For the relatively uninitiated (like me), Campbeltown malts in general and Springbank in specific (which makes up most of the Campbeltown whiskies anyway, so…) hold a certain romantic appeal. They’re like the bison (bison bison) of the whisky world, at one time so prevalent, traipsing their woolly bottles across the great plains of the Kintyre Peninsula, you couldn’t throw a bagpipe without hitting a distillery. From the early 1800’s until the early 1900’s Campbeltown malts were the big sellers of the whisky world, but the distilleries, numbering 34 in the small area at one point, got a little too greedy. New railways opened the door for the Speyside malts, forcing the Cambleton’s to react and look elsewhere for buyers. Unlike the bison who were killed off by wastrel American settlers and less wasteful Native Americans, the Campbeltown distilleries killed themselves off by being poorly run, using inferior casks and, surprise surprise, making crappy whisky to send to a thirsty America. By the time the US’s ill-fated experiment in mis-guided morality, Prohibition, took hold, these distilleries had a reputation of making cheap garbage. All but one survived our little debacle, Springbank, with another, Glen Scotia, being mothballed and re-opened several times over the years (currently open). A third, Glengyle, renovated a long-closed distillery and began production again in 2004.
Springbank survived the lean years by being well-run and not skimping on quality. To this day, it’s a rarity in the Scotch world in that it’s not owned by a huge corporation, instead ownership resides with a member of the founding family, the Mitchells, who opened the distillery in 1828. Possibly even more special than family ownership is Springbank’s nearly complete control over every phase of their whisky making process. From floor maltings to bottling, everything is done in-house at Springbank, making it unique in a world where these processes are usually farmed out. Springbank has never chill-filtered nor artificially colored their whiskies and today creates three distinct malts at the distillery. Hazelburn, the newest member of the family, is an un-peated, triple-distilled whisky. Longrow is a more heavily peated, Cambletown version of Islay, whisky, and the namesake, Springbank, is lightly peated and described as being two and a half times distilled. The 10 Year Old is matured mainly in bourbon casks.
The Nose: Rich dark chocolate notes, tropical fruits, citrus-y, but not orange…a lemon creme at times. It has an almost sweet, green, peat smell, it’s very clean, not as earthy as a Islay. There’s a touch of smoke, green wood smoke, but it’s not very strong. The first time I tried this, I felt it was a little tight and restrained, a couple of weeks later, and I still feel that way. It’s a rich and complex nose, but it’s kind of reluctant, you have to work for it a bit.
The Palate: A nice, smooth sweet entry quickly becomes a very taught fireball, very spicy with a surprising amount of smoke (of the green wood variety again). Some tropical fruit sneaks in there as well some green apple. It has a very appetizing salty quality, not just that brine-y coastal tang, but an almost savory chewiness.
The Finish: Not as long as I expected, given the big fireball on the palate. The peat and smoke do linger a bit, but falls off a just a little abruptly leaving clove and black licorice notes to say a few final words.
Thoughts: I am thoroughly intrigued by this malt. It’s nose and palate seem to promise so much, but it holds back a little…keeps you coming back for more. That said, I am also thoroughly on board with it, it’s a unique dram, extremely well-balanced, strong but also nuanced and complex. Beguiling and absolutely worthwhile. Having tasted the 10 year old, I’m now very interested, perhaps a little desperate, to taste the 10 year old Cask Strength as well as the older expressions.
*A quick note, because of that perceived “tightness” on the nose, this is one of the few whiskies that I thought might be helped by a bit of water…I was wrong. Water just flattened things out. It took the boldness and complexity away and left me with some flabby fennel tones. Drink it neat and spend some time with it, it’s a great whisky.
Springbank 10 Year Old, Campbeltown