2 of the Campbeltown Loch blended malt, along with a 30-year-old Seven Star Cadenhead’s blend, and various other spirits bottled by Cadenhead.
Additionally, the guest house features a dining room where we could gather for meals, a well-equipped kitchen (though we were advised not to use it for cooking due to insurance reasons, not that we needed to as delicious meals were provided!), and of course, the customary bathrooms for our convenience.
After savouring a dram of Campbeltown Loch with Paolo, we ventured to Springbank’s Washback bar for more whisky explorations. My choice was a Longrow 23-year-old single cask, maturing in a fresh rum barrel and exclusively bottled for distillery visitors. The tasting notes promised tantalising ‘tropical fruits,’ an irresistible temptation for me. To my pleasant surprise, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with Scott and Meredith Allan from The Whisky List, whom I had previously met at Bunnahabhain a few days ago. The Whisky List serves as their importer for Australia.
Later on, I couldn’t resist trying a 13-year-old Hazelburn refill bourbon from the cage, and it proved to be equally good.
Our four other friends finally arrived, and we headed back to the guest house for dinner and our first tasting. Whilst I didn’t take notes or pictures of the dinner, I do remember that everything was excellent, and we all enjoyed our meal.
After dinner, Donald joined us in the living room for an informal tasting. We tried six drams in the following order:
- Hazelburn 10yo: a classic choice to open the palate.
- Kilkerran 12yo: A favourite core range from Glengyle, known for its tastiness and oily texture. I’ve already enjoyed nearly two bottles of it at home.
- Balblair 2011 Cadenheads from their Sherry Cask range: As a fan of Balblair, I was excited to try this one and it didn’t disappoint.
- Springbank 15yo: It had been a while since I last tried it, so I was happy to have a good dram from this expression.
- Ardmore 2010 Bourbon barrel Cadenheads Authentic Collection: Being a bourbon barrel matured Ardmore, it was undeniably excellent.
- Longrow Peated: We finished the tasting with another classic and enjoyed the peaty goodness
It was a relaxed and enjoyable evening, savouring different whiskies in great company.
After enjoying those six drams, we were still thirsty, so we decided to open a few other bottles: the Cadenheads 30yo Seven Star blend, and the handfills from Kilkerran, Springbank, and Longrow. As the clock struck 1 a.m., we called it a night and headed to bed, as the day had been quite long and full of whisky delights!
Day 1: Springbank Tour and Tastings
After a delicious cooked traditional Scottish breakfast at 8 a.m., it was time to go to Springbank distillery for our first full day of the Springbank Eat, Sleep, Dram, Repeat experience.
Springbank Access All Areas Tour
The day began with an extensive ‘access all areas tour’ of Springbank distillery, led by our tour guide Joyce.
The process commences by immersing barley grains in a cast-iron tank, known as ‘steep’, filled with cool, pristine water sourced from Crosshill Loch. The barley remains submerged in water for a period of two days, stimulating germination. During this phase, the grains swell and produce the crucial enzyme amylase, which plays a vital role in the subsequent mash process. The barley is at least steeped for 12 hours, then they train the steeping tank for 12 hours. It’s then steeped again for 14 hours before being drained again for 4 hours.
After being taken out of the steeping tanks, the barley is carefully spread in layers, six inches deep, on the malting floors. Springbank distillery has two malting floors, one above the other, and each capable of holding approximately 10 tonnes of barley. A production team of six people oversees the process. Throughout the malting phase, three shifts operate around the clock, with two team members on each shift responsible for turning the malted barley at least twice during their duration.
The production team employs malt rakes to perform the turning process. They meticulously walk back and forth through the malt grains, ensuring proper aeration and redistribution as they proceed. This essential task helps maintain the quality of the malted barley.
Following the turning phase, the malted barley is left to rest on the malting floors for a period of up to four days. Once this duration elapses, the malted barley is drained from the malting floor and transferred onto the mesh drying floor within the kiln for further processing.
In today’s whisky industry, only a handful of distilleries continue to engage in the laborious and space-consuming practice of malting their own grains. Among them, Springbank Distillery stands out as one of the sole establishments in Scotland that takes pride in malting 100% of its grains on site (though despite the challenges involved, some new or soon-to-be distilleries are also embracing the tradition of malting their own barley on site).
We went then to another floor in the ceiling, where the barley used for Local Barley is kept, as they separate it from the grain for the other expressions. The barley type is different, as the Belgravia barley used for the latest Local Barley editions is smaller than the classic barley they use (Concerto as far as I remember but I might be wrong).
The malt is efficiently transferred between floors using a Porteus bucket floor shaft, and from there, it advances to the kiln through a conveyor belt. Inside the kiln, it undergoes a drying and smoking process, the duration of which varies based on the specific brand for which it will be utilised.
During the kilning process, the temperature inside the kiln reaches approximately 45–60 degrees Celsius. Tailoring the drying times and air compositions is essential since various whiskies require distinct treatments.
- Springbank undergoes 6 hours of peat smoke followed by 30 hours of hot air.
- Longrow is subjected to up to 48 hours of peat smoke.
- Hazelburn, on the other hand, is dried for 30 hours using hot air only, with no peat involved.
Once the kilning process is complete, Springbank stores the malted barley in one of their 10 grain silos. Each silo has the capacity to hold up to 20 tonnes of malted grain, ensuring ample storage for their production needs. It takes about two months to fill them, and two months to empty them. Their content and fill status are tracked on a highly technological board and chalk, tracking what the grain in each bin is for if full, or if the bin is empty.
Moving on to the milling stage, Springbank employs its robust and enduring Porteus mill from the 1940s, a familiar sight in numerous other distilleries (though the one at Springbank has lost its shiny red paint!) This mill effectively crushes the dried malt through 34 tons per batch, transforming it into grist. The resulting grist is composed of 20% husks, 70% middles, and 10% flour.
Before the barley enters the main mill, it undergoes a preliminary screening process using a dresser, acting as a sieve to remove any larger foreign objects like stones or pieces of straw. To prevent small metallic objects from causing trouble in the mill, these dressers are equipped with magnets.
The Porteus mill itself consists of two rollers, each with a specific task. The first roller cracks open the barley husks, while the second pulverises the grain. The resulting mixture is known as ‘grist’, which can vary from a fine and powdery dust to a coarse and rough blend. Achieving the right grist consistency is crucial; too fine, and it will clog the mash tun, while too coarse, valuable sugars will be lost.
The malt mill plays a vital role in the process, yet it is surprisingly low maintenance, even though it grinds thousands of kilograms of barley each year. Distilleries take pride in showcasing the age of their mills and boasting about the last time they required repairs. For instance, Glenfarclas proudly proclaims that their rollers haven’t been replaced in over three decades. However, when a malt mill does break down, it can cause significant trouble for the distillery. As both Robert Boby (whose mill is used at Glengyle, see below in the article) and Porteus are no longer in operation, spare parts are scarce and must be custom-made, leading to lengthy repair times. When a mill malfunctions, the distillery may be forced to halt production until it is fixed, causing costly disruptions to their operations. Additionally, due to the antiquated nature of these machines, finding skilled mechanics to service them can be challenging. Currently, only one such expert remains in Scotland, and he is training someone to take over as he has been planning to retire for years.
After milling, the next step involves adding hot water to the crushed malt, followed by draining it multiple times, each with varying volumes and temperatures. This happens in a more than 100-year-old red cast-iron traditional mash tun. Inside the mash tun, a central rotating arm equipped with rakes stirs the grain at the bottom. This stirring action serves two essential purposes: firstly, to extract the sugars effectively, and secondly, to facilitate the drainage of the water. The process unfolds as follows:
The mash tun serves as the vessel where crushed barley (grist) is combined with hot water. This mixture aims to extract the soluble sugars from the grains. At the base of the tun, there are small openings resembling a sieve, allowing the extraction of the sugary water, now known as wort, while retaining the grain.
During the mashing process, water of increasing temperatures is added to the grist in four distinct phases. Each water addition is given time to absorb the sugars before being drained and collected with the initial batch in the worts receiver (or under back). At Springbank, the different waters are as follows:
- The first water addition, the largest but the ‘coldest’, involves 17,000 litres at 63.5 °C.
- The second water addition is 6,000 liters at 72°C.
- The third water addition entails 15,000 liters at 82°C.
- Lastly, the fourth water addition also consists of 6,000 liters at 82°C.
This entire mash cycle spans approximately 10 hours. The result of this process, the wort, is then transferred to the washbacks for fermentation.
Springbank has a total of six washbacks, each crafted from Swedish boat skin larch and capable of holding approximately 21,000 litres. Once the wort is added to the washbacks, 75 kg of yeast is introduced, kickstarting a fermentation process lasting from 72 to 110 hours. During this time, the yeast diligently converts the sugars in the wort to alcohol, flavour compounds and CO2.
The result of this fermentation is a liquid reminiscent of milky tea, bearing closer resemblance to beer rather than whisky. With an alcohol content of around 4 or 6%, the liquid within the washbacks, now called wash, is now primed and ready for the distillation process.
The distillery is outfitted with a just three stills: one wash still and two spirit stills. The wash still stands out as distinctive, particularly in Scotland, as it is equipped with both direct firing and internal steam coils, so it is heated both externally with an oil flame and internally with the steam coils. For the wash still and one of the spirit stills, condensers are utilised, while the other spirit still is connected to a traditional worm tub.
The liquid from the washbacks (the wash) undergoes distillation in Springbank’s copper stills. Depending on the brand, the wash is distilled twice for Longrow, 2.5 times for Springbank, and three times for Hazelburn.
The low wines and feints resulting from the wash still find their way into the low wines and feints receivers through a worm condenser. Springbank whisky follows a unique two and a half times distillation process. The feints (tails) from the first spirit still and a portion of the low wines obtained during the initial stripping run are combined and redistilled on the second spirit still. For the feints, it marks their third journey through the still. As a result, some of the finished distillate has been distilled three times, while another portion has undergone two distillations, resulting in an overall 2.5 times distillation.
The spirit middle cuts (hearts) are gathered with specific percentages of alcohol by volume for each brand:
- Springbank: 76% to 60% alcohol
- Longrow: 69 to 58% alcohol
- Hazelburn: 79 to 63% alcohol
Finally, these middle cuts are transferred to the spirit receiver for hand filling casks.
While Springbank’s production capacity stands at approximately 750,000 litres of alcohol per year, they intentionally produce only a fraction of that amount. A sign displayed in the still room indicates an output of 264,000 litres. Within this production, 80% is dedicated to Springbank whisky, whilst both Longrow and Hazelburn each account for 10% of the total output.
Cask Filling and Maturation
All three whiskies at Springbank Distillery are casked at 63.5% alcohol content. Each cask undergoes three fills for the maturation process. The ‘A’ casks are the first fill, imparting the most robust influence on the whisky. On the other hand, the ‘B’ casks are on their second fill, while the ‘C’ casks have already been filled twice and are now on their third fill, resulting in the lightest-coloured whisky with less wood influence.
Springbank has a total of eight warehouses on its site, with three being racked warehouses and the remaining five being dunnage warehouses. Remarkably, approximately 22,000 casks are currently maturing on site, contributing to the distillery’s extensive range of aged whiskies.
New and Forthcoming Tasting in the Washback Bar
Following the tour, we proceeded to our first tasting of the day. I won’t divulge too many specifics regarding the whiskies sampled, as we’re obliged to keep future releases confidential. Nevertheless, here’s a general overview of what we experienced:
- Firstly, we savoured a cask sample from Hazelburn Sherry Wood, slated for release later this year. This expression succeeds last year’s Hazelburn 2006 15-year-old Oloroso Cask Matured, and I can whisper to you that the upcoming one will bear striking similarities.
- Next in line was the second instalment in the Springbank Sherry Series: a 10-year-old whisky aged for 6 years in bourbon casks, followed by 4 years in Palo Cortado casks. This one is also scheduled for release later this year, and it has already been publicly announced. We had the pleasure of tasting a 55% ABV cask sample, and it was truly delightful. I’ll be eager to get my hands on a bottle once it’s released.
- Our tasting continued with an exclusive preview of a cask sample not yet 21 years old, belonging to the forthcoming Longrow 21-year-old annual release.
- Lastly, we were treated to a taste of the brand new Kilkerran Heavily Peated Batch No. 8.
After the tasting session, we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Washback Bar. The menu included a delicious carrot soup and a selection of sandwiches.
Cadenhead’s Warehouse Tasting
After lunch, we headed to Cadenhead’s dunnage warehouse at the Springbank distillery site for the Cadenhead’s Warehouse tasting. Before us were six casks from which we would sample, and if we found something we liked, we could purchase a bottle at Cadenhead’s shop afterward.
- The tasting began with a 10-year-old Linkwood 2012 matured in a bourbon hogshead. It surprised us with its vibrant tropical fruit notes, which were not so pronounced in the Linkwood I had tried before.
- Our second dram was an undisclosed Orkney Distillery whisky, also referred to as Whitlaw (so definitely not from Scapa), distilled in 2016 and only 6 years old when we tasted it. This bourbon barrel-matured secret HP was quite impressive and flavourful, despite its youth.
- Next, we sampled a cask from the Knockdhu distillery, known for producing AnCnoc whisky. This 13-year-old whisky, distilled in April 2010, was initially matured in a bourbon cask before being transferred to a PX hogshead since August 2020.
- We then moved on to Fettercairn, a distillery that I’ve been growing fond of. The 2009 Fettercairn we tried had been transferred to a Carcavelos cask in 2020. Carcavelos is a Portuguese fortified wine. It was very good, although the distinctive tropical fruit character usually obtained from Fettercairn’s high reflux stills was not as pronounced.
- The fifth dram came from Ardmore, a 2012 whisky transferred to an Amontillado sherry cask in 2019. The peat and amontillado sherry flavours blended wonderfully, resulting in a delightful nutty and gently dry profile.
- Lastly, we enjoyed a delicious Paul John whisky maturing in a bourbon barrel since 2014, which offered a delightful contrast as it came from India, far from Scotland’s shores.
After the tasting, we accompanied our guide to the nearby Cadenhead shop, located close to the distillery, to browse and purchase bottles of the casks we liked. The prices ranged from £50 for the Linkwood and HP to £85 for the Paul John. Thankfully, all bottles were priced at a maximum of £70, except for the Paul John.
I decided to go for the Linkwood, being unable to resist its tropical fruit notes. While I would have loved to buy a few more bottles, my luggage space was quite limited, forcing me to make choices. Additionally, I had the chance to try a Brazilian whisky, a Union bottled by Cadenhead’s, but opted not to purchase one due to the constraints of choices and space (and I didn’t like it that much). Lastly, I had a taste of the 26-year-old 1997 Springbank they had recently bottled, but unfortunately, it was already sold out (not that I could afford it anyway).
Historic Walking Tour of Campbeltown
After the Cadenhead’s tasting, another guide, Craig, took us for a historic walking tour of Campbeltown. We learnt about the history of the town, that the stones used to build the houses and building were from all around the world and were brought by ships as they used it as ballast.
During the 6th century, Irish missionaries embarked on a journey to Kintyre to spread Christianity. St. Kieran (also known as Ciaran) is believed to have established a religious cell in the area where Campbeltown now stands. The Gaelic name for Campbeltown, ‘Ceann Loch Cille Chiarain’, translates to ‘the Head of the Loch of Ciaran’s Cell’. Interestingly, it is speculated that alongside Christianity, these early Irish monks might have brought the knowledge of distilling to these shores.
In 1609, the 7th Earl of Argyll, Archibald Campbell, received instructions to establish a burgh populated by Lowland men and trading burgesses. The natural harbour of Campbeltown Loch provided the perfect location for this new settlement. The small community of Lochhead, as it was previously known, was renamed Campbeltown. By the year 1700, it was granted the status of a Royal Burgh with the purpose of boosting trade and commerce in Kintyre. Being the most westerly burgh in Scotland, it aimed to become a significant trading hub for northern Europe and America.
The herring fishing industry played a crucial role in Campbeltown’s economy during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Its significance cannot be overstated. In a span of just 30 years, Campbeltown transformed from a modest fishing town to a thriving settlement, as reported in 1770. The harbor and town bustled with boats and crews, including more than 200 large fishing vessels called busses at times. The population of the town grew rapidly, doubling to over 7,000 inhabitants between 1750 and 1786.
Campbeltown received its first licence to distil ‘aqua vitae’ in 1609, though the true ‘whisky boom’ occurred in the early 19th century. Remarkably, this small town, home to only 6,000 people, once accommodated more than 30 distilleries, earning itself the title of Whisky Capital of Scotland. Sadly, this boom couldn’t sustain indefinitely, and today, only three distilleries – Springbank, Glen Scotia, and Glengyle (Kilkerran) – carry on the proud tradition of single malt production in Campbeltown. Nevertheless, the future holds promise with the anticipation of a few new distilleries, such as Machrihanish Distillery from the owners of Isle of Raasay Distillery and Witchburn Distillery from the independent bottler Brave New Spirits. Moreover, rumours abound about a third Springbank Distillery in the making.
Dinner and Cocktails in the Still Guesthouse
After our walk around Campbeltown, it was time to head back to the Still Guesthouse as a delicious dinner waited for us as well as recipes and ingredients to make cocktails. The first one was a whisky sour based on Longrow Peated whisky, the second one a cocktail building on a Cadenhead’s gin (a gin fizz I think?), and the third one on a Cadenhead’s rum. To be honest, cocktails are not really my thing, and whilst I can drink (responsibly) a lot of whisky before getting slightly drunk, cocktails get to me way quick, so I called in earlier than usual, but not before trying the last handfill that was stocked for us, a Hazelburn.
Day 2: Glengyle Tour, More Tastings, and Blending Session
It was already time to start our second full day of the Springbank Eat, Sleep, Dram, Repeat experience.
Glengyle All Areas Access Tour
Following a delightful breakfast consisting of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, and French toasts, it was time to return to Springbank for an exclusive tour of their sister distillery, Glengyle, renowned for crafting the delicious Kilkerran whisky.
A Bit of History
The original Glengyle whisky distillery was established by William Mitchell in 1872. Prior to this venture, Mitchell had been associated with Springbank distillery. However, due to a disagreement with his brother John, who co-owned Springbank, he briefly joined his other brothers at Reichlachan distillery before embarking on his independent path.
In 1919, the distillery was sold to West Highlands Distilleries Ltd. due to the post-war economic downturn that severely impacted all distilleries in the Campbeltown region. The distillery went through a series of ownership changes and faced challenges, leading to its closure in 1925.
Throughout the years, several attempts were made to revive the distillery, but they were unsuccessful due to various circumstances, including the Second World War. However, in November 2000, Mitchell’s Glengyle Ltd. was established under the chairmanship of Mr Hedley Wright, the great-nephew of the original founder, William Mitchell.
With the vision of restoring the distillery to its former glory, extensive renovation work commenced in December 2000, taking over a year to complete. By January 2002, suitable stills were acquired from the Ben Wyvis distillery, and alterations were made to the still shoulders and necks. A suitable malt mill was acquired from the Craigellachie distillery to facilitate the process.
During 2002–2003, the distillery’s equipment was installed, and by October 2003, it was connected to its water supply from the Crosshill Loch. Boilers were fitted in November, followed by the installation of four 30,000 washbacks in January 2004. The distillery was officially inaugurated on March 25, 2004, in a ceremony attended by Dr Winifred Ewing and Mr Hedley Wright.
It is important to note that the whisky produced by Glengyle distillery is not marketed under the name Glengyle; rather, it is bottled as Kilkerran. This decision was made because the name Glengyle is owned by Loch Lomond Distillers and is used for their vatted malt. The name Kilkerran, on the other hand, comes from the Scottish Gaelic ‘Ceann Loch Cille Chiarain,’ meaning ‘head of the lake of Saint Kieran’s cell’, referring to a settlement where Saint Kieran is believed to have had a religious cell – the very place where modern-day Campbeltown stands today.
Outside the distillery, there’s a small window in a stone wall, kind of like a wider arrow slit, barred with two … bars. If you look through this arrow slit between the two bars, you can see the tower of Campbeltown’s Lorne and Lowland church. This is what is represented with Glengyle’s logo.
Whisky Production at Glengyle
At Glengyle distillery, the barley is sourced from local suppliers, primarily from the east of Scotland. It undergoes floor malting at the neighbouring sister distillery, Springbank. After leaving the malt floor, the barley is moved to the kiln for the drying process. The Kilkerran malt undergoes a unique two types of drying, which involves peat fires for six hours, followed by 30 hours of hot air exposure. This process results in a lightly peated malt with approximately 15 parts per million phenols.
Upon arrival at Glengyle, the barley is milled using a Boby mill obtained from Craigellachie Distillery. Although given for free, transportation, reassembly, and fine-tuning incurred some expenses. It takes one hour to mill four tonnes of malted barley. The grist then enters a four-ton stainless steel semi-lauter mash tun, custom-made by Forsyth of Rothes for Glengyle. This process involves three sets of hot water, and the mashing takes around seven to eight hours.
The resulting wort is sent to one of the four 30,000-litre larch washbacks for fermentation, using a slow-acting distiller’s yeast. The fermentation lasts from 72 to 110 hours, producing a beer called ‘wash’ at approximately 5% ABV, along with CO2, which is piped outside the washbacks.
After fermentation, the wash undergoes double distillation. The two copper stills were acquired from the closed Ben Wyvis distillery and were reshaped to suit Glengyle’s preferences before installation. The first distillation occurs in the wash still, which has an 18,000-litre capacity but is usually charged with just 11,000 litres. The resulting low wines have an ABV of around 21–23%. The low wines are then subjected to a second distillation in the spirit still, a 15,000-litre capacity still charged with about 10,800 litres of low wines. The heart of the second distillation, with an ABV of 68%, is collected in the spirit receiver situated on the lower floor of the distillery. The pot ale and spent lees are collected in the effluent tank at the back of the distillery and used as fertiliser by local farmers in their fields.
The spirit collected at 68% ABV is measured and diluted down to 63.5% ABV using water from Crosshill Loch. It is then filled into a variety of casks, primarily sherry and bourbon hogsheads and butts, but they also utilise other wood types such as Port, Madeira, and Rum casks. Once filled, the casks are transported to Springbank distillery by tractor for maturation.
Glengyle matures their whisky in two types of warehouses: dunnage and rack warehouses. The dunnage warehouse is a traditional style warehouse with an earth floor and stacking aids made of sticks, with casks piled no higher than three casks high. The rack warehouses are more modern and have steel frames that can accommodate up to seven casks in height, providing greater space and cost efficiency for whisky maturation.
Following the Glengyle tour, we made our way to the bottling hall, situated across the parking lot. Unfortunately and strangely, photography was not permitted in the bottling area. However, one of the workers kindly treated us to a dram of Springbank 18-year-old, making it hard not to forgive the no-photo policy ;).
Springbank & Kilkerran Warehouse Tasting
After the tour, we returned to Warehouse No. 3 to join Joyce for a special Springbank and Kilkerran Warehouse tasting. Although the lovely Joyce was our guide, we were pleasantly surprised to find Donald joining us, eager to share a few drams together. We had the pleasure of sampling whisky from four exceptional casks:
We began with a splendid 23-year-old Hazelburn, matured in an Oloroso cask, with a soft and gentle 47.7% ABV.
Next up was a remarkable 2006 17-year-old Kilkerran, matured in bourbon casks, still sitting at a remarkable 61.1% ABV. The whisky was absolutely brilliant, and I would have immediately purchased a bottle if available.
Next, we had the pleasure of tasting one of their oldest whiskies on site, a 1990 Springbank, 32 years old, matured in a refill bourbon hogshead. With the natural decrease in ABV to 41.6%, the whisky was unfortunately a bit weak, and the mouthfeel felt somewhat thin. It was still quite good, but it seemed to have passed its peak. As the cask level was low, they had already drawn a cask sample bottle from which to pour our drams.
However, our spirits were lifted as we savoured our last dram, a sumptuous 28-year-old Longrow.
Following this tasting (with a couple of extras, though I’m not at liberty to detail), we headed to the Washback bar for lunch. Having enjoyed just one tasting that morning, Jamie and I decided to share a dram of a Longrow 11-year-old rum cask matured, highly recommended by Joyce, as well as a dram of the first batch of Kilkerran Heavily Peated. Both whiskies were excellent and a perfect way to complement our lunch.
Springbank Blending Session
Originally, we were supposed to have some free time between lunch and the blending session. However, Donald became available earlier than expected, and he suggested we proceed with the blending session ahead of schedule. We all agreed to this exciting proposal.
At 2 p.m., filled with anticipation, we made our way to the blending lab, eager to embark on this unique experience of crafting our very own Springbank whisky, tailored to our preferences.
Upon entering the blending lab, we couldn’t miss the six demijohns filled with distinct Springbank components, neatly arranged next to the door. In the centre of the room, a spacious lab bench awaited, equipped with six sets of blending tools:
- Six 500 ml lab bottles containing the six different Springbank whiskies for us to experiment with and create our personalised blend.
- Six small test tubes, each filled with one of the six whiskies, perfect for conducting our tasting trials.
- Six glasses to aid in the tasting process.
- A syringe for precise measurement.
- A notebook and pen to record our tasting notes and blend ratios.
- A sheet providing tasting notes for the six components and guidelines on converting blended samples into centilitres for the full bottle.
- A card on which we would proudly write that we had crafted our own Springbank single malt. On the reverse side, we could jot down the exact proportions of each component used for our unique blend.
- A large test tube for the final and scaled up blending, which we would then use to fill our very own bottle of Springbank whisky.
I mentioned those six components, but now it’s time to reveal what we had to work with during the blending session: six Springbank single malts, as follows:
- A 14-year-old matured in a First Fill Bourbon Barrel.
- An 11-year-old matured in a Refill Sauternes Hogshead.
- An 11-year-old matured in a Refill Port Hogshead.
- A 15-year-old matured in a Refill Rum Barrel.
- An 11-year-old matured in a Refill Sherry Hogshead.
- A 14-year-old matured in a First Fill Sherry Hogshead.
Before we began, Donald provided us with some valuable advice and treated us to a small glass of Springbank new make spirit.
To begin the blending process, I carefully poured a small amount of each Springbank component into six Glencairn glasses. This allowed me to taste and assess them individually, jotting down my own tasting notes and observations. Once the glasses were rinsed, we were all set to embark on our blending experiments!
Using the syringe and small test tubes, I meticulously extracted between half and two millilitres from different test tubes, carefully blending them in a glass to evaluate the test blend both through its aroma and taste. My initial idea was to create a blend centred around the First Fill Bourbon and Refill Sauternes components. The bourbon offered delicious fruity and summery notes with a tropical finish, whilst the Sauternes matured expression intrigued me as it is quite unusual amongst Springbank whiskies. With these as my foundation, I set out to determine the ideal proportions and experimented with the other components to observe how they influenced the overall balance and flavours of the blend.
After numerous attempts, my 14th blend left me extremely satisfied, and the final result is as follows:
- 33.3% 14-year-old First Fill Bourbon Barrel
- 40% 11-year-old Refill Sauternes Hogshead
- 10% 15-year-old Refill Rum Barrel
- 16.6% 11-year-old Refill Sherry Hogshead
My own single malt, crafted from an 11-year-old Springbank (averaging 12.38 years but Scotch whisky age calculation does not work that way), was then bottled, and its strength was measured at 56.5% ABV.
I also prepared a few more centilitres of the same blend with the same proportions for Donald and my friends to try. We all did the same, resulting in a joyous afternoon where we indulged (responsibly, of course) in quite a bit of whisky!
As we had noticed a 1992 Springbank cask sample on the blending lab shelves (intended for Springbank 30-year-old, although the cask sample was 29 years old), Donald kindly poured us a dram, and we thoroughly enjoyed its flavours (and higher ABV, 47.4%, than the 32 yo tried earlier that morning). Not content with just that, we were then treated to another cask sample, this time a 60.8% ABV Kilkerran Peat In Progress batch 5 from February 2021!
The afternoon came to an end, and we had some free time until dinner, which was a perfect opportunity to revisit the Springbank shop and browse the cage offerings once again.
Dinner and Whisky Pairing in the Still Guesthouse
At 6:30 p.m., it was time for our final dinner, featuring a delightful whisky pairing. The three-course meal was carefully curated with perfectly matched whiskies, and we had a special after-dinner treat as well:
- For the first course, we enjoyed a refreshing melon basted with Hazelburn whisky, perfectly complemented by a dram of a 15-year-old vatting sample of refill Marsala and refill Bourbon Hazelburn single malt. The combination worked splendidly, and I thoroughly enjoyed this light and fresh starter.
- Next came the second course – a mouthwatering salmon dish, served with roasted potatoes and a Springbank-infused sauce. The pairing with a 13-year-old vatting sample of Springbank Local Barley (60% bourbon, 40% Sherry) was simply exquisite. The flavours of the salmon and the whisky complemented each other in a truly remarkable way.
- For the third course, we indulged in a delightful cheese plate, thoughtfully paired with a 14-year-old cask sample of a Sauternes cask-matured Longrow. This unique choice of Sauternes-matured whisky, the second one we encountered that day, this time from Longrow, was a delightful surprise.
As a final treat, we had an after-dinner sipper—a 12-year-old bourbon-matured English Whisky Co bottled at 46% ABV by Cadenhead’s. Some of us decided to take a leisurely walk before tasting this whisky, as we craved some fresh air and a little digestion stroll.
Despite our walk, we couldn’t resist bringing along some glasses and the Hazelburn handfill bottle to enjoy by the port. Paired with the sound of stone skipping and Paolo’s company, the whisky tasting experience became even more memorable.
Upon returning to the guest house, I felt I had already indulged enough in whisky for the day. So, I decided to save the English Whisky to savour later when my palate was fresher and more receptive to its unique flavours, and I emptied my glass into a sample bottle.
Day 3: Last Breakfast
The following morning, we gathered for our final cooked Scottish breakfast, bidding farewell to Mary, who had taken great care of us during the previous dinner and that third morning, and also to Donald, who came to see us off. Afterwards, we had a warehouse tasting scheduled at Glen Scotia, but, unfortunately, that wasn’t part of Springbank’s Eat, Sleep, Dram, Repeat tour!
I understand that £800 may seem like a significant amount for many, and it might be too expensive for most. However, when I reflect on the entire experience – the cosy guest house, the sumptuous meals, and mostly the insightful tours and tastings, and all the amazing things we saw and tasted – I am absolutely convinced that it is worth every penny. Looking back, there’s no doubt in my mind that the price is well justified. I would unquestionably do it again, without any hesitation. Perhaps not next year, as the offerings might be similar, with only a few different whiskies to taste. But in a few years’ time – yes, definitely yes.
Most importantly, the trip was enriched by the wonderful people we encountered. My group of friends, despite not knowing each other well, truly enjoyed our time together. Additionally, the warmth and kindness of the Springbank team, including Donald, Joyce, Mary, Craig, Finlay, the staff at the Washback Bar including Janet, and those in the shop, were simply exceptional. Whisky is undeniably about the people, and meeting these individuals from Springbank deepened my admiration for the distillery even further.
So, if you find yourself in a position to afford this experience and are tempted by it, I wholeheartedly encourage you to go for it. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. I anticipated it to be great, but I was utterly blown away by the entire journey.