By Lawrence Graham, Canada
Springbank Whisky School – June 9th to 13th, 2008
After enjoying Scotch whisky for a good part of my life the opportunity to attend the Springbank Whisky School and too see the production side of distilling unexpectedly presented it self when my friend Nigel Drever registered for the June 2008 class. I seized the moment and registered post haste after Nigel declared that he would be glad of my company (odd considering that we’ve travelled to Scotland together on prior trips). Springbank is unique among Scottish distilleries in that it performs all the functions from malting to bottling on site; a unique opportunity to see all the sets of production first hand.
Nigel left for the UK a few weeks prior to my departure date to visit with friends so I travelled solo to Glasgow from Victoria via Calgary and London. During my Calgary lay over I took refuge in the Maple Leaf Lounge and experimented with equal parts of Johnnie Walker Black and Glenlivet 12; a fine dram (and a double as a bonus!). And being a Malt Maniac I scouted the liquor stores behind security just to see if there was anything worth purchasing on my return trip. I spotted a Longmorn 1973/2007 G&M, C#3649 from a first fill sherry butt and bottled at 54.4%. I knew this bottling well and would be glad of another so I double checked the shops hours and made sure that I could carry it on the plane from Calgary to Victoria. The shop keeper said it was fine to take the bottle on the air plane because we were on the other side of security; excellent.
After the usual long haul experience Air Canada 850 landed safely at Heathrow and I made my way through Immigration and past some new biometric scanning equipment which a sign indicated was part of a trial. At a further security station my hand luggage with laptop sailed through the X-ray but nobody was observing the screen; typical. What to do at Heathrow at 8am? Shop for whisky and have a full English breakfast. After a quick scan of the whiskies on offer I made my choice; Highland Park 21 OB exclusive to travel retail. Dr. Ian, who sat on my left from Calgary to London, popped up in the World of Whiskies declaring “I knew you’d be here!” and so off we went for breakfast. I enjoyed a dram of Famous Grouse with my breakfast. Very civilized.
BMI to Glasgow after a short delay and then I met up with Nigel who had already fought with the car rental agency and sorted out the details as per our reservation. As Jerry Seinfeld said to the lady behind the counter at the rental agency “You know how to take the reservation but you don’t know how to keep the reservation…..” A high speed 4 hour drive to Campbeltown with Nigel at the wheel; I was navigator (driving the Mull of Kintyre towards Campbeltown navigating is simple; keep the ocean to your right). After a wee unplanned tour of Campbeltown we found Feorlin B&B and met our charming hosts, Angela and Callum Cassidy. Dinner that night was an excellent soup of splint pea & ham, steak pie and veg. Since I was very tired I had a quick dram of Highland Park 21 with Nigel to christen our adventure and then 24 hours of travel caught up with me.
After a full Scottish breakfast we headed off to the famed Springbank Distillery, I’ve toured Springbank a number of times but this week would be very different. We were instructed to be at the distillery at 8 a.m. which I thought was an ominous portent. The commute by foot was only a few minutes and we presented ourselves to the front office where we met the Distillery Manager Stuart Robertson. Stuart’s was formerly employed by Diageo and he used to work with our fellow Victoria Single Malt Club member Mike Nicolson who ran Lagavulin, Caol Ila, Royal Lochnager etcetera. Shortly after introductions Frank McHardy gave a Health & Safety tour of the distillery and pointed out all the hot and sharp bits of equipment to be avoided.
Frank then turned us over to Callum who took us to the malting floor to grub (aerate) the germinating malt with long handled multi pronged forks that you dragged behind you agitating the malt and all allowing in air. The floor was certainly more pristine when we started that after we’d finished but Callum assured us we’d done the job properly. Springbank use Optic barley sourced from the east coast of Scotland and ensures that 100% of their barley is from Scotland. The germination process takes 6 days and the temperature should be in the 16 to 18 C range.
After tea we headed off to the cast iron mash tun…
It was being filled with the 4th water (water used for 2nd water of next batch) by Gordon who was very patient with our questions as all Springbank staff was. The mash tun water temperatures are 1st water 160F, 2nd water 165F, 3rd water 170F and 4th water is 200F and each mash uses 3.64 tons of barley using water from Crosshill Loch in the hills above the distillery. Interestingly the rakes in the mash tun only make two rotations per water which is very little, just enough to mix up the mash. The last water is used to remove the draft to the tank above where it waits for collection by a local cattle farmer; this can be observed a couple of times a day dependant on the distilling schedule. We could frequently smell the cattle in Campbeltown!
We then assisted Gordon in adding water to mash tun to remove draft and move it in slurry form to slurry tank above. The mash tun appears to be ancient with large revolving rakes Ancient original cast iron mash tun with rakes and brass main gear. After the mash tun was filled we went up top with Callum to inspect the tank that holds the draft and I inadvertently displaced the plug in the draft tank which resulted in a substantial leak which we observed with some horror later in the day! Gordon was wondering why he was short of water for a while and then Calum pointed out the leak from above.
I guiltily looked at Nigel who looked like he’d had a bad kipper at breakfast.
Relearned lesson of don’t bloody well touch anything without permission! Shortly after the leaking tank incident we then visited the still man and learned about still operation and that the wash still runs on oil burner and steam (capacity of 21,000 L) and the two smaller spirit stills which are steam only with a capacity of 12274 each. We kept our hands firmly in our pockets!
Lunch, off to Eaglesomes for a sandwich, a bag of crisps and a bottle of water; Springbank include a lunch card valid at Eaglesomes valued at ₤10.00 a day. My purchases on the first day came to ₤2.95, I’m unsure how anybody could eat ₤10 worth of food but I have to presume it’s better to be safe than sorry! Frank came looking for us; according to our school schedule we were late (happily) for the bottling hall! At the bottling hall we had a brief and perfunctory explanation of the bottling hall process by Catherine and a myriad of Ian’s. I was lumbered with the front/main labeling and Nigel was abusing the capping machine at a pace that was unacceptable to Catherine. Later Nigel managed to put two back labels on the same bottle much to his pride. The offending back labels were for the Japanese market (so we were told, it could have been Korean for all we knew). Each label is hand stamped on the back to identify the lot number.
We then reviewed the process for ‘sight the bottles’ for flaws in glass and contaminates in whisky.
The a quick demonstration of corking process followed by my inspecting the labels front and back and then giving the bottle one more inspection before inserting the bottle into the individual box prior to the lot being inserted into a larger 12 bottle box. The capacity of the bottling hall is 160 to 200 cases a day. Compared to other bottling halls in the industry it is quite labor intensive and the owner of Springbank, Hedley Wright likes it that way as it helps local employment.
Tea time; not a moment too soon.
After tea we went upstairs to the malt steeps to load in 5.5 tons of dry weight barley. (The actual final estimate was of in fact 6 tons). The malted barley was gravity fed into the steep and we smoothed it out under the watchful eye of Callum. The water was scheduled to be added at 6 am Tuesday morning to start the steeping/soaking process of 38 hours and the barley should have a 48% moisture content at the end of the steeping. A 12 % moisture level after steeping is ideal. Then downstairs for a final grubbing of the floor. While Nigel was observing the end of the Hazelburn middle cut off the Spirit still (distilling was stopped at 63.7% ABV at 25C) I wandered off to Cadenheads to buy a 1/2 bottle of Longrow NAS 60.5% “Tasting Room” sample for consumption at the B&B over the course of the week. The Spirit still temp was increased to boil off the feints.
And our first day was complete.
Dinner that night was: chicken pie, soup, leek & chicken and strawberries and cream. On the malt menu was Old Pulteney 12, Longrow NAS 60.5% and Highland Park 21 OB exclusive to travel retail and we watched the European Cup on a really small television.
After my intimate experience with the lack of portion control that seemed to rife in Campbeltown I had a much lighter breakfast and then we were off to the distillery. Our first task with Calum was to add water to the barley in the malt steep as this had not been done at 6am which was good news because I wanted to be part of this process and to see it first hand. We added the water which turned brown straight away which for some reason I caught me by surprise however it makes sense once you give it some thought. The water and barley sit for 12 hours; long enough for the barley to be thoroughly steeped. We spent a few minutes running paddles and rakes through the water to sink the floating clumps of barley. We never saw any dead mice in the barley despite the dire stories!
Following the steeps we headed down to the filling store and watched the set up of mixing the tank prior to filling into casks the first Hazelburn of the season. The set up involved reducing the spirit to 63.5% A.B.V. and this had to be done very carefully because it would have been a real problem if the A.B.V went below 63.5%. The first addition of water took it down to 65.7%. More water was added; another 135 L to bring it 63.5%. Then cask filling starting. We filled 70 casks made up of 24 fresh sherry barrels and 46 “C” barrels (3rd fill bourbon from Heaven Hill & Jim Beam).
Numerous sherry barrels had leaks that had to be either repaired by sealing cracks with hammers or transferring contents to a replacement sherry barrels. That morning we transferred the contents of three casks using a hand pump, funnels and buckets and a dozen were repaired. One bourbon barrel needed to be replaced. One critical task was to paint the contents in Litres on the barrel ends with white paint; this had to be the same amount as entered into the record book. We also rolled in the new casks in order to fill them and then rolled filled casks into the yard in precise numerical rows for later transfer to the racks in the warehouse. Natrually all cask rolling from the filling store to the neat rows of filled casks was uphill! Everybody from Stuart down pitched in with this labor intensive chore and it was amazing at how deftly the team maneuvered the casks into position with the bung up and stenciled end facing out, all in numerical order.
After what seemed like forever we broke for lunch; Nigel and I dashed off to Eaglesomes, there is no possible way to eat your way through the generous daily ₤10 allowance however I made a valiant attempt. I was quite hungry and purchased a Chicken Tikka sandwich, strawberry & cream bun and a bottle of water. Lunch was delicious.
After lunch Nigel was put on ‘light’ duties and was sent upstairs to grub the malt floor. (The entire malt floor, by himself and he seemed slightly over taxed on his return. I suspect he was angling for a dram of new make but no such luck!). Filling continued until the final few casks when hand filling commenced directly from the large holding tank and then each cask was weighed to determine the contents. All contents (in litres) were carefully noted in the distillery record by Gavin. With the heavy casks the need & company policy for steel toed boots became quite evident! Springbank produces 200,000 L per annum; we casked 14865 L Hazelburn in one day or 1/10 of the annual production.
Later in the day we had a talk with Stuart Robertson about economics of refurbishing cask versus buying new ones.
Stuart indicated that it makes sense to refurbish port pipes and sherry butts however not with so bourbon barrels. Gavin joined us and we had a talk/lecture the subjects of malting, steeping, the malt floor, rootlets, stems etcetera and then kilning and storing which I found fascinating as with all the little bits and bobs of information that you pick up along the way. The malt mill at Springbank is 65 years old and the belts and pulleys that deliver the barley to the mill look their age but do the job; it’s actually a joy to see equipment with heritage as opposed to sterile gleaming distilleries as I’ve seen many times.
Another day complete, off for dinner, a few drams and the European cup games.
Breakfast…. Angela managed to slip a few wee bits of bacon and sausage onto my plate. Myriad bits of toast, marmalade and……..cups of tea. However despite my best efforts it was too much; better communication with our hostess tomorrow!
According to our schedule we were to be in the bottling hall all morning however we managed to skive off to spread the ‘student’ load of green malt in the kiln (5.5 tons, the usual load is 10 or 12 tons). I’ve always heard that this is heavy work and it proved to be true but with four of us it didn’t take very look. We started with two large piles of malt which had to be spread to even depth. The areas that were slightly compacted were loosed up to allow the smoke to penetrate evenly.
The week so far was proving to be fascinating and I now had a much more complete understanding what a hands on job making whisky in the traditional fashion is and how much physical strength it takes to make whisky. Our next task was to clean up the top floor of spilt barley; also the elevator on the malting floor was cleaned out of any loose barley grains. The damp barley in the loft was very heavy; it was like shoveling damp heavy snow. (Did I mention that the wet barley is heavy?) Tea. (Thank God). I needed a break.
After tea we made our way to the kiln to set the peat fire and started it with paper, kindling, a little petroleum accelerant and dry peat. The fans and blowers were turned on and vents were opened to allow a proper air flow. In the first stage of the fire burn the goal is to obtain a good bed of rosy red peats, following this very damp (almost soaked through) peat is placed on the burning fire to produce lots and lots of smoke. The malt upstairs in the kiln is a load destined for Longrow and the fire needs to be maintained for 30 hours for peating and 32 hours of drying time. Hazelburn has a zero peating level and 24 hours drying time while Springbank has 6 hours peating and a total drying time of 30 hours. A moisture level of 4% is ideal and a dramatically lower level than when the barley was laid out on the malting floor. The malted and kilned barley should be ‘rested’ in the malt storage bins for at least 30 days prior to use.
After that we spent the morning going over the process of mashing with Gordon; saw the grist and the water mixed, 75% of the conversion to sugar occurs in the instant the two mixes.
That day at lunch I discovered the awesome steak mince pies at Eaglesomes and had a strawberry cream cake for dessert; any more of this much food and I’d start to resemble the Springbank wash still.
A lecture with Stuart Robertson followed lunch on the details of milling, mashing, and fermenting and the points where fermenting can wrong producing butyric in the finished spirit (and thus ruining the spirit). Stuart talked about the differences between Springbank at 2.5 x distillation (the distilling version of the pretzel when described verbally), Longrow at 2 x distillation and Hazelburn at 3 times distillation. He elaborated on the character of the spirit that is ‘built’ in the wash backs and that further character development occurs with the yeast and even after the yeast is consumed even further character emerges dues to the changes within the wash. Also since the wash back is made of wood it releases bacteria that add to the character of the wash and of the resulting distilled spirit. The mash tuns at Springbank are made of larch and can hold 22, ooo litres of liquid in each. The minimum fermentation time is 48 hours and Springbank uses 75 kilos of yeast to yield an average alcohol percentage of 4.5%
The distilling schedule of the distillery is Hazelburn, Springbank, Longrow and then Longrow, Springbank and finally Hazelburn to prevent high peating levels of Longrow from contaminating Hazelburn.
Stuart also talked about the process for making up a batch of Springbank (the 10 year old for example) a parcel of casks are selected, married together and finally put back into the same casks for up to six months to further marry. This helps the batches to remain consistent over the years. The batches are limited in size due to the small size of the vatting tub which is located in the bottling hall.
In the afternoon Calum kindly drove us to Glengyle and showed us around the spanking new compact distillery. It was a wonderful opportunity to have a private tour of Glengyle and the disused maltings. It was especially nice to see the that recycling is alive and well in Campbeltown as the stills came from Ben Wyvis and other bits and bobs of equipment were from other distilleries however a lot was purpose built. Glengyle is an interesting little distillery and hopefully we’ll see more of the whisky in the future. For now the only opportunity is to buy the malt from the living cask in the Tasting Room behind Cadenheads; I brought a bottle home with me.
After touring Glengyle distillery Calum drove us over to Glen Scotia Distillery and introduced us to Jim who was the still man and he happily showed us around. Glen Scotia is just slightly decrepit in appearance from the outside but inside every thing is as it should be. I was some what surprised to see cast iron wash backs; I’ve never seen this at any other distillery however you can’t argue with the quality of the final product. But the heavy layer of rust inside the wash backs was some thing to behold! Glen Scotia produces some wonderful whisky, the most common being the OB Glen Scotia 12yo 40% and I purchased a bottle from the distillery manager after the tour in the smallest distillery shop I’ve ever seen. We sampled the malt later that night while watching the game between Portugal and the Czech Republic. Between jet lag, huge meals, our own ready supply of malt and the European Cup we have yet had a chance to go to the pub!
Dinner: chicken noodle soup, roast chicken, mashed potato, mashed turnip and potato croquettes. Warm chocolate warm pudding, field berries and ice cream for dessert.
The first task on Thursday morning was to tend to the Kiln fire and then it was off to the malting floor upstairs to lay the barley on the malting floor fresh from the steep. The evening shift had already shoveled the malt from the steep onto the malting floor just beside the steep in great glistening piles of barley so we carried on with Calum & Iggy loading the barley into barrows and then dumping the barrow as needed on the floor. We then raked the barley into position and made sure all was neat and tidy. A well laid out malting floor is a beautiful thing.
After that we slowly made our way to the bottling hall where we observed the ‘turning in’ of the casks that were being bottled that day and also the process of reducing the whisky to 46% for bottling. The aim is to bottle at 46.1% to avoid any mistakes (i.e. less than 46%). Four casks had been married together six months prior and were now to be bottled as the Springbank 10yo; 1100 litres produce approximately 1200 bottles for the Japanese market.
The last task of the day before our tasting with Frank McHardy was to build a dunnage rack consisting of 33 casks of Hazelburn new spirit (some of which we had filled earlier in the day) laid out 3 high and 11 long. The Forklift driver was Iggy, the Mario Andretti of the fork lift driver world, who drove the casks one or two at a time to the warehouse. We made sure that all the bungs were in the 12 o’clock position to ensure that they didn’t leak. At the end of the cask filling we also filled by hand, 18 bottles with Hazelburn new spirit for trade samples.
Near the end of the work day we had a prowl around the finished goods store and looked over the stocks of Springbank ready to be shipped to the UK and overseas markets, including Longrow 18 tucked away in a far corner. Despite our best efforts we couldn’t distract Charles long enough to make off with a case under each arm.
The final task of the day was quick tasting with Frank McHardy in the tasting room.
Campbeltown Loch 15yo; Springbank 17yo Society bottling, 2008 new release 15yo Springbank, a 15yo Springbank sherry cask sample, the Longrow CV and Hazelburn 8yo. Frank took us through each whisky and explained the position they held in the portfolio and the some of the challenges in filling orders from such a relatively small annual out put.
The last day and the week had sped by. I had some spare time before we were due back at the distillery so I took the opportunity to check my email at the local library called the Aqualibrium (community pool & library building); membership is free and is a great resource for the visitor. After that I did some last minute shopping for some Springbank 15yo minis and a toured of the Campbeltown harbor. I met up with Nigel and saw wind turbine masts or pylons being loaded onto a large ship in the destined for parts unknown. In the tourist information center I picked up a small paper back copy of “Scotch Whisky” by Tom Bruce-Gardine, Id never seen or heard of this little book before so it was a nice addition to my collection.
I was admiring an older building on the harbor front that had two crossed rifles in relief above the main door and stuck up a conversation with ‘George’ about the building that turned out to be the home Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders Territorial Army before they we disbanded many years prior. We also chatted about the Royal Hotel next door which is under going refurbishment, this is a good omen because Campbeltown needs a good refurbishment in places but they mustn’t loose the character of the place to drab modern architecture. George pointed out bomb damage to both buildings from World War II.
10:30 and off to the tasting room for the final exam; Nigel and I scored 100%, apparently the very first people to do so. After the exam and scoring by Frank we had lunch from Eaglesomes with Frank, Stuart & Gavin in the tasting room. My last chance at steak mince pies and cream cake, I picked up an extra pie for the drive to Glasgow. We were presented with our certificates and personalized bottles of Springbank 57%. Stuart said we had done well which was gratifying to say the least.
After lunch we said or good byes to Springbank and Feorlin B&B and started the drive to Glasgow in great weather. We stopped in Inverrary to visit with our friends at Loch Fyne Whiskies. I sampled Ardbeg Renaissance which was quite good although as I write this now I have absolutely no recollection of how it tasted; time to buy a bottle I suspect and refresh my memory!
After turning in the rental car at Glasgow Airport had a dram to consol ourselves over the huge fuel bill. Shortly afterwards Nigel left to start a visit with his brother and the next day I flew home via Heathrow and Calgary but that night I had a few drams and watched both European Cup games. The next morning at Glasgow airport I paused on my way in to reflect on the new paint work and cladding at the spot where the terrorist had detonated his jeep.
The Springbank Whisky School is a very worth while experience for the whisky enthusiast and offers and outstanding value. I’ve made light of the amount of food we ate during our time in Campbeltown but it only reinforces the fact that Springbank are making sure that the week is good value for students.
I highly recommend it to whisky enthusiasts the world over for both the exposure to scotch malt whisky making in the traditional fashion but also for the contact with people at all levels of the distillery that care deeply about the quality product they produce.