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Monday 28 May 2012

Islay Odyssey - Day 1: A Man With An Ice Lolly Is A Man With Responsibility

Joel:  4am is very early. Or very late, depending on which side of it you stand. This morning, we stood on very much the wrong side; the post-sleep side. The side where eagles dare...

As my blackberry alarm (which sounds very much like a pirate ghost ship from the future) sprang to life, it seemed to leave me cowering under the blankets, wishing for the invention of some sort of transporter, startrek-like, to whisk me away to my final destination... firstly Campbeltown, down the Mull of Kintyre, and latterly onwards to Islay for the second half of this year’s Feis Ile, Festival of Music & Malt.

Rising from my slumber like a caveman from winter hibernation, I was greeted in the corridor of our accommodation, somewhere west of Oxford, by Neil. He’s been up a good 30 mins longer than I; for what reason I cannot ascertain. Our aim: to be away by 5am and reach Campbeltown before 4pm.

Showered, shaved and fed, we jumped in our car of choice for this year’s tip (previous models have included a dreadful KIA and a bone-shattering Merc A-Class), a full Alan Partridge-style Lexus Hybrid 4x4 for the 440 mile drive. We’d done a similar trip before (many times before) to the ferry terminal for Islay, but this time we were to go that little bit further and visit the chaps who make Springbank, Longrow and Hazelburn whiskies.

The drive was as smooth as one could hope for, hitting the fantastically run, independently-owned Tbay services on the edge of the Lake District by 8.30am. It was all looking good. After a full English breakfast and the purchase of a selection of homemade pies for later in our journey, we carried on towards Scotland.

Up and over Glasgow, the sunshine was streaming down as we made our way along the side of Loch Fyne and in to Inveraray. Stopping to quaff the aforementioned pies on the waters edge, we took in a pit stop to see Richard Joynson at Loch Fyne Whiskies. Our first ‘mistake’ of the day...

Always greeted by a smile, a witty quip and usually a dram (I once popped in on the 5 min long ‘natural break’ the coach from Glasgow to Kennacraig gives you in the town, only to have a dram slammed straight in to my hand), Richard’s excellent selection in such a small space is coupled with prices which meant we simply couldn’t resist picking a bottle or two, so Neil and I took full advantage; I bought a Tomatin Decades (which came second in our Best In Glass Award 2011) and Neil a 1995 Laphroaig Signatory Vintage Cask Strength Collection, one of only 233 bottles, sampled while chatting with the good man himself, a Master of the Quiach.

Grinning ear-to-ear with our new found friends, Mr. Tomatin and Mr. Laphroaig, we caught up on a few much needed rays and headed onwards down to Campbeltown, where we’d learn that our adventure for the day (if not least our purchases for the day) had only just begun...

Neil: So after nearly ten hours on the road (and what a superb day to be driving up to this glorious part of the world) we finally pull into Campbeltown. The distillery, Campbeltown Malts (or Springbank if you prefer) is neatly located down a nondescript side alley off the high street. We’d arranged to collect a cask sample from a friend of ours, which was sitting on reception as we arrive,  but kindly, they had also arranged for us to get a ‘warts and all’ tour - a real treat considering the rather classic nature of the distillery. 

When it comes to an image of how a distillery used to look, Springbank have perfectly preserved the aesthetic and the passion behind whisky making.  In fact, it is without a doubt, the most traditional distillery we’ve ever visited.  From the malting floors and the belt-driven machinery to the cask iron mash tun, Springbank looks every bit the distillery it probably was back in 1912 and is a far cry from the modernist approach most of us are used to seeing.  As far as we can see, this is the only computer used during the distillation process:

In fact, our guide John mentioned that the closest they have come to using technology is a calculator. 

John explained the difference in peating levels/kilning between the different whiskies made on site with around 24-30 hours of kilning over peat (some sourced locally, but most bought in from Tomintoul) for Springbank, six hours for Longrow and of course no peating at all for Hazelburn.

The stillroom is again a mixture of Heath Robinson ingenuity and good old-fashioned simplicity, with an unrivalled ‘if it ain’t broke…’ mentality.  Having three stills means that they can play different tunes using the range of peating levels (Hazelburn being triple distilled and Springbank being two-and-a-half times distilled, using a process a little too complicated to explain by my sleep deprived brain)

One 'high tech' feature that made us laugh heartily was the simple set up of a bucket crudely held at an angle by wire within the wash backs, so that if the fermentation gets too violent, the rising foam head will tilt the bucket, releasing some ‘anti foaming agent’ into the wash.  Sometimes the best ideas are the most simple- and clearly effective.

For those of you who have, like us, made the annual pilgrimage to Islay many times but never ventured down as far as Campbeltown either on the way over or way back, make sure you put this wonderfully quirky but traditional distillery on your list now – it is unquestionably worth the extra miles. 

Joel: After the fantastic visit to what has to be described as “the distillery which health & safety forgot”, we headed over to the town’s local whisky shop, run by Cadenheads. Our second, big ‘mistake’ of the day...

As we wandered in to their newly appointed premises, one thing became very clear: there were some fantastic and unusual bottles on the shelves and guess what? We’d be leaving with some of them. 

First up were the two single cask offerings which the distillery bottled for their open day, held last Thursday; a Longrow, 9 Years old and from  a fresh fill bourbon cask yielding just 230 bottles and the other a Springbank aged for 12 years in a fresh sherry hogshead and giving an outturn of 313 bottles. Such were we wooed by the samples we were given, that we decided to pick up a couple of these little gems each.

Longrow – Open Day Bottling – 9 Years Old – Fresh Bourbon Barrel – Distilled October 2002 – Bottled 24 May 2012 – 230 bottles – 59.1% abv

Nose: Succulent wafts of tropical fruit, fruit gums, a hint of peat, some lemon zest, sweet vanilla and fresh tangerine segments. Fruity, summery and absolutely superb. Young, but with a huge depth of character.

Palate: Initially very sweet, with a carry over of the vanilla aromas, some mint/menthol notes, fragrant smoke and a rich oily, tongue coating mouthfeel.  With water, the fruitiness becomes more pronounced, as does the swirls of aromatic smoke.

Finish: A touch of green apple skin and a lingering light smoke on the drying palate.

Overall: £50 doesn't buy you a great deal in terms of a 'festival' bottling these days (take note, Islay) but Springbank have smashed it out the park with this Longrow single cask.  A real gem of a find and well worth the lengthy drive it took to purchase.  

The Cadenheads shop has, apparently, recently undergone somewhat of a renovation and out the back of the purchasing area is a new sampling room, designed as an extension to the Springbank distillery visitors tours and lovely it looks too.

As we were lead back to the main shopping area, a rare sight caught our eyes: a large selection of full bottles marked ‘Duty Paid Samples’, locked away behind grill-covered doors, each with their own price tag, each for sale.

A new venture from the chaps at Cadenheads, these bottles are all cask samples drawn from various butts, barrels and bloodtubs in the warehouses owned by Campeltown malts. When they pull a sample for testing, they fill a bottle, cap it, pay the duty and sell it off in the shop. A true one-off, one of one, these utterly unique bottling mean the purchaser must take a real leap of faith, with just the whisky type (Springbank, Longrow, Hazelburn) and the cask style / abv available. No samples, no tasting notes, no way to try-before-you-buy.

Looking through the list of what was available, we settled on buying a 2003 Springbank, matured in a Burgundy wine cask at bottled at 59%. Ripping the top off, this is what we found:

Springbank – Duty Paid Sample – Warehouse No. 5 – 2003 – One of One bottle - 7 Years Old – 59.0% abv – 70cl

Nose: Strong elements of burnt sugar, dark and over-ripe black cherries, fresh coffee and well stewed plums and prunes. Very rich.

Palate: A strong and robust flavour with a slight bitterness, the red fruit comes across as warm and, again, over-ripe with elements of dark plums and black forest gateaux. Rum and rasin dark chocolate hit the sweeter end notes. With water, the whole thing sits back a little, opening up the malty-end of the flavour but maintaining the huge personality which it gives off.

Finish: The finish gives sweet tea without water and those black cherries again.

Overall: Did I mention over-ripe black cherries and black forest gateaux? Yeah, I thought so...! Oh, and it cost £45. Yeah, that’s right... £45!

Impressed? Enough to head back to the shelves to pick up another Springbank, this time 16 years old and matured for full term in fresh port and two Longrows, both 8 years old, one matured in fresh sherry and the other in fresh bourbon. A brilliant way to sell totally unique bottles which really are one of one, this encourages the purchaser to put aside marketing bull and go with gut instinct. Will the other bottles we bought match up to the one we opened? Who knows, but it sure is going to be fun to find out!

On top of an additional bottle of Springbank Rundlets & Kilderkins, we left with bags weighed down as heavily as our eyelids, off for a rewarding meal and a good, long sleep.

Onward to tomorrow, with ten new bottles in our stash and we haven’t yet hit Islay....