The Distillery that Saved the Campbeltown Region - Springbank Distillery
Distillery Spotlight: Springbank Distillery
Region: Campbeltown, Scotland
Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.
Tradition in production methods should be all important for any old-established family company. At Springbank, we are all extremely aware of the legacy handed down through each generation of the founding family.
- Springbank's Distillery Director, Frank McHardy
Shifting taste preferences, the Campbeltown whisky boom, rumours of rotting fish barrels and a dispute with the Scotch Whisky Association. These are a few events that shaped the Springbank Distillery’s storied history. The events also tested the fortitude of the Mitchell family which has owned the distillery for over 193 years through five generations without giving it up to larger corporations.
The Springbank Distillery is one of only three surviving distilleries in the Campbeltown region. The distillery is notable for three different labels of single malt: (1) the Longrow label is heavily-peated and comparable to Islay style whiskies, (2) the Springbank label is rich, oily and gently-peated, and finally, (3) the Hazelburn label that is light, sweet and completely unpeated.
There was once a time when our subject distillery only had one label (i.e. the Springbank label) and had the company of 30 other operational distilleries in Campbeltown. How did we get here? How did Campbeltown’s fortunes reverse so dramatically?
The old whisky capital
Springbank Distillery was built atop the site of a previously unlicensed operation by founding brothers Archibald and Hugh Mitchell in 1828. It is also the 14th distillery to be licensed in Campbeltown- a far-flung town located at the end of a western peninsular of Scotland, with a population of less than 5,000 people.
The mid-1800s were a period of boom for Campbeltown which provided all the elements and geography to run successful distillery businesses. Ingredients could be harvested from the fertile barley fields of Kintyre, vast peat bogs, fresh water of the Campbeltown Loch and coal from Drumlemble mine needed to fuel the stills. More importantly, Campbeltown had a deep sea port which enabled shipment of whisky to the fast-growing markets of Glasgow, London and the Americas.
By the late 1800s, Campbeltown was a bustle of whisky making activity, with as many as 34 whisky distilleries and the self-proclaimed title of "whisky capital of the world". Buildings were blackened with soot from distillery kilns and the smell of peat permeated the streets of the tiny town. Blended whisky bottlers (such as Johnnie Walker and Dewar’s) purchased so much from Campbeltown’s whisky barons that by 1891, Campbeltown was the richest town in the UK on a per capita basis!
Shifting taste preferences
Traditional Campbeltown whiskies were heavily peated. However, the turn of the century brought a change in taste preferences as affluence grew. The expanding middle class showed some disdain for harsh-tasting whiskies that were dubbed “poor man’s liquor”.
The English upper classes now prefer softer and sweeter whiskies closer to the Speyside style. Diligent Campbeltown distilleries adjusted their profiles. In 1900, Springbank tweaked its recipe to begin producing a less-heavily peated whisky. Some peat soil was substituted with neutral-flavoured coal (used to toast malted barley during the whisk-making process).
This resulted in the oily, fruity and gently-peated Springbank expressions that we are familiar with today.
Campbeltown’s fall from grace
The Pattinson Crash
Unfortunately, the music stopped rather abruptly and unexpectedly for the Campbeltown whisky barons. First came the “Pattison Crash” in 1906 which brought the Scottish whisky industry to its knees after the shoddy financial practices of whisky companies. A particularly fraudulent Pattison, Elder & Co. was a major whisky seller which manipulated the prices of whisky-backed securities. When Pattison defaulted on its loans in 1896, a wave of bankruptcies swept across the industry and precipitated the crash in the prices of whiskies which persisted into the early 1900s.
Price of whisky tumbled dramatically to less than half their original prices. Campbeltown, which relied heavily on its whisky industry, was disproportionately hit. Years of overproduction and anticipated demand left Campbeltown distilleries with huge stocks of whisky. However, demand fell far short of expectations and Campbeltown spirits could only be sold for less than even half of whiskies from Speyside or the Highlands region.
Rumours and soiled reputation of Campbeltown
After a series of financial setbacks, many Campbeltown distilleries began cutting corners and trying to reduce costs with little regard for quality of spirit. Substandard casks were also used for maturation. Rumours in the industry began, claiming that Campbeltown distillers were happy to store their whisky in barrels that previously held herring fish.
No conclusive evidence was found to show that Campbeltown whiskies were ever stored in ex-herring casks. The reference to stinking fish was probably a derogatory jibe made by competing Speyside distilleries. Unfortunately, the quality was indeed significantly poorer and did cause many blenders to turn their backs on Campbeltown, looking to Speyside and the Highlands for better whisky.
Relentless external shocks
Not long later, external shocks came at the worst time in relentless succession. The First World War depressed the economy and the supply of barley dried up. Around the same time, the Temperance movement reached a critical mass and transitioned to a mass movement in English-speaking countries. The Prohibition era officially began as the United States legislatively banned the consumption of alcohol and removed one of the most important export markets for scotch.
On top of this perfect storm, the US stock market crash of 1929 announced the start of the Great Depression. This was a time of poverty and hardship which scarcely justified an expensive luxury drink.
It was difficult for many to find a reason to continue. As soon as Prohibition era began in 1920, Campbeltown distilleries swiftly dropped off like flies.
In 1930, the last straw came for Duncan MacCallum, the then owner of the Glen Scotia Distillery (one of the three distilleries still operational today). After losing a fortune in a bad business deal, on the night before Christmas Eve MacCallum downed himself in the nearby loch that was and still is Glen Scotia’s water supply. Today, the distillery’s staff still avoid venturing to certain areas after dark where sightings of the elder MacCallum have been reported.
How did Springbank Distillery make it through this dark period and survive? Perhaps luck played a part. Yet we argue that the answer lies perhaps in Springbank’s distinctive mild peat flavour profile and the Mitchells’ persistence and unwavering commitment to their family legacy rather than profit.
Let’s examine our claim.
Distilling a bottle of Springbank
A bottle of Springbank is oily, fruity and gently-peated. It is milder in texture and flavour compared to the traditional Campbeltown heavy and peaty flavour popular compared to distilleries.
This smoother flavour profile is better-received amongst the upper classes of England. It even allowed Springbank to sell bottles labelled “WEST HIGHLAND WHISKY” rather than “CAMPBELTOWN” during a time when customers associated Campbeltown with poorer standards and fishy barrels.
Springbank is the only Scottish distillery to malt, distil, mature and bottle its whiskies within its distillery grounds. Its whisky-making techniques are remarkably traditional and have remained almost the same for 193 years. This includes the same old pieces of machinery are maintained over the years.
Let’s start with Springbank’s malting process. The production of scotch whisky begins with malting the barley by steeping it in water to allow it to germinate. This is intended to convert starch in the grain into sugars.
While the vast majority of distilleries today use high-tech commercial machinery to malt their barley, Springbank continues to use “floor malting” that is to malt barley the traditional way on the floor of a malting room. Raw barley grains are poured all across a stone malting room and steeped in water to trigger germination. Over the course of 7 days, the distillery staff take shifts every 4 hours to laboriously aerate and turn the barley using a shovel to promote even germination and prevent mould.
After the barley has been malted, it is transferred to the kiln for drying.
The next stage is the kilning process. The damp malted barley is placed on a wire mesh resting floor above a kiln. Peat and coal is then fired up in the kiln, toasting and smoking the malted barley above.
Here is where the three different labels of (1) Longrow, (2) Springbank, and (3) Hazelburn are born. When peat is burnt in the kiln, aromatic smoke permeates the malt and is absorbed as flavour in the malt.
To create the heavily peated Longrow, the malt is smoked for up to 48 hours by burning purely peat in the kiln. To create the milder but still peated Springbank, the malt is toasted for 30 hours with hot air (i.e. by burning coal), then smoked for a mere 6 hours by burning peat. To create the sweet and non-peated Hazelburn, 30 hours of hot air suffices.
The toasted malt then milled into powder and sent for “mashing”. The mashing process cooks the malt in hot water in to a sort of porridge, inducing enzymes to break down even more starch into sugars. From this porridge, a sugary liquid is filtered and is known as “wort”. Next up is fermentation.
Springbank’s unusually long fermentation process is notable. During fermentation, yeast is added to convert sugars in the wort into alcohol. It should be noted that the length of fermentation time greatly affects the final taste of the spirit. Fermentation for a shorter period of time (ie below 50 hours) tends to create more alcohol and cereal taste. Fermentation for a longer period (i.e. over 60 hours) tends to result in less alcohol, but more complex and a sweeter tasting spirit.
At Springbank, the wort is fermented for a really long time (see below).
Springbank’s distillery director Frank McHardy explains the intent behind the extra-long fermentation process:
Finally, we come to the distillation process. Following fermentation, the mixture is distilled in Springbank’s copper stills. During the distillation process, the mixture is boiled. Alcohol and esters are separated from other heavier compounds in fermentation, vaporised and collected on the other end. The number of times that a spirit is distilled and re-distilled affects the lightness and sweetness of the spirit. Triple distillation tends to sift out rich and heavy compounds, creating a lighter spirit with fruiter flavours.
To create the heavy and oily Longrow, the fermented mixture is distilled twice. The slightly lighter but still weighty Springbank label is distilled 2.5 times. Finally, the fragrant, appley Hazelburn is distilled 3 times.
Most distilleries in the modern age use steam to heat their stills. In a bid to maintain tradition, Springbank heats their stills using a direct oil flame from beneath in the exact same way their forebearers have distilled their whisky.
Commitment to traditional hand-crafted methods
As distillery director Frank McHardy said about Springbank’s traditional distillation process:
“It’s is a method of production which has gone on for as long as we have records… Tradition in production methods should be all important for any old-established family company. At Springbank, we are all extremely aware of the legacy handed down through each generation of the founding family.”
Springbank Distillery makes a clear and deliberate effort to preserve all its time-tested practices in making whisky by hand-crafted means rather than modern machinery. Their insistence on the hand-crafted methods, direct fire, bottling in-house without chill-filtration or artificial colour can lead others to think of Springbank as idiosyncratic or iconoclastic even.
Consider Springbank’s insistence of using the traditional “floor malting” method. Flavour-wise, no one can confirm that floor malting contributes a superior taste any more than using commercial machinery would. From a cost perspective, floor malting is less efficient, requires intensive human labour in turning the barley, and up to 5 per cent more expensive than using machinery. Profit-driven commercial sensibilities and the numbers would tell us that the distillery should definitely switch to commercial malting machinery. In fact, Mark Reynier (respected ex-manager of Bruichladdich Distillery) does not hide his derision of the floor malting method. He had this to say:
Old floor maltings, while an iconic whisky image, are labour intensive, notoriously fickle and impossible to operate effectively. Few, if any, dare rely on the method exclusively. Their continued use is primarily for tourism purposes. And long may it continue… Using this maltings rather than any other has absolutely no relevance to the quality or flavour of the spirit produced.
Despite the comments of industry cynics (not least from notable experts), Springbank is still plugging along the same fashion over a hundred years, maintaining every step of the traditional process.
Spirit and fortitude of the Mitchell family through the ages
The fact that Springbank could survive through the dark ages of multiple downturns and distillery’s commitment to traditional hand-crafted methods would surely attest to the spirit of persistence and commitment of the Mitchell family.
Legacy of quality over profit
The giants of the scotch industry, such as Glenlivet Distillery, might employ 200 staff and produce 10,000,000 LPA (i.e. litres of pure alcohol) a year. In contrast, Springbank Distillery hires about 90 staff and produces only 750,000 LPA a year. This is terribly inefficient for Springbank from a cost perspective, but is what we get when everything is hand-crafted using traditional means.
Although the numbers provide a pragmatic picture, Springbank’s commitment is not so to profit numbers and much to preserving its distillery’s identity. Floor malting, fermentation and distillation are all done in the same manner and with the same tools used by forebearers hundreds of years ago. Yet these are elements of tradition harking back to a distillery’s 200 year old identity, and has an emotional appeal for Springbank’s owners, fans and visitors. This has been the original concept and to ensure consistency in one way or another, a traditional distillery must make sure it does not cut any corners.
Indeed, industry critics have found Springbank to be remarkably consistent in quality and consistent in its distinctive taste through the decades. Every step taken to maintain old ways of doing things results in a remarkable consistency that can be tasted by long-time afficionados.
Persistence through the generations
The Chinese proverb “Wealth does not last beyond three generations” and the American expression “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” would suggest that the later generations rarely manage a business as successfully as the founding generation does.
Yet the spirit of persistence and commitment to craft has been evident through five generations of Mitchells even through the booms and crashes of Campbeltown’s history. Countless setbacks defeated over 30 distilleries in the region– including the plunge in scotch prices in early 1900s, soiled reputation of Campbeltown whiskies (ex-herring casks rumours), the First World War, the Prohibition and competition from Speyside and Highland distilleries. Through it all, Springbank always saw a reason to grit its teeth and continue operating without dropping standards.
The distillery had to shut down several times. Once in 1926 due to the Prohibition, once in 1979 due to the recession in UK, and once in 2008 because the cost of oil commodities was too high. Time and again, Springbank always returns to operation in no time.
Reinvention through the ages
The commitment to legacy and old ways of doing things also does not mean that Springbank is relic that simply resists the trends of the outside world.
Springbank’s owners are nimble in adapting to a changing world. We have mentioned that when the English upper classes began to prefer smoother whiskies, the distillery tweaked its recipe in 1900, producing the gently-peated style that we are familiar with today.
The distillery also expanded its range to create completely different styles althougher. The Longrow label (rich and heavily peated) was created in 1973 and then the Hazelburn label (light and unpeated) in 1997- complementing each other as a full suite of styles from different parts of Scotland (Longrow is of an Islay style and Hazelburn of a Lowland style).
Springbank’s spirit has classically been aged in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. More recently, Springbank has begun experimenting with a wide range of casks to compliment the house style, including Tokaji wood finished Longrow, Cabernet Sauvingon matured Longrow and an ex-Madeira cask matured Springbank.
Campaign to save Campbeltown from an existential crisis
Springbank Distillery and Glen Scotia Distillery scarcely emerged as the only 2 survivors of Campbeltown’s dark ages in the 1930s. Yet in 1988, they encountered another crisis of the more existential sort. The Scotch Whisky Association (“SWA”) stated the plan to scrap Campbeltown’s status as a protected Scottish whisky region after considering that there were only two operational distilleries. The intention is to have Campbeltown absorbed into the greater Highland region.
After four generations of commitment and many storms weathered, Mr Hedley Wright (the current owner and great-great-great- grandson of the founding Mitchells) could not accept Campbeltown’s demotion to just another town that happened to boast a distillery or two.
Wright wrote to the SWA, arguing that Springbank produced 3 different styles of whiskies, but this fell on deaf ears. Wright then argued that the Lowlands is classed as a distinct whisky region despite only having a mere 3 distilleries (see below). The SWA responded that 3 distilleries is one more than the 2 distilleries in Campbeltown, and that 3 was the minimum number of active distilleries required for a region to qualify a distinct whisky region.
The SWA’s statement that 3 distillery was required was just what Wright was looking for. Ever the artful rebel, Wright identified the mothballed Glengyle Distillery which had ceased production for 75 years. Wright then made the drastic but understandable decision to purchase the mothballed Glengyle Distillery and put it into operation.
With Glengyle Distillery operational, this put the number of live distilleries in Campbeltown at three, on par with the Lowland region. The SWA was forced to concede that Campbeltown deserved the same recognition, and the small town’s future as a distinct whisky region has been secured once more.
Springbank’s iconic flavour profile
It is not possible to quantify every element contributing to the complex taste profiles of Springbank’s three ranges. The painstaking commitment to old ways of whisky-making affects the taste in an ineffable way that continues to draw back fans but cannot be explained.
On a very general level, we can say that the incredibly long malt fermentation period contributes greater fruitiness and sweetness to the spirit. The peat, taken from the coastal region of Campbeltown imparts a somewhat maritime, briny character to peated expressions. The many rounds of distillation, particularly for the Hazelburn label creates a very light, delicate and sweet spirit.
Typical Springbank-labelled expressions tend to have the following taste profile:
Colour: Light gold
Nose: Gentle smoke with roasted almonds
Light grassiness, melon and raspberries
Seabreeze, gentle brininess
Palate: Oily, well-balanced and complex
Stewed cherries, peaches with lemon peel
Light oak character, vanilla, toffee
Some earthiness and coffee
Finish: Medium length with gentle smoke
Typical Longrow-labelled expressions tend to have the following taste profile:
Colour: White wine
Nose: Seabreeze, seaweed
Present (but not overpowering) peat smoke reminiscent of bacon, burnt ends
Green grapes, mango and toffee
Palate: Rich, powerful yet well-rounded and smooth
Dominant smoke with floral layers
Substantial sweetness with lots of ripe dark fruits in a mixture of blueberry and cherry jam
Lightly malty and biscuity
Finish: Long, with a lingering peat smoke breaking into a sweet twang on back palate
Warming with cinnamon spice and star anise
Typical Hazelburn-labelled expressions tend to have the following taste profile:
Colour: Light gold
Nose: Light and sweet with green apples and sultanas
Palate: Clean, crisp and light-bodied
Refreshing fruitiness with orange peel, green grapes, starfruit, pomelo and caramelised apples
Light oak character, vanilla, cinnamon
Finish: Medium length, crisp
Springbank Distillery is, deservedly, Scotland’s most successful craft distillery with an intense following by whisky lovers from across the globe.
With a limited production capacity at about one-tenth of the size of Scottish giants, this is a distillery whose whiskies we won’t be able to easily find from distributors or from travel retail stores. Collectors beam at every new release and prices tend to reach nose-bleeding levels at auctions.
One reason for Springbank’s cult-like following is of course the remarkable consistency through many generations in reproducing its distinctive-tasting and high-quality expressions year after year. Apart from taste, equally important is the ethos of the Mitchell family in its single-minded commitment to legacy and craftsmanship that does not waver despite years of hardship in the 1930s and to the draw of greater profit in modern times.
The same cannot be said of many other commercially successful distilleries. Unlike them, Springbank is indubitably not a sell-out.
Springbank’s (limited) releases are highly coveted and tend to cost a little more than other single malts simply due to the law of demand and supply. As beggars cannot be choosers, everyone should take the opportunity to try a Springbank, whichever the expression, when offered.
That said, our favourites are:-
Entry Level: Springbank 10 Year Old (core)
Moderate: Springbank 18 Year Old (core); Springbank 10 Year Old Local Barley;
Top Shelf: Springbank 12 Year Old “100 Proof” edition; Springbank 30 Year Old Sherry Cask- Chieftain’s Choice
Entry Level: Longrow 14 Year Old (Core)
Moderate: Longrow 18 Year Old (Core); Longrow Red 13 Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon
Top Shelf: Longrow 1987– Samaroli “Dreams” edition
Entry Level: Hazelburn 12 Year Old (Core)
Moderate: Hazelburn 21 Year Old (Core); Cadenhead’s Hazelburn 11 Years Old 2007
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