Author: Mark Davidson

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Wednesday, August 13th, 2008 at 1:39 am
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Whisky

Happy 180th Birthday, Springbank!

All distilleries are unique but in true George Orwell style some are more unique than others. Springbank distillery in Campbeltown, Argyll can be singled out as having an embarrassment of riches any one of which another distiller would be proud to boast of.

Perhaps its single most attractive aspect is the fact that this distillery is the oldest family owned whisky producer in Scotland. As Scottish whisky grew in popularity it could not avoid the attentions of big business. As a commodity, whisky can offer handsome dividends to any investors, although any return may not be dramatically quick thanks to the time taken to mature stock.

So it was that small family established businesses were bought out by, initially, home grown companies, then overseas predators. Where we are today is the curious position of having many of our most famous brands owned by large companies from abroad. These corporations often have interests in other totally unrelated industries. How refreshing it is then to have such a jewel still in independent Scottish hands.

Amongst the very few stills held by private companies Springbank can point to their longevity, they were established in 1828, as testament to their reputation for quality and dependency.

Beyond this remarkable achievement the distillers lay claim to the most complete and traditional distillery in Scotland. Nowhere else will you see the whole production process taking place on one site. From the arrival of un-malted barley to the despatch of the bottled product all parts of the production process are controlled in-house. The retention of old fashioned methods must surely contribute to the well recognised complexity in their drams.

Of the near 100 malt distilleries in Scotland, only 6 retain floor maltings. Of these, only Springbank produces 100% of distilling requirements. The others all rely on mechanised malting for their barley. Almost exclusively this part of the process is sub-contracted to specialists not connected with the distiller.

This dependency on outsiders, although not appealing to the Mitchells, (Springbank’s owners) does not necessarily mean a compromise of quality. Indeed the consistency of a professional maltsters solved problems associated with floor maltings where ambient temperature can affect results.

The reason for the switch was really down to matters of scale and economy. As demand grew, distilleries expanded and their appetite for grain outgrew their capacity to feed themselves. Modern drum maltings were designed to the new scale required. Also, the malting barley must be turned regularly to prevent matting and to evenly spread the germinating heat, making the costs of manning the floors unattractive. Production at Springbank is indeed capped by their ability to supply enough malt and the distillery runs at a fraction of its potential output.

At the other end of production, bottling may seem a rather mundane issue. Far from it. As a cask of mature whisky would typically be around 60% alcohol, if the bottled dram was sold at this strength, the price of a standard size bottle would be considerably higher than if it was diluted. An argument runs that this strength is too high to find the drink’s character and watering down is essential for proper appreciation. This is why 99.9…% of all whisky is bottled at the legal minimum strength of 40%abv.

The question must be asked: what water was used during reduction? Many whisky labels will wax lyrical about the source of their production water being of ambrosial quality. How many allude to the neutral nature of the water added at the bottling stage? Again Springbank can be relied upon to treat their efforts appropriately. Alongside perhaps only two other malts, Springbank sympathetically dilute their mature whisky with the water used to make it, thus keeping complete the influence from minerals found at source. All this at the superior 46% abv.

By now you should realise this company is more about substance than subcontracts. And we haven’t mentioned features like their warehousing, method of heating stills, distilling regime, condensing techniques and further bottling principles, all of which deserve mention. A visit to their website should further illuminate just how special this family inheritance is.

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