Stills: 1 Wash. 2 Spirit.
Capacity: 2 million litres per year
Water Source: Cross Hill Loch
Owners: Springbank Distillers Ltd
Spirits Produced: Springbank. Hazelburn. Longrow.
1900-1978: Old Old Style
Springbank is one of the few distilleries that still has a truly old school character to its whisky, one that is apparent even in today's bottlings. However despite this there has still been a certain evolution of character at the distillery through the years. The basic and unmistakable style of Springbank is a coastal one, lots of brine, gentle fruits, coal smoke, tiny hints of peat, oil, wax and some chewy maltiness. It is a such a distinctive style that it has helped keep the idea of Campbeltown as a region in its own right alive in people's minds. Springbank is the main malt produced at the distillery (for information on Longrow and Hazelburn see the separate entries on their product pages), it is lightly peated to about 10ppm and 2.5 times distilled. This, slightly convoluted, distillation process in one of its main character definitions, it involves the partial re-distillation of low wines and feints in two spirit stills, good diagrams are available on the distillery's website. However as we will see the many other variable parts of production that surround this central process have inevitably changed though the years.
There are literally hundreds of different Springbanks available to serious whisky enthusiasts these days. Most of these are bottlings from the last twenty years but there are also many old bottlings too, Springbank has been bottled as a single malt for over 100 years. There are some fantastic official dumpy, pear shaped bottings from the late sixties and early seventies that offer a real glimpse into the distillery's history being bottled at 15, 33 and even 50 years of age. More common are the tall brown and green glass bottlings of 5 and 10yo expressions that are also fascinating historical examples. These are all understandably expensive but the whisky is often exceptional, displaying classical coastal notes with hints of engine oil, various metallic notes, herbs, elegant fruit and earthy peat. In the early nineties Springbank started releasing some phenomenal aged expressions from the sixties, often under the now famous 'Local Barley' label. These were casks of spirit distilled from barley grown by local farmers and they are almost all stunning. There are numerous great aged Springbanks from the sixties both in sherry and bourbon. Bourbon aged Springbank tends to display lashings of green fruit, coastal zing and luscious complexity while the sherry casks often have lots of minerality, chocolate, flints and earthy notes under classic sherry fruit edges. These casks are now very expensive but if you can ever try some of them then it is a great drinking experience. The official 21yo that was available thoughout the nineties is also an exceptionally great dram, a wonderful fruit and smoke heavy example of the distillate.
Springbank achieved such quality though a combination of top quality casks, very slow, natural fermentations, old style production such as 100 percent, in house, floor malted barley and the use of direct firing and worm tubs during distillation. These methods were eventually diluted to some degree as steam was used for the two spirit stills and two of the worm tubs were replaced with condensers. The result was that the eighties were, as in much of the industry, not the best time for Springbank.
1979-1995: A bad patch.
The 1980's at Springbank were characterized by corner cutting in production and a resulting overall dip in character. Spirit distilled in this decade and the early nineties is notes for lacking the intensity and oily, fruity identity of earlier years. The whisky is notably thinner, not as fruity or as vibrant with its flavours. This is due to the changing of production styles, the speeding up in many parts of the process and poor wood management. Luckily this was all about to change.
1996-Present: Modern Old Style
In the late nineties there was something of an overhall at Springbank. Production was tightened up and better casks were brought in as well as, crucially, a renewed effort to use high proportions of Local Barley. Since 1999 Springbank has taken 60% of its barley from local farmers, the majority of it being the original, ancient variety Bere Barley, a variety that is lower yielding than modern strains but far more resilient and provides a much more powerful flavour base. Fermentations are the longest in the industry and the wash in only fermented to 4% abv, this allows immense concentration of natural esters and other flavour compounds. The wash still is still direct fired and the first spirit still retains its worm tub. All these factors contribute to make Sprinkbank a rapidly improving and still very old school style of malt. One of the best expressions to see this in is the current 10yo, which changes very regularly due to its small batch nature but the qulity is exceptionally high for a standard bottling. Modern bottlings display classic Springbank coastal notes with wax, minerals, soft peat and white fruits. The 100% Local Barley expressions, which will become more and more frequent as stocks increase and mature, are richer, more old style and full of intense oiliness, farmy notes and powerful coastal characters. Lets hope that Springbank continues to stand as a beacon of old school quality and style for those of us who love to taste whisky as it should be made.