Nestled on the picturesque Kintyre Peninsula, Springbank Distillery has a captivating history that spans over two centuries. Renowned for its exceptional whiskies, Springbank has earned a dedicated following among collectors and enthusiasts, cementing its esteemed reputation in the world of Scotch whisky.
The MNIW team visited Springbank last autumn, during one of our many distillery tours in search of the best expressions for the MNIW selection. Now, we wanted to share everything we’ve learned about one of the last surviving (and thriving) distilleries in Campbeltown.
Let’s explore Springbank and its whiskies together!
Springbank’s fame extends beyond its remarkable whisky character. As a matter of fact, this distillery is one of the very few that handle every aspect of whisky production on-site, from malting and distilling to maturing and bottling.
For over 200 years, Springbank Distillery has persevered in Campbeltown, a town once hailed as the capital of whisky. In its heyday, Campbeltown boasted nearly 30 distilleries in operation. Today, only three distilleries remain Springbank, Glengyle, and Glen Scotia. Remarkably, all three are under the ownership of J & A Mitchell and Co Ltd.
The story of Springbank Distillery traces back to 1828 when William Reid, connected to the Mitchells through marriage, obtained the official license to establish the distillery.
The Mitchells were a distilling family, and all of them were involved with a number of Campbeltown’s distilleries as Archibald Mitchell and his brother Hugh were partners in the Rieclachan distillery from 1825, while their sister Mary Mitchell built the short-lived Drumore distillery in 1834.
The Mitchell Family
Eventually, even Springbank became of the Mitchells’ distilleries. Indeed, Reid’s tenure in the industry was relatively short-lived, as he sold the distillery in 1837 to his in-laws, John and William Mitchell.
In 1872, only John Mitchell remained to oversee operations at Springbank. Hence, John’s son, Alexander, stepped in to continue the family legacy, and this marked the birth of the J&A Mitchell company, which still owns and operates Springbank Distillery to this day.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Campbeltown experienced a period of prosperity, and Springbank Distillery thrived alongside it. Whisky blender John Walker recognised the increasing demand for Campbeltown whisky and Springbank’s growing profile purchasing gallons of Springbank malt.
A harsh time for Springbank Distillery
The distilling industry faced a significant setback in the 1920s, which also had repercussions for Campbeltown as a whole. The enactment of Prohibition in the United States dealt a severe blow to the whisky trade, leading to a decline in demand and a subsequent downturn in the industry. Moreover, the demand for the traditional Campbeltown style of heavy and oily malts started to fall among blenders, who started to favour the lighter Speyside malts.
As a result, even Springbank shut down in 1926, only to reopen again in 1933. Nevertheless, due to financial challenges, Springbank Distillery faced closure once again in 1979, but it managed to reopen nearly a decade later.
During the late 1990s, Springbank stood as the sole operating distillery on the peninsula, with the Campbelltown region, once a prominent whisky hub, nearly fading into obscurity.
How Springbank survived
Springbank survived by adapting. The distillery altered its production methods to produce a lighter whisky that was sought by blenders. The new style was not heavily peated as the traditional Campbeltown’s whiskies.
The future of Campbeltown as a whisky region was eventually secured when the Mitchell family inaugurated Glengyle Distillery, bringing the total count of distilleries in the area to three: Springbank, Glengyle, and Glen Scotia. Demand for Springbank whisky began to grow once more, and the oldest family-run distillery in Scotland continued to thrive to this day.
The whisky production
Equipped with only three stills—a single wash still and two spirit stills—Springbank employs a unique approach. The wash still, distinct in Scotland, features both direct firing and internal steam coils. Condensers are used on the wash still and one of the spirit stills, while the other spirit still relies on a worm tub.
The distillation process at Springbank diverges based on the desired style to be produced: Springbank, Longrow, and Hazelburn. This diverse selection sets Springbank apart from many other distilleries, which often produce whiskies that share a similar character.
Each of these headline bottles from Springbank showcases a unique personality and flavour profile, offering whisky fans a delightful whisky experience.
The production of this heavily peated malt started in 1973. Named after a closed distillery of Campbeltown – which now serves as Springbank’s bottling hall – this whisky distinguishes itself as a heavier and smokier style. Its malted barley is peated to a higher level of 50-55 ppm. Longrow follows a slightly altered process compared to Springbank, undergoing two distillations with the second taking place in the spirit still, which utilizes a worm tub.
Longrow Single Malt has captivated whisky enthusiasts with its remarkable peatiness and bold flavour profile. With its robust and smoky character, Longrow pays homage to the traditional style of whisky produced in Campbeltown during the Victorian era. This distinct and recognizable flavour profile is the result of several key factors that contribute to Longrow’s unique identity.
Firstly, the heavy and pervasive smokiness that defines Longrow can be attributed to the use of heavily-peated malted barley during the production process.
Additionally, the production methods employed at Springbank Distillery further enhance the character of Longrow. The use of direct-fired wash stills, as opposed to more modern indirect heating methods, introduces an extra layer of complexity to the spirit. The direct flame imparts additional depth and richness, contributing to the full-bodied nature of Longrow whiskies.
Furthermore, the slow cooling process through the spirit still’s worm tub plays a crucial role in shaping the flavour profile of Longrow. The worm tub, a traditional method of condensing the spirit vapour, allows for a more gradual and controlled cooling process. This extended contact with copper surfaces imparts a unique character to the whisky, enhancing its richness, depth, and complexity.
This variety was introduced in the distillery portfolio in 2005. This expression is also named after a long-gone Campbeltown distillery, which is the unpeated variety of Springbank whiskies. Its production follows the standard triple distillation process using the three stills in sequential order.
Hazelburn represents Springbank’s foray into unpeated whiskies, with its first distillation taking place in 1997. This relatively new expression has quickly garnered attention and acclaim. Hazelburn is available in both 10 and 12-year-old releases, each presenting its own nuances and characteristics. Unlike the peat-driven Springbank and Longrow whiskies, Hazelburn takes a different approach, showcasing the delicate beauty of an unpeated whisky.
With its non-peated nature, Hazelburn embraces a lighter and more subtle flavour profile. On the palate, one can expect to discover a symphony of gentle, fruity notes that dance across the taste buds. The absence of peat smoke allows other flavours to take center stage, with hints of orchard fruits, citrus zest, and a delicate sweetness that caresses the senses.
This whisky variety represents 80% of the distillery’s production capacity. Their lightly peated (12-15 ppm) malt undergoes partial triple distillation, often referred to as “2.5 times distillation”.
Springbank Single Malt 10-year-old is the most popular range, aged in sherry and bourbon casks. It’s non-chill-filtered and has no added colour. There are also 12, 15, 18, and extremely rare 21-year-old releases.
Beyond the official bottlings, Springbank has garnered attention through a series of independent releases, albeit in diminishing quantities since the turn of the millennium. Notably, Cadenhead’s and Signatory Vintage have played significant roles in offering these exclusive expressions to whisky enthusiasts. Other esteemed names such as Douglas Laing and Murray McDavid have also contributed to the selection of independent bottlings from Springbank.
And let’s not forget our very own Springbank bottling! Indeed, MNIW bottled a 1999 Springbank as part of our Beyond Collection: Maya.
Aged for 23 years in first-fill bourbon casks, this whisky is the celebration of the very soul of Springbank Distillery. As soon as you taste a dram of it, you can immediately sense the luscious flavours of ripe peaches, cherries, and crisp baked apples The fruitiness extends with the tropical allure of juicy mangoes and the invigorating zest of lemons, infusing the palate with a delightful burst of freshness. Underlying the fruit-forward profile, coastal notes emerge, while harmoniously intertwining with hints of peat.
But let’s see more about the official bottlings before delving into the independent bottler’s ones!
MNIW’s favourite original bottling from Springbank
Among Springbank fans’ favourite whiskies, the expressions from the ’60s are on their wish list. In particular, this 32-year-old bottle distilled in 1966, has the power to unleash the full potential of Sprinbank’s peculiar profile but with a less tropical profile than usual.
This special bottle is hard to find. But if you find it at an auction, don’t hesitate to place your bid. This bottle was a gift to attendees of the Springbank Distillery Warehouse Dinner on 20th May 2015. Aged 17 years and bottled at cask strength, this whisky is a rare treat, as there are only 45 bottles available out there…
This 2020 special edition was distilled in November 2007 and bottled from a single fresh Sauternes hogshead. And we tell you, the sweet wine cask notes are beautifully balanced by the peat. The distillery only made 264 bottles exclusive to the United Kingdom. Hence again, if you find it on an auction…don’t hesitate!
We invited you to join us on an exciting journey to Springbank, where we uncovered its captivating history and explored the world of its exceptional whiskies. However, rest assured that this won’t be the last article you’ll find about Springbank. This distillery is brimming with fascinating stories and its whiskies are so diverse and exquisite that a single article cannot possibly encompass it all!
In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you. What is your favourite Springbank whisky? Share the article on your social media platforms and don’t forget to tag us in your response!