Visiting a Whiskey Distillery

Whiskey Distillery

You visit to a Whiskey Distillery

For those of you with an interest in how whiskey is produced, then a visit to a whiskey distillery is a must. In fact if you are travelling to the United Kingdom and are a whiskey enthusiast, then no trip should be complete without a visit to Scotland the home of Whiskey and some of the best distilleries in the world.

Distilleries in Scotland are divided into five regions : Highland, Lowland, Islay, Speyside and Campbeltown.

These are the notes from a whiskey enthusiast Charles Shields, who describes them as “one mans impression” Sadly his website is no longer running, but I thought it an absolute waste of one mans Whiskey Distillery experiences not to share them.

Campbeltown Distilleries

CAMPBELTOWN DISTILLERIES

The most beautiful (and shortest) route to Campbeltown, if you arrive at Prestwick airport or are coming from the Glasgow area, is by ferry. Start from Ardrossan where you take a ferry to Brodick on the Isle of Arran. Then drive across, or around the island to Lochranza, perhaps taking in a tour of the Arran distillery before boarding another ferry to Cloanaig on the Kintyre peninsula.

Then take the road south along the east side of the peninsula to Campbeltown. It’s a beautiful way to approach Campbeltown, and can be easily done in a day. It’s such a popular way to travel to the Kintyre peninsula that the ferry fare is referred to as a “hopscotch” ticket.

Aside from the beauty of the countryside, Campbeltown has not brought good fortune to distilleries. From a high of about 30 distilleries at one time there are only two left, one of which, Springbank, produces two distinctive malts, Longrow, and Springbank, and has recently begun distilling a third, Hazelburn.

Glen Scotia Whiskey Distillery

Glen Scotia Whiskey DistilleryPerhaps the distillery is cursed. It is said that the ghost of a former owner who drowned himself in Campbeltown Loch now walks the malting floors.

Opening in 1832, Glen Scotia managed to stay afloat for 150 years before closing in the mid-1980s. It was reopened briefly at the end of that decade, but closed again in 1994. Since then it has been purchased by the Loch Lomond company and has been refitted and has begun producing again.

Glen Scotia has been intermittently available in 12, 14, and 17-year-old distillery bottlings (43 vol., full gold to light amber). All are distinctive with a spicy, slightly briny nose with notes of juniper, ginger snaps, and peat smoke. The body has a rich, oily smooth character. Initially sweet, the palate becomes dry and malty with salty and nutty undertones.

The 17-year-old is the optimum expression and quite exquisite — creamy smooth, well balanced, and a long, spicy, and slightly peppery finish.

Glengyle Distillery

Glengyle Whiskey DistilleryRecent developments are very good news, a third Campbeltown distillery will be opening. J & A Mitchell & Co., the owners of Springbank have purchased the former Glengyle distillery which closed in 1925. It seems the distillery has been kept fairly well intact over the years. In 1957 there were plans to refurbish the distillery that never came to fruition. Since then the buildings have been used by an agricultural firm.

J & A Mitchell plan to completely refurbish Glengyle and begin producing by 2004. Don’t look for a bottle on local shelves for at least another ten years after that. It is something to look forward to however, and very encouraging that Campbeltown is seeing a resurgence.

Hazelburn Distillery

Hazelburn Whisky DistilleryThis is a new malt produced at the Springbank distillery. It’s so new, in fact, that it won’t be on the market for several years to come. The first run of this triple-distilled, Lowland style whisky was produced in July of 1997. Since the lighter, Lowland malts tend to stand better at a young age, look for some interesting bottlings in the next four or five years.

Longrow Distillery

Longrow is an another malt produced by the Springbank distillery. It is distinctly different from Springbank, and a real treasure if you can find it. It bears a strong resemblance to a somewhat lighter Ardbeg with a smoky, salty, sweetness. Springbank originally produced Longrow on rare occasions and bottlings were hard to come by but has distilled Longrow each of the past ten years, assuring a continuing supply. Older expressions can be anticipated in the future.

In 1999 there was a dual release of a 10-year-old (46 vol.). The distillery offered both an oak cask bottling as well as a sherry cask bottling. The oak cask is a greeny-gold, the sherry cask is a bit darker with greenish-amber highlights. Both have a smoky, seaweedy nose. The oak cask is somewhat cleaner, crisper, with the smoke a bit more forward. The sherry cask nose is a bit more muted, with a slightly nutty, creamy character.
The palate is similar in both instances. The oak cask is crisp, smoky, and a bit medicinal. The sherry cask is richer, a bit “chewy”, sweeter, and has a soft, nutty character. Both have a long finish that is peppery, warm, smoky, and salty.

My only complaint is the rather steep price for a 10-year-old whisky (about $100). Springbank has been distilling Longrow every year since 1990 and the plan is to release a 10-year-old every year from now on. Springbank releases have traditionally been priced quite affordably. I hope that the continued release of Longrow will come with a price reduction.

An aside: Comparing the two 1999 10-year-old Longrows mentioned above, with a 10-year-old purchased several years ago (3-4?), and an 8-year-old merchant bottling has afforded a unique look at mixing procedures of distilleries.

Starting with a Cadenhead 8-year-old Longrow (mentioned below), there is a raw, spirity quality, countered by a powerful smoky sourness (quickly rebutted by a malty sweetness). A salty element makes this all combine into a very special mixture. A youthful exuberance that is infectious.

Distillery Longrow 10-year-old (from two years ago). A very slight bit darker than the Cadenhead, a bit of a leather quality to the nose. Smoky flavors are still very present, but tempered by a pleasant “old leather” quality. Sourness begins to disappear.

Distillery Longrow 10-year-old (1999, oak cask), the “old leather” flavor now becomes more “nutty”. This release has a dry, “oaky” quality — very creamy and rich. Distillery Longrow 10-year-old (sherry cask). Suddenly this becomes clean and crisp again. At this point, 10-year-old Longrow has become quite civilized. Not as nutty, it’s now deeper, richer, and sweeter. It enters that smoky, sweet, saturated realm that is reflected in older releases.
In 1996 Springbank released a 1974 21-year-old Longrow. It has a light gold color with bright orange highlights. The nose is big, smoky, salty, and creamy with vanilla notes. The palate is smooth, oily (slightly buttery), seaweedy. The finish is very long with continuing smoky, peaty and salty notes

Merchant Bottlings: A Cadenhead 8-year-old (1987-95, 57.7 vol.), bears a strong resemblance to a young Port Ellen. A huge nose and palate, with smoke and peat, and a peppery sourness. One of my favorites.

Springbank Distillery

Euan Mitchell and Frank McHardy at Springbank distillery.
Springbank releases have traditionally combined a special mixture of salt, oil, peat, brine, oak, and especially sherry. Recently, however, the distillery reconfigured its line of releases. The introduction of a 10-year-old bourbon and rum cask bottling displays a different side of Springbank — a very rich, but unsherried whisky.

Springbank DistilleryI visited recently with distillery manager, Frank McHardy, and sales executive, Euan Mitchell. They expressed their belief that the buying public seems to be tiring of wine flavored whiskies and tends to place increasing importance on “distillery character”, hence the release of the new 10-year-old. Though finished in rum casks, it expresses more or the essential Springbank characteristics than the sherry cask releases. Frank went on to say that as a small, family owned distillery, Springbank doesn’t feel the necessity to bottle a consistent distillery release from year to year and decade to decade. They have the luxury of changing the distillery releases at any time to bottle what they feel are the finest whiskies in their warehouses.

Distillery Bottlings: 10-Year-Old: (46 vol.). The whisky starts in bourbon casks then spends a minimum of three years in Demerara rum casks. The color is a light gold with slightly greenish highlights. The nose is assertive, with rich vanilla, butterscotch, and a touch of sea air. The palate is creamy, buttery, sweet — though the sweetness is balanced by a lemony, somewhat minty crispness. The finish is very long, dry, slightly peppery, and elements of smoke, peat, and salt linger. A wonderful malt.

12-Year-Old: (46 vol.). This expression is the classic Springbank. Light amber in color, with a rich sherry and coconut nose that a hints of sea air. The palate is creamy, sweet, and has notes of raisins and chocolate. The long finish brings out emerging notes of peat and salt.
21-Year-Old: (46 vol.). A special treat with a cult-like following. The nose is big and rich with a uniquely balanced mixture of sherry, peat and salt. No other whisky has quite the same meld of extreme elements: Springbank manages to intermingle the fruity/sherry sweetness, with a toasty, malty dryness, and a salty, seaweedy crispness. It’s is one of my favorite whiskies.

Special Bottlings: Springbank has released a number of special bottlings over the years, including vintages of 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, and 50-years-old available in a millennium set.

One of my favorite special bottlings was a 12-year-old 100 Proof, bottled at 50 vol. without the addition of water. The alcohol volume was reduced by adding older expressions with lower alcohol content. You can definitely taste some wonderful older whiskies in this bottling. It’s no longer available from the distillery but there are some bottles to be found on store shelves.

The most sought after recent special bottling is Springbank 1966 (32-years-old). Bottled at cask strength (55 vol.), the whisky was produced from materials obtained from within an eight mile radius of the distillery (with the exception of American oak bourbon casks).

Even the coal used to heat the mashing water and stills was from a local mine that was shut down soon after this whisky was produced.

The color is a deep gold/light amber. The nose is big and rich with promise of flavors to come — sweet and complex, undercurrents of peat smoke, salt, and a flowery dryness. The palate is creamy, luxurious, with a toasty dryness. The finish is long, smoky, dry, and a bit salty. One of the finest whiskies I’ve tasted.

Unfortunately, the 1966 bottling is no longer available. The good news is that there are plans for a similar release of a Springbank 1965. It must be a wonderful experience to dig through the back of a warehouse and find an overlooked cask of a special whisky.

Casks: There have several inquiries from people interested in purchasing a cask of whisky. Springbank is the only distillery I am aware of that has a program that makes this possible. You purchase the cask from the distillery’s US distributor, Preiss Imports. The cask has a brass plate on it with your name, and you can visit it at the distillery. You can eventually have cases of bottled whisky from your cask delivered to you through a local liquor store.

Merchant Bottlings: In 1995 a 26-year-old Signatory bottling became available (thick, rich and full of age).

A 32 year old Adelphi bottling is exceptionally deep and complex.

Recently I enjoyed a special distillery cask strength bottling of a 7-year-old. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Pale white, flowery nose with a dry, cereal-grain presence. The finish is a bit salty with some wonderful smoky notes. A Murray McDavid 8-year-old is very similar.

Cadenhead Distillery

Cadenhead DistilleryJ. and A. Mitchell, the owners of Springbank also own the independent bottler Cadenhead. A short block away from the distillery is the Cadenhead’s shop (there is another on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh). The chalk board on the right is a day-to-day listing of available single malts.

If you visit the shop, be sure to purchase a bottle of cask strength Springbank, drawn directly from a cask.
The famous round church of Bowmore (built so the Devil couldn’t hide in any corners). The twin pagodas of the distillery can be seen to the right of the church.

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