The two most automated aspects of Springbank are the bottling hall (which even then employs a busy team) and the inevitability of fans who flock to buy any and all of the distillery’s products. Whilst enthusiasts, and I certainly count myself among these ranks, view Springbank with a current air of ‘can do no wrong’, behind the scenes, the distillery itself is far from the well-oiled and efficient machine that you’ll find at more modern sites. Quality and, importantly consistency are clearly held (and righty so) in particularly high regard by J&A Mitchell & Company – to the point where they’re making life hard for themselves to ensure it.
Changing and modernising any aspect of the production process is likely to have a knock-on effect on the eventual characteristics of the spirit. As such, Springbank are loathe to do this. To a level I’ve never witnessed. From barley to glass they do things the hard way. The laborious way. Often, employing little more than sticky tape to keep the cogs turning.
Visiting the distillery last month I was honestly staggered by the state of it. Utterly charming, and yet undeniably antiquated. You likely don’t see quite how primeval things are if you undertake a standard ‘Springbank Tour’ – but on the access-all-areas ‘Barley to Grain’ journey, you’ll be wowed and bemused in equal measure. I’m going to describe the distillery as ‘lived in’ and leave it at that.
Nevertheless, across all aspects of production I was left near stunned at how reluctant J&A Mitchell & Company are to replace/modernise or retrofit. Two thumb-sized holes in the lyne arm were bandaged up with duct tape (and still permeating a sizable loss of spirit with each run) and yet, whilst these will no doubt be fixed (surely a new arm needed there) – there seemed to be zero rush about it. Changes beget changes and Springbank do things the hard way. The slow way. I won’t even going in the ongoing Glengyle washback situation…
The spirit still flows and I’m yet to taste anything from the distillery less that’s less than solid. There’s clearly something to be said about being old-fashioned.
If you’re wondering why the major retailer’s stock of Springbank 15 year old seems to continually wax and wane, it’s not just because of its perennial popularity – the expression is only bottled four times a year – Springbank are very careful and cagey about managing their inventory.
Similarly, despite being 100% oloroso sherry matured, don’t expect anything of a sherry bomb here – there’s a balance here between 1st fill and refill casks which very much favours the latter. Peating levels are similar to other Springbank expressions – I.E. much lower than the heavier Longrow style – if I had to guess, I’d stick a pin somewhere around the 15 PPM range. As to purchasing, the best price I can currently find is £58 from Tyndrum Whisky (the new trading name for the whisky side of the Green Welly Shop).
Nose: Moist funk (which surely should be a band name) - barns, hay, wet soils and brackish water. These sit on a bed of sweeter aromas – wild honey, barley water and tart green apples. The two sides are reinforced by a real sense of alluvialness – clays and gravel with machine oils. Smoke is distinct, but not pervasive – more of a greasy, fattiness which runs throughout, alongside a discernible struck match note. Reduction is certainly not required, but offers some gradation all the same – undefined tropicalness, brine, wood lacquer and camphor. All archetypal Springbank in my book.
Taste: Oleaginous and highly mouthcoating. The arrival starts brightly – sweet apples amidst sour pears – then we move into almond and nut brittles before salted toffee takes over. The mid-palate offers industrialness from engine oils alongside savourness from mustard seeds, malt and hay, before a pang of grapefruit tartness builds in the back. Dilution is not as effective as on the nose – things quickly lose their harmonious balance, heading more toward brassiness, soils and sulphur. However, the effect is short-lived – a little time in the glass post reduction sees the poise return with a resurgence of bright fruits.
Finish: Medium in length, with fading orchard fruits, bitter oak, bitter chocolate and an abundance of tobacco and leaf mulch. Vegetal but with an oaky tang.
Springbank 15 year old is a benchmark ‘must stock’ for true whisky enthusiasts. A daily drinker for the discerning. Its appeal is likely lessened for those newer to the spirit – the composition is simply less accessible and frankly more ‘dirty’ than your common or garden Speysider. Nevertheless once you’ve been bitten by the Springbank bug, it’s hard to ignore the distillate’s exemplary qualities – and here they’re on display ably straddling sweet, savoury and earthy peatiness with the expected added funk. Those more experienced should temper their expectations – this is very good indeed, but equally don’t go expecting an epiphany. Drinking whisky for drinkers.