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Scotland’s tour in 5 distilleries: Springbank and the Kintyre

First part of my tour of Scotland, with initial stop in Springbank

In early June, a few days after the end of the Fèis Ìle, I spent a week in Scotland, a short but intense stay, mostly spent on Islay but with an unmissable stop in Campbeltown for one of the distilleries I love best:

A moment of recollection before entering

Before heading down the Kintyre Peninsula, I stopped in Dumbarton, near Glasgow, to finally meet the wonderful couple from independent bottler Dràm Mòr: Viktorija and Kenny Macdonald.
There was a lot of talk about what will definitely be the common thread of almost every conversation these days, which is climate change and how much it is impacting whisky production, not only for growing raw materials, but especially for aging: rising temperatures are leading to more isolation of the dunnages in which casks rest so as not to end up with tropical angel’s shares.
Then the rising cost of casks, the increasing difficulty in sourcing them, Diageo’s decision to make the Port Ellen malthouse exclusive to its own distilleries (a decision that was long overdue but no less problematic), the future of the market… and the possibility that their bottles may finally arrive in Italy!

Dràm Mòr’s dynamic duo with their blended, Dumbarton Rock

There are two routes down to Campbletown along the peninsula, we choose the eastern one having to ascend the following day from the western one for the ferry to Islay from Kennacraig, and the route offers breathtaking views, graced by spectacular weather, including priceless views of the Isle of Arran.

Along the way, a stop to enjoy some very fresh and tasty oysters on the shore of Loch Fyne.

It takes about fifty minutes by car to drive the entire coast to Campbeltown, but the journey gets inexorably longer with all the times we stop to admire the scenery, small towns, and the ever-present cemetery by the ocean.
And finally, you reach the town…

The next morning, meet at 10:15 a.m. at Springbank’s for the From Barley to Bottle tour, which in four hours promises to show everything possible behind the scenes at the distillery, including a small lunch at the Washback Bar, from where the tour departs with a little “breakfast dram”: a Hazelburn 23yo!

The tour begins at the malting floor, where every four hours, day and night, the sprouting barley is handled by hand with two tools: a classic rake and a kind of very heavy “cart,” with the purpose of both turning it and keeping the sprouts separate from each other as they grow. The malting floor has small windows looking directly onto the street, so you can “spy” on it from the outside as well.

Before arriving at the malting stage, the barley is left to mash in special tubs filled with cold water for up to three days, continuously checking its depth with sophisticated high-tech systems as shown in the last photo.

The almost total lack of sophisticated or computerized systems is a prominent feature of all processing at Springbank, using equipment that is certainly dated but still reliable, in which human intervention is therefore essential: the machines are in no way autonomous and require constant supervision, as in the case of the conveyor belts for the barley, from which as can be guessed several grains can fall and are picked up and thrown back on the run with shovels.

Once the barley has reached the state of germination necessary for the production of natural sugars, it must be dried both to stop its growth and to infuse it with the phenols (measured in ppm) that will then give the peatiness to Springbank and Longrow brand whiskies.
To do this, two types of peat are used, dry peat for heat, wet peat to produce the fumes needed to add flavor. For barley destined to become Hazelburn, only dry peat and hot air are used.
Given the high demand for peated whiskies, one has to wonder if peat harvesting is still sustainable: it is explained to us that the amount already in Scotland is such that it will not be at risk for very many years, but there are nevertheless advanced plans to give rise to some kind of “greenhouses” capable of producing sustainable peat over ten years instead of the thousands required in nature.
And I can already imagine the distilleries boasting of using only natural peat…

At the end of the drying process, the malted barley is collected in conical containers to flow into the mill where it will be ground, separating it into three parts: hulls, sprout and flour, trying to limit the production of the latter as much as possible so as not to “knead” the mash.
A common thread in all the distilleries visited will be the mill used to grind barley, made by a company that no longer exists: the Porteus in Leeds. These mills date back to the early part of the last century, made with such skill and such reliable materials that Porteus had to go out of business in the 1960s, as none of its machinery ever needed replacement. The machinery found in the various distilleries are either the original ones or were procured through auctions, sought after like diamonds.
This has made maintenance invaluable, in fact carried out by a single person who goes around all the distilleries (although the workers, in cases of emergency, resort to clever “tricks” so as not to stop production). Fortunately, the knowledge is being passed on to the next generation…

Now you have to soak what you grind (the grist) in a huge steel tank (mash tun) dating back to the early part of the last century, in three different hot water baths to allow the sugars to be extracted into the liquid that will then be put to ferment (the wort).
Here was the first time I saw a digital device in the distillery, well hidden inside a column: a display to check the temperature inside the mash tun.

The wort is piped into six wooden vats (washbacks), yeast is added and fermentation begins, that will lead to the production of alcohol up to about 8 percent proof, a kind of “dirty” beer, a process that takes up to 110 hours, depending on what flavors you want to extract from the liquid.

And finally we come to the actual distillation, with the three pot stills available, one of which (the wash still, the first pass) is by direct flame, one of the very few still in use in Scotland.

In the spirit safe occurs the cutting of head, heart and tail to create the new make, always following strictly artisanal methods with hand-filled records. And I have the opportunity to try a new make, even directly at the source…

The fountain of life

The new make is collected in a huge metal canister and then poured into the aging casks.

Casks that are transported to age in the warehouse, where we are treated to a taste of a 32-year-old Springbank (remarkable, although I personally prefer younger ageing) and one straight from the cask…

Short break for lunch, before the grand finale…

…where you create your own bottle!
Guided by Finlay Wylie (sales assistant), they give us six ampoules with which to create our own personalised Springbank blend: a first fill ex 14 year old bourbon (54.5%), a refill ex 11 year old sauternes (56.3%), a refill ex 11 year old port (53.8%), a refill ex 15 year old rum (55.6%), a refill ex 11 year old sherry (53.5%) and a first fill ex 14 year old sherry (54.1%).

I knew I wanted an ex-bourbon base and no sherry, I had to decide on the proportions… after several trials (and about half an hour of chatting with Finlay and the couple I shared the tour with), I made my choice, calculated the proportions and poured the various parts of my blend into the measuring cup.

Pour into the bottle, check the alcohol content with a tool, personalise the label, seal… and the bottle is ready!

It was an intense tour, full of information and emotions impossible to put into words. You will forgive me if I have been stingy with technical details in this chronicle, but I wanted to convey the intensity of such an experience that every whisky aficionado (and not just Springbank) should experience.

Now it’s off to Islay… but that’s material for another article…

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