Of Scotland’s more than 100 active malt distilleries Springbank is without doubt the most fascinating.
One of Scotland’s smallest distilleries, it is without question the most traditional. In an era when most Scottish distilleries are running flat out or aggressively expanding their production, Springbank is staying the course, which is both admirable and exasperating.
Springbank was established in 1828 in the town of Campbeltown on Scotland’s west coast. Located near the bottom of the 100-mile-long Kintyre peninsula, it is built around the natural harbor of Campbeltown Loch. On the east side of the peninsula the port is well sheltered from the North Atlantic gales. Originally known as Kinlochkilkerran or the “head of the Loch of the Church of St. Kieran,” the town was renamed Campbeltown after the Earl of Argyle, Archibald Campbell, who was granted the land in 1667.
At its height Campbeltown was the self-proclaimed “whisky capital of the world,” best situated to quickly and easily ship whisky across the Atlantic to the Americas. Photos from the era show a port clogged with ships. At the peak of the herring and whisky boom in the late 1800s, 34 distilleries were in production and the whisky barons built stone mansions. For a few short years Campbeltown was per capita the most prosperous place in the United Kingdom, and quite possibly the world. The only institution more numerous than the distilleries was the church. People were not especially pious however; rather, distilleries felt they could keep the temperance movement at bay if they all sponsored a church.
Unfortunately, Campbeltown’s fortunes were not to last. Most of the distilleries focused on quantity rather than quality. Respect for the town’s whisky was already waning when prohibition and the Great Depression finished them off. Today Campbeltown is the smallest of Scotland’s whisky regions with just three active distilleries. One of those, Glengyle, was only reopened by the owner of Springbank when the industry threatened to take away the region’s designation.
Today Springbank is Scotland’s oldest family-owned distillery, having been in the hands of the same family, the Wright/Mitchell’s, for nearly 200 years. It is the only distillery in Scotland to malt 100 per cent of its own barley, which it does on site on a traditional malting floor. Much of the distillery’s equipment is original, making it one of the few distilleries that does not employ any automation. Springbank was also at the head of the movement to bottle whiskies at 46 per cent without artificial colouring or chill filtering, and was the first to produce a range of whisky styles at the same distillery for bottling as distinct single malts. The distillery’s namesake drink, Springbank, is lightly peated and two and a half times distilled. The second is a heavily peated, Islay style expression called Longrow, named for a lost Campbeltown distillery. The third and final whisky is Hazelburn, also named for a closed distillery, which is triple distilled and unpeated.
Because of its emphasis on tradition and doing everything on site, Springbank employs more people per liter of whisky produced than any other distillery in Scotland. The distillery is Campbeltown’s largest employer and an important anchor of the local economy. Aware of this, Springbank’s sixth generation owner, Hedley Wright, is loath to do anything to jeopardize its future, and that of the town and its people. Without any heirs, Hedley plans to bequeath Springbank and its sister distillery Glengyle to a trust he’s set up for the people of Campbeltown. The distillery is to remain independent, traditional and a cornerstone of the community. The little distillery that does things on its own terms is set to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.
Hazelburn 12 Year – Triple distilled and matured in ex-sherry casks. Rich notes of dark fruit and malt. – $97.99
Springbank 15 Year – Two and a half times distilled, rich and spicy with a hint of peat. – $92.99
Springbank 12 Year Gold Medal Marketing Cask – Bottled exclusively for Alberta at cask strength, with $8.25/bottle being donated to veteran’s charities. It has spicy dark fruit notes, but a lot more smoke and salt than the 15Yr. – $104.99
Longrow 18 Year – Heavily peated and double distilled, rich and earthy with soft peat oils and fruit cake. – $156.49
Kilkerran Work in Progress 5 Year – The oldest release yet from the Glengyle distillery was recently named Lowland or Campbeltown Single Malt of 2013 by Whisky Advocate. Dark fruits, toffee, chocolate and caramel on the palate. – $62.99
By Andrew Ferguson